From the Asian American Student Collective (AASC) to Wesleyan’s chapter of QuestBridge, Chaiyeon Lee ’22 has continuously shaped student identity and activism groups on campus. Usually her instinct is to take responsibility for bringing people together, but as she enters her last semester she is determined to help younger students start taking the lead. The Argus caught up with Lee to discuss her time at Wesleyan and her hopes for higher education, from programs in Asian American Studies to accessibility for first-generation and low-income students.
The Argus: Why do you think you were nominated?
Chaiyeon Lee: I don’t know! I’m very active in a number of groups on campus. My friend was saying to me today, ‘What part of campus aren’t you on?’ because I just have a lot of campus jobs too.
A: What kind of campus jobs?
CL: I’ve been working at Pi Café and Weshop since I was a [first year], and I also work at Sci Li. I am a Korean language partner, I was an academic peer advisor, and I was an orientation intern—all of them are not simultaneous. I also have been doing peer tutoring, and I did research for a professor.
A: Do you have a favorite one so far?
CL: My favorite job is probably working at Pi. You get to make drinks, and you get to meet cool people who are also baristas.
A: What kind of research did you do?
CL: I did research for one of my professors, who teaches in the College of East Asian Studies and the Government department, regarding Korean student protests back in the ’80s.
A: Is that related to your major?
CL: In a sense, yeah. I’m majoring in the College of Social Studies (CSS) and minoring in the College of East Asian Studies (CEAS), and also minoring in the College of Education Studies.
A: How did you pick those?
CL: I’m definitely interested in those kinds of topics. Throughout my time here, I’ve been helping to advocate for Asian American Studies at Wesleyan and in higher education in general, and I think those things align with my majors and minors. CEAS is the closest thing we have to Asian American Studies here, and it’s not Asian American Studies.
I meant to mention this earlier too—I play a pretty big role in different identity groups we have on campus. I’m the co-chair of the Asian American Student Collective and also [vice president] for the Korean Student Association, and I was on the [Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA)]. Through the WSA, I mostly advocated for a variety of marginalized student groups. I also am on the board for the QuestBridge Scholar Network. It’s a scholarship program that matches low-income students to different prestigious colleges in America, and it gives you a full scholarship. We reorganized the chapter this past semester.
A: Would you say the QuestBridge program has changed over your time at Wesleyan?
CL: It’s changed a lot, actually. This year, we rebranded in the sense that the Wesleyan QuestBridge chapter is now under the Resource Center. It’s more institutionalized, and we get more resources and help from the University. It’s more organized.
A: Do you feel like other jobs and projects you’ve been involved in have evolved?
CL: Actually, a lot of things have changed. I’ve been the co-chair for the Asian American Student Collective since my junior year, and I’ve been on the board since my freshman year. It’s meant to be a safe space for Asian- and Asian-American-identifying students on campus, and it ranges from having guest speakers and alumni panels to just playing skribblio.io online or having trivia.
Junior year was a huge shifting point for the collective because of the massive rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, and especially the shooting that happened in Atlanta targeted towards the Asian women who were in the massage and spa industry. We held a vigil for it, and I think that was one of the most powerful moments in my time serving as a member in AASC. Junior year, the AASC was a lot more than just a social community. It was more closely related to student activism, having our voices heard, listening to other students’ voices, and creating a space where people would feel safe enough to share their thoughts and feelings. It was a difficult time because I had to process my own feelings, but then I had to help other people process their feelings and be a leader in that moment.
A: Any other activities where your role has changed over your time here?
CL: Another thing that I am super proud of is the KSA, the Korean Student Association. That club is more social event-based and fun. I also have TA’d for the Korean language course here for the past three years, and I am a Korean language partner, so sharing and spreading awareness for Korean culture is really meaningful to me.
Social clubs and student identity clubs are hard to maintain during COVID because so much of it is sharing space together and being in person together. Fostering a community over Zoom is a very challenging thing to do. But this year, we were lucky enough to get a really good group of freshmen and other underclassmen who were super willing to be involved in KSA. It’s very much revived.
As a senior, my friends and I think a lot about passing the torch, because it’s not really about us anymore. It’s about how we can maintain the momentum that we have created, and how can we most successfully, efficiently, and seamlessly pass it on to generations moving forward.
A: You mentioned being a language partner. How does that work?
CL: For all of the languages that are taught in CEAS, which are Japanese, Chinese, and Korean, once you reach an intermediate level you get a language partner. Language partners get paid to meet up with a student in one of those languages and just talk to them for an hour.
