Jennifer Lee ’90 Investigates Identity

Jennifer Lee ’90, GSAS’98 was 3 in 1971 when she emigrated from Seoul to the United States with her family. Her father worked at a hammer factory during the day and her mother, a nurse, worked at night. They lived in Philadelphia and eventually opened a small clothing store in an African-American neighborhood.

Lee and her younger sister were always one of, if not the only, Asians in their schools. “From an early age I was acutely aware of my minority status in school settings,” Lee says.

Now, as an alumna professor of sociology at Columbia, she is looking to turn that feeling of isolation on its head. Lee’s experience lends her a unique lens through which to pursue her research in race relations, migration and inequality.

“When I was an undergraduate, none of my courses focused on Asian Americans. I had no Asian-American professors and no Asian-American role models,” says Lee, who joined the faculty in 2017. “When you don’t see yourself and your experiences reflected in your courses, you assume [those experiences] aren’t important, aren’t relevant and aren’t worthy of inquiry.

“I’m committed to doing research that places the study of Asian Americans as central to the discipline of sociology,” she adds, “so that I can teach the type of courses that were never offered to me.”

a woman in sunglasses and a Pomerian dog

courtesy jennifer lee ’90, gsas’98

Lee is clearly reshaping the conversation. The author of several books, she routinely contends with questions of race, the immigrant experience, identity and how different cultural groups interact. Her most recent work, The Asian American Achievement Paradox (2015), received three top awards from the American Sociological Association in 2016 — The Pierre Bourdieu Award for the Best Book in Sociology Education, The Thomas & Znaniecki Award and the Book Award on Asian America.

But finding her professional calling took time. After graduation, Lee matriculated at GSAS; by her second year, though, she still wasn’t feeling a connection to academia. Then she became a research assistant for sociologist and Columbia professor Robert K. Merton. “[He] made me realize the kind of opportunities that are there for professors and made me a much stronger researcher and someone who was committed to both teaching and research,” says Lee, who went on to earn a master’s, an M.Phil. and a Ph.D.

Lee was also a principal investigator of the 2016 National Asian American Survey, the only academic survey of Asian-Americans. Conducted every four years since 2008, it includes 10 Asian groups and is conducted in 10 languages. Aside from the NAAS, Asian Americans aren’t typically included in national surveys and polls, Lee notes, “so we don’t have reliable survey data about their attitudes, experiences and opinions on policy issues.”

For her next book, Lee wants to explore how success is measured among immigrant populations, and what and who society considers to be successful. “Who do we think is more successful — a second-generation Mexican American with a community college degree or a Korean American with a Ph.D.?” Lee asks. “We tend to look at outcomes without thinking about starting points. What I want to do is shift the narrative to think about the starting points.”

When she’s not teaching, Lee says, her Pomeranian, Kaia, “is my life,” and the two are often seen on campus together — the pup hangs out for office hours and is popular with the students. Lee splits her time between New York City and Newport Beach, Calif., where her husband lives. The couple enjoys surfing during the summer.

Lee, who this semester is teaching “Critical Approaches - Study of Ethnicity and Race,” says that some might call her choice of research “identity research” or “me-search.” But she takes another view. “We need more research on diverse populations, so that we can better teach our increasingly diverse student body to craft their own narratives.”