Award Story

Changing the Narrative: Understanding Asian American Experiences

Jennifer Lee
2008 U.S. Scholar to Japan
Jennifer Lee profile picture

What does it mean to be Asian American? Dr. Jennifer Lee, an award-winning author, researcher, and lecturer, has dedicated her life to addressing this question. By advancing research-informed narratives of Asian Americans via scholarship, major publications, and international engagement, Dr. Lee works to promote opportunity for all in the Asian diaspora. Her research on immigration and the Asian American community is especially timely. As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, Dr. Lee works to shed light on Asian American experiences and better our shared future. 

Dr. Lee advances this work as Julian Clarence Levi Professor of Social Sciences at Columbia University, where she has authored or co-authored four award-winning books, including The Asian American Achievement ParadoxThe Diversity ParadoxCivility in the City, and Asian American Youth; three dozen articles in leading academic journals; and pieces in The New York TimesThe Washington PostLos Angeles TimesSan Francisco ChronicleCNN, and other media outlets. Her research has garnered support from the National Science Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Social Science Research Council.

Since 2016, she has served as a senior researcher for AAPI Data, an organization that seeks to make policy research and demographic data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) more accessible. Through her work at AAPI Data, Dr. Lee brings to light the lived experiences of different Asian American communities through robust data, detailing topics ranging from educational attainment and income to English language ability and health outcomes. Detailing the unique challenges the AAPI community faces makes it possible to remedy inequities and expand opportunity.

In 2008, Dr. Lee globalized her outreach: she traveled to Nagoya, Japan with the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program as a Distinguished Lecturer at the Nagoya American Studies Summer Seminar, where she delivered a lecture about the significance of President Barack Obama’s presidential election and his impact on U.S. politics and culture. 

“As a scholar of race, immigration, culture, and inequality, I disagreed with some who believed that [President] Obama’s election…signaled that the United States was becoming post-racial,” Dr. Lee explains. “For many, the death knell has been sounded for institutionalized racial exclusion. His election would be historic and ground-breaking, I maintained, but it would not dismantle the deep-seated forms of structural discrimination and racial exclusion that African Americans and other minoritized groups, including Asian Americans, experience. The more insidious forms of discrimination would continue to reproduce racial inequalities and hierarchies amidst a veil of racial progress.”

Dr. Lee led the seminar attendees through a hypothetical discussion to help them better understand the state of race relations in the United States. In the scenario she presented she asked the students to consider whether she, a Korean American with a Ph.D. from Columbia University, could ever hold high office in Japan. 

“This generated candid, raw, and thought-provoking commentary and discussion about the discrimination that ethnic Koreans experience in Japan, how many ‘pass’ as Japanese, and how the stigma attached to a Korean ethnic identity does not abate despite educational and professional attainment. Discussing these ideas with students as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar made me a stronger researcher, keener teacher, and a more committed mentor and leader,” she says. 

Since her Fulbright, the urgency of Dr. Lee’s research has increased. She addresses the pressing implications of contemporary U.S. immigration on the native-born population, immigrant entrepreneurship and ethnic conflict, and anti-Asian hate and violence. Fulbrighters like Dr. Jennifer Lee hold the key to countering ignorance with knowledge, imagining new ways to work together to ensure an equitable and just society.