Chaewon Lee was a high school senior in the United Arab Emirates when she decided to attend Indiana University (IU). Although this move took her 7,500 miles farther away from her native country of South Korea, the school would provide unexpected opportunities, and give Lee the chance to learn more about the language and culture of her country of origin.
Lee is originally from South Korea but grew up in Dubai. She describes her bilingual upbringing, “I went to an international school with an American curriculum, and we were taught in English. At home, my family spoke Korean.”
With such an international background, Lee imagined a career in foreign affairs. She says, “IU wasn’t even on my radar until I told my high school counselor that I was interested in international studies and languages. He is an alum of IU, and said it had great programs in both of those areas, so I decided to apply.”
Lee is very happy that she chose IU for both undergraduate and graduate studies. In 2020, Lee graduated from the Hamilton Lugar School (HLS) with a B.A. in East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALC) and International Studies, with a concentration in Diplomacy, Security, and Governance. This spring, she will complete her M.A. in EALC as well. During her time at HLS, she has studied abroad, published a peer-reviewed journal article with one of her professors, and presented research at an international conference. This semester, she is working on her master’s thesis, assisting a professor with a book manuscript, and researching doctoral programs.
The active intellectual community at HLS has been a real asset to Lee. Reflecting on events offered through the Institute for Korean Studies, the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative, the East Asia and the World Speaker Series, the annual America’s Role in the World Conference and more, Lee says, “I’ve participated in as many of these as I can. The sheer number of events just shows how the professors here are not only the top scholars in their fields, but they are also extremely well connected with other scholars, policy makers, think tank professionals, and industry leaders, not just in the U.S. but all around the world. This makes the HLS faculty so special.”
While at HLS, Lee achieved her goal of studying languages by taking Chinese and Korean. She says, “I didn’t think it would be very difficult to study Korean since I had always spoken it at home. I found that although I could speak and read well, I had never really had to write in Korean before. Taking Korean at IU helped me improve and gain confidence in the language.”
Surprisingly, attending IU not only helped Lee improve her Korean, but it also provided the first opportunity for her to live in her home country for an extended time. She says, “Most of my family lives in South Korea, so I had visited there a lot, but I had never stayed for very long. During my undergrad study abroad program I was able to experience living in Seoul as a Korean college student for six months.”
Lee continues. “It was exciting to get to take courses at Yonsei University and see the different perspectives from the faculty there. I also worked as a research assistant at the Peace Sharing Institute and my Korean improved a lot.”
Back at HLS, the extremely low faculty:student ratio provided Lee with even more research experience as she worked as a graduate assistant for three different faculty members.
Since July 2020, Lee has assisted Korea Foundation Professor and Institute for Korean Studies Director Seung-kyung Kim with multiple research projects related to South Korean millennials’ dating and marriage patterns.
Kim says, “In my thirty-two-year-long teaching career, I have had the opportunity to mentor many excellent students. Chaewon, however, has been truly exceptional and it has been pure pleasure to watch her mature into a serious independent thinker and researcher over the past six years. My first memory of Chaewon coming to my office to introduce herself and ask whether she could do anything for the Institute for Korean Studies will stay with me. Now that she is embarking on her doctoral training in Sociology, I wish her the very best.”
Lee speaks highly of Kim as well, saying, “I was really fortunate to meet and work with Dr. Kim. Working with her as an R.A. and having discussions with her helped me discover my research interests and made me realize how much I enjoy research.”
In 2021, Lee was hired by EALC Associate Professor and Director of the 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative Adam Liff. Liff says, “Chaewon so impressed me as a student in my class that I hired her as a part-time RA to assist me with a survey of Korean-language publications for a research project on Korea-Taiwan relations. Her work reviewing the Korean-language literature was so helpful to the project that I invited her to come on board as a co-author. It was a pleasure to work with her.” Their article, “Reassessing Seoul’s ‘One China’ Policy: South Korea-Taiwan ‘Unofficial’ relations after 30 years (1992-2022),” was published in the Journal of Contemporary China—currently the top-ranked journal in Asian studies and history.
Since January 2022, Lee has been working as a research assistant for Hilary Holbrow, EALC assistant professor. Lee says, “I’ve been assisting with research for a book manuscript on gender and racial/ethnic stratification in white-collar employment in Japanese firms.”
Holbrow speaks highly of of Lee, saying, “Chaewon has cultivated deep regional expertise in Korean society, built a strong foundation of disciplinary skills, and established strong relationships with faculty mentors. As my RA, I am consistently impressed by her ability to untangle complex ideas, to generate novel insights, and to express these insights with rigor and clarity. She is a stellar example of what is possible for students at HLS, and she has a brilliant career ahead of her.”
As for her own research, Lee explains, “I’m looking at how work-family policies are being received in South Korea, a country that has been experiencing drastic demographic changes. Korea has one of the lowest fertility rates in the world and as a response, the government has been implementing policies to support working parents manage their work and family responsibilities.” She continues, “Despite these generous policies, we still see an unequal gendered division of childcare and household labor and declining fertility rates. Over the summer I was in Korea and conducted interviews with working mothers to understand the issue from their perspectives.”
While interviewing women in South Korea, Lee found an unexpected result. She explains, “There seems to be a tension and clash between the cultural expectation of what it means to be a good mother, and what these policies provide. The women I interviewed were looking at the long-term commitment of raising and educating their children, usually until they enter university, but work family policies apply to parents with very young children, up until children are eight years old.”
Lee has already had the opportunity to share her findings in a professional forum. She says, “Through my research position with Dr. Kim, I’ve become part of a working group for the RAND Corporation’s Center for Asia Pacific Policy. This fall, I was able to present and publish a part of my research at their Gender Inequality in South Korea Forum and conference proceedings. It was a very surreal experience to be presenting among the high-profile professors and gender scholars that I look up to.”
In reflecting on her time at HLS, Lee says, “I was able to chart my own path with a supportive group of faculty. Because you can foster such close relationships with professors here, you truly receive individualized support so that you can achieve your own professional and academic goals. With the support of professors in EALC, I have had invaluable opportunities I couldn’t have imagined as a student. The professors here truly care about you and your interests. You get to make the program unique to you, which is really exciting and what makes this program and HLS so special.”
As for what is next, Lee says, “During my time in HLS, I’ve learned that I enjoy the academic environment and I am really passionate about my current research. At this point, I am looking at sociology Ph.D. programs where I hope to further my study of Korea from a sociological perspective.”