Mills alumna Sarah K. Lee was thrilled when her mother called last month to tell her that the Fulbright Scholars Program had approved her application. She prepared to return to Taiwan, her birthplace, for 11 months of teaching and research.
The Fulbright Scholars Program is a branch of a government-funded exchange effort called the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. Each year the program sends 800 scholars and professionals from various fields to lecture and conduct research in 140 countries. Competition for the prestigious Fulbright scholarship is steep. According to the program Web site, over 5,000 applications are received each year, and this year Lee is one of two Mills alumnae who were among the ranks accepted. Alicia Shook, who also won an award, will be studying in Thailand.
“I was so excited when I found out I got it,” Lee said. “But my parents, who immigrated from Taiwan when I was two, didn’t really understand the cultural significance (of the award). My mom said, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Maybe you’ll meet a nice Chinese boy.’ I had to explain to her that the purpose of my trip was to study and teach, not to find a boyfriend.”
Others, however, more readily recognized the depth and significance of her achievement.
“Sarah has a quiet and confident manner,” said History professor Wah Cheng, whom Lee named as one of her greatest influences, “but when you look at what she’s done, she has accomplished so much.”
The awards are rarely granted to applicants who have previously spent time in the countries to which they have applied, according to the Web site literature.
“I was apprehensive about that when I applied,” said Lee, who will return to China and Taiwan for the fourth time.
In light of that, the fact that Lee was awarded speaks highly of her talent, drive and direction.
“I am planning to do some research about how education is financed in Taiwan, and about school choice,” she said. “East Asia will be producing a majority of the world’s workforce in not very long. My goal is to have an understanding of what that [education] looks like.”
Lee largely credits her Mills education for setting her on a this track. As a PLEA and economics major, she said she was involved in the ASMC, clubs and volunteer work. In 1998, she spent a semester of her junior year in Beijing, her first experience in China. It sparked a lasting interest.
“Mills was a fantastic experience all around, from academic, international, and social justice perspectives,” she said. “The professors made all the difference.”
After graduating in December 2000, Lee went back to China where she worked for six months and learned “business Chinese”, which, she says, “is a totally different thing.” Upon returning to the U.S. she worked for a large San Francisco consulting firm. She learned a lot there, in “corporate America,” she said, but was not fulfilled. In 2003 she helped launch Hyphen Magazine, a bi-coastal publication about Asian-American youth culture. As founding associate editor of the magazine she was able to “do business stuff, but have a social impact.”
Leaving her current position as Business Operations manager at Greatschools.net, an organization that uses financial expertise to help address problems in public education, Lee will continue to try to marry business know-how with social action in Taiwan.
“The Business mind perspective is so needed in education,” she said
Both Lee and Shook will relocate to their host countries to begin their work during the summer.
Cheng encourages Mills students to follow in those footsteps.
“It is ironic in this day and age when the world is getting smaller that there is so little global perspective,” he said. “If the institution and culture does not give it to you, go get it, widen your horizon. Both Sarah and Alicia demonstrated this quality.”
And Lee offers some advice of her own.
“I grew up with a single mom who had three kids. It wasn’t easy,” she said, “but you are your own biggest impediment to your achievement.”