Before joining the Times, Lee interned at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Art21 and The Delacorte Review at the Journalism School. She was a John Jay Scholar and graduated magna cum laude with a B.A. in American studies and English.
Born and raised in New York City, Lee is interested in tracking the city’s evolution and exploring the lives of its inhabitants through nonfiction filmmaking. She recently completed a short film, Writing on the Wall, which documents the Black Lives Matter murals painted in lower Manhattan in June and July 2020. You can see her work at the Justice Film Festival and the Social Justice Now Film Festival.
What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?
Coming out of high school, I was pretty hard-charging and hard-working but also kind of dreamy. Because I grew up in the city, I was able to have a lot of independence and fun at a young age. By simply walking around or taking the subway, I had freedom to experience and explore on my own, to encounter many different people and events, and to get up to my own games.
By “dreamy,” I mean I was fairly committed to the arts and storytelling. Then and now, I appreciate poetry and playwriting, short stories and nonfiction storytelling in its various forms.
What do you remember about your first-year living situation?
Oh, a lot! I was on John Jay 12, one of the highest floors in that brick-building of single dorms. I always thought it interesting that there was an entire building of first-years living in singles. I don’t think most schools offer singles to first-years. I suppose we were a self-selective group — people who prized privacy or wanted their own space. Yet we socialized quite a bit in our common areas and hallways. Many people always had their doors open.
I will never forget a sign that was posted on bulletin boards in John Jay my first semester. It said, “All-nighter? Do it right!” and then listed ways to “healthily” stay up all night, including staying hydrated and avoiding oily snacks because “they will only make you sleepy.” Someone added their own bullet points to the list in order to mock the sign and point out how ridiculous it was. They added, “Adderall is good” and “Try snorting caffeine.” I remember laughing but also being saddened by that literal sign of academic stress.
What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?
I loved my Literature Humanities class in large part because I had a brilliant and engaged professor, Isabelle Levy ’05. She is well-versed in Italian literature and, if my memory holds, she speaks Italian, so reading Dante’s Inferno with her was breathtaking. I wish I could do it again.
Also, I doubt this is a common experience but my first-year “University Writing” class was pivotal for me. I was lucky to end up in an American studies writing course led by Benjamin Barasch GSAS ’19, another compelling and insightful teacher. His class inspired me to pursue a major in American studies in addition to English. I am grateful that I did. I don’t see how I could have pursued humanities, or even existed in society, without a foundation in history and fact. My senior year, Ben invited me to an independent study with a few other students. Once a week, we’d all meet at his apartment on Riverside Drive. It was a gratifying way to come full circle academically.
Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?
Probably one of the wings on the first floor of the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. The warm lighting was just right. The floor-to-ceiling bookcases were comforting, kind of like a cocoon. And you could spread out all of your books and work on those thick wood tables. It was so peaceful when it would snow outside.
What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?
I would try to spend less time stressing about work and more time interacting with people I didn’t know. I am lucky to have a lot of lasting friendships and relationships from the College. But I regret not spending more time getting to know more of my peers. I think you learn the most through other people: their experiences, perspectives, stories. Luckily, I get to talk to strangers about their lives for a living.