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Diverse Interests: Doctoral Student Phil Lee

Phil Lee

As a scholar, father, and someone who cares deeply about people in this life, Phil Lee routinely asks himself, Am I doing enough to make this world better? This question has been the driving force behind the doctoral student's education and career in his quest to address racial inequality and educational access in our society.

"It's not a question of if...it's a question of how much impact I'm going to make in any setting," Lee says.

As the Harvard Graduate School of Education's first diversity intern, Lee will have the unique opportunity this year to work closely with the Office of Student Affairs and the Dean's Office to help develop diversity programming, as well as link constituents and stakeholders on campus. The diversity internship grew out of feedback from HGSE students that suggested the need to more actively foster a multicultural community on campus.

Through the position Lee hopes to sustain diversity conversations outside of the Ed School's classrooms, with people from all different background and perspectives. "I'm going to do as much as I can to have some effect in terms of enhancing diversity dialogues, [and] to make sure they are continuous, robust, and cut a little deeper," Lee says.

One of his initiatives this fall will be launching diversity reading groups. These informal groups, led by doctoral students, will cover a range of topics with the goal of sparking conversation. "This is an opportunity to change how people talk and think about diversity on campus," he says. "It's a small part I can play."

While growing up in one of the few Asian American families in his community, Lee says he watched his family, as well as himself, be mistreated or judged based on race. In turn, these experiences forged new questions for him about race, identity, and understanding.

It was through Lee's own education at Duke University and Harvard Law School (HLS) that he gained an understanding about the social structures and historic reasons for why people are treated in color-coded and gender-coded biases. Ultimately, these lessons taught Lee that education lies at the center of civil rights and diversity challenges.

Following graduation from HLS, Lee focused on becoming a civil rights attorney, gaining experience working as a government attorney for New York City and as an associate at a white-collar criminal defense boutique in Manhattan. Lee was headed down the path of becoming a trial lawyer when then-HLS Dean and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan called him regarding a position as assistant director of admissions at the school.

He had never thought about working in admissions • or even higher education • before Kagan's call. However, he soon realized the position was an opportunity to increase diversity in the sector. "I took a substantial pay cut to work in higher educational administration," Lee says. "But my motivation all along was to increase diversity and access at all levels."

As assistant director of admissions, Lee led diversity outreach and managed a successful summer pipeline program for 20 students from underrepresented and low-income families focused on law school access.

After four years working in admissions, Lee was once again struck by the question of whether he was doing enough while listening to Sandra Day O'Connor. When the Supreme Court justice challenged every person to demonstrate the benefits of diversity in the classroom, Lee realized that he could do more. This led him to the Ed School where he is continuing to focus on diversity, education, and the law.

This summer he earned a Dean's Summer Fellowship and examined social movement theory to study diversity and student activism at HLS in the early 1990s. This research will be published in the Harvard Journal on Racial and Ethnic Justice in the spring of 2011.

Though Lee sees many parallels between legal and historical research, he says he plans to direct his focus to O'Connor's challenge and work to find ways of showing that diversity is beneficial to everyone in the classroom. "If I can contribute a few data points to help a decisionmaker think in critical and deep ways about this issue, then my time at HGSE is well spent," he says. "I feel like this is a calling for me. In every decision, I make sure I'm in a better position to make more of an impact."