A: What do you talk about with your language partners?
CL: Usually just anything. In Korean, there’s formal and informal speech, and in class you wouldn’t speak informal speech to your professor or to your classmates. But if you’re speaking with your friends, or in casual conversations with someone, that would be informal speech, so we practice that.
A: If you could give advice to your freshman self, is there anything you’d want to say?
CL: This is the advice I try to share with some of my underclassmen friends: college in general, but especially Wesleyan, encourages people to grow and do things out of their comfort zone. Take advantage of all the opportunities that Wesleyan has for you. It’s going to get more difficult to try new things as you get older. Also, don’t take things for granted—the relationships that you make here, the experiences that you get. And just try your best!
A: Do you have a favorite class that you’ve ever taken, or a favorite professor?
CL: Yeah, my favorite class was definitely “Korean Politics Through Film.” It was just cool to have a class about Korean culture because I wasn’t raised in Korea, and my knowledge only goes to the extent that I’m willing to put time into it outside school. My favorite professor is the professor that taught that class, Joan Cho. I also did research for her, which was super cool because I felt like I was coming back full circle.
A: Do you have any post-grad plans?
CL: I’ve gotten into a few law schools, and I most likely will be going to law school in the fall.
A: Do you have any idea what kind of law you might like to do?
CL: I’m not sure yet, but I am interested in educational law and policy. One of my classes right now is called “Schools in Society.” It’s really cool, and I’m learning a lot from it already.
A: If you could change anything about education in the United States, what would you want to do?
CL: I haven’t thought about it in detail, but I would want to focus on accessible education. As a first-generation, low-income student, I feel really grateful for the opportunities that I was presented with through QuestBridge, through Wesleyan, but sometimes I almost feel guilty—how come I get this amazing opportunity, but there’s so many students who are just like me who have the skills to get a good education but just don’t have the financial means?
There are a lot of great programs out there, but especially first-generation, low-income students, and children of immigrants don’t know about them because they don’t have anyone helping them. So, how can we make even the resources that are available more accessible?
In general, how can we make higher education more accessible to students? Everyone talks about their dream college, but for me, my dream college was free college. To have the leisure to have a dream college was not even in my thoughts at all. Higher education opens up the gates for so many other opportunities, and there are so many students who deserve it, but don’t have the resources or the means to get it.
A: It seems like you’ve done a lot academically. What do you like to do to manage stress?
CL: Well, I have a lot of fun on the weekends. I try to keep at least one day in the week, usually on the weekend, completely free. Everyone always tries to do some work over the weekend, but then you just feel bad about yourself not doing work. At that rate, I might as well just plan to do no work and not feel bad about it.
Also, I have so many great friends here who I can rely on, and if I’m ever stressed or down about anything, I can tell them. And also gCal [Google Calendar]. I live my life through gCal. I’ll be like, ‘Go to the mall with my friends.’ I’ll put that in my gCal. If I can look forward to one big thing throughout the week, I can get through the week.
A: Was anything about Wesleyan different than what you expected?
CL: Yeah, I can say for sure that I’ve grown as a person through Wesleyan. It’s cheesy, but the things that they say about a liberal arts education—you’re not just building a good student, you’re building a whole person. I’ve just really been trying to make the most out of the time that I have left here. This semester, I’m trying to live more in the present.
It’s so strange, because the days feel so long, but the weeks feel so short. The months go by faster, and before you know it, you’re a senior. After junior year ended, I really thought, this is going to be who I am for the rest of my life. That’s how much I feel like I’ve developed as a person. Part of that has to do with me being more comfortable at Wesleyan, being proactive, trying a lot of new things, and developing my relationships more. Junior year was the first time where I was leading a lot of things. Leading meetings for the first time is really difficult, but stepping down from those positions is almost as hard as stepping up. Not necessarily because I’m power-hungry and I want to be in this position for the rest of my life, but I’m so used to taking charge, making sure that everything’s going smoothly, planning out all these different details.
Everyone at Wesleyan is super smart and capable, so I’m sure everyone will be fine, but the worst situation is when you don’t give anyone the chance to lead their own things, and you step out of the picture, and everyone’s confused. I’m trying to let a lot of my underclassmen friends do a lot of the work in my groups. Time and time again, they’ve proven to me that they’re more than capable, and they’re probably going to be even better leaders than I am.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Anne Kiely can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.