Toward healing divides, doctoral graduate focuses on education and language

December 8, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Arizona State University student Young Wha Lee has been a champion of friendly Korean-American relations for much of her adult life. Graduating ASU student Young Wha Lee poses in her Taekwondo practice / Courtesy photo Graduating doctoral student Young Wha Lee — a practitioner of taekwondo — aspires to strengthen the U.S.-South Korean relationship. Download Full Image

Born and raised in Jeonju in Jeonbuk Province, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Lee completed her undergraduate study in English language and literature at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. She supplemented her language study with exposure to American culture and politics through a visit to the U.S. sponsored by the Korean American Sharing Movement’s Washington Leadership Program. She was nominated for the opportunity by the Leadership Development Institute of her university.

The KASM’s Washington Leadership Program – which is distinct from an identically named one focused on the South Asian diaspora – brings “motivated North Korean defector and South Korean students to Washington, D.C., to develop leadership skills, experience government and history, and learn how to effect change on the Korean Peninsula,” according to its website.

Something about this joining of cultures and healing of divides spoke to Lee, who embraced deep learning about politics, economics, media, public health, history and culture on the trip. “I was able to visit U.S. institutions such as the Capitol, Pentagon, Supreme Court, World Bank, National Press Club, National Institutes of Health, and Library of Congress,” she said. “I felt the presence of the Founding Fathers in this heart of American democracy.”

Lee’s keen interest in American culture and history motivated her to become an exchange student in the U.S. at the University of Montana. There, she became vice president of the Korean Student Association – one of her first forays into helping each culture appreciate the other. After completing her bachelor’s degree, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, where she served as president of the Korean Students Association in that university's Graduate School of Education (GSE), this time while completing her master’s degree. She also assisted with administrative work as an intern at the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Washington, D.C.

“As I have experienced life in the U.S. in these recent years,” she said, “I have learned that my country and the U.S. share many important values, e.g., freedom, liberty, as free countries. I cherish the traditions based on these values in both countries, and I hope the friendship between my country and the U.S., particularly strengthened since the Korean War, thrives.”

Lee’s desire to encourage functional and open communication between cultures led her to study language and identity. This fall, Lee completed her PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics at ASU, where she focused on the benefit of teachers incorporating aspects of their own identities into the second-language writing classroom. Lee successfully defended her dissertation on Nov. 6.

As she studied, she also taught, weaving theory into her own pedagogical practice. For her outstanding teaching and scholarship, Lee was recognized this past spring with the Graduate and Professional Student Association’s Outstanding Research Award, and this fall with its Teaching Excellence Award. She has also received honors from ASU’s Department of English throughout her ASU career, including the Marvin Fisher Book Award (2014), the English International Graduate Student Book Scholarship (2015), the Outstanding Paper on Second Language Writing Award (2019), and several research and travel grants.

Lee has done all this while maintaining her taekwondo practice, which she said, “has helped me strengthen my body and mind during my doctoral study.” She finds the discipline also gives her an opportunity to practice more cultural appreciation. “When we salute the national flags of the Republic of Korea and the U.S. after each day’s taekwondo training,” she said, “I feel blessed to live in these two countries.”

We spoke more to Lee about her research, teaching and service at ASU and beyond.

Graduating ASU student  / Courtesy photo

Young Wha Lee

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: There was no dramatic “aha” moment, but there was gradual progression for choosing my doctoral program. I majored in English language and literature with a minor in education for my undergraduate study. I also studied Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages for my master’s program. So, I have been in the area of English language teaching. When I decided to pursue my doctorate, my undergraduate adviser suggested studying second language writing – a subfield of applied linguistics – as a promising field. The field has provided me with the context where I delved into the issue of “identity,” and I explored the identities of second language writing teachers for my dissertation.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: During my time at ASU, I have learned that there are a variety of perspectives not only in people’s scholarly work, but also in their real lives. Based on various factors such as disciplinary backgrounds, personal history, life philosophy, or previous experiences, people make arguments and decisions, so I have learned to understand the existence of this diversity. I can see and respect others as unique individuals.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I searched the suitable doctoral program for my research interests in second language writing, I learned that ASU has a large Writing Programs (selection) in the English department and prominent faculty members in the field of applied linguistics. When I heard that I was accepted for the doctoral program with a teaching associateship from the school, I was overjoyed. I felt grateful for the opportunity to study and teach at ASU.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I learned the most from my adviser, (Associate Professor) Mark A. James during my study at ASU. Discussing my research with him has been the most enjoyable, insightful and productive time of my doctoral days. Particularly, I have not only learned all about research methods, but I also paid extra attention to research ethics and practical issues of the research process. Dr. James is known for his generosity and kindness among my peer groups, and I felt grateful to work with him as my adviser. In mentoring students, he focuses on the critical role of language in aiding the creation of knowledge as well as in the transmission of that knowledge. I want to do that for my students as well.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Academia can be an exciting and rewarding place for personal development, but at the same time, it can be challenging and difficult, as there is a lot of pressure to produce and succeed. I took one year of leave during my doctoral study, and I reexamined my life goals. I think having a clear academic goal is important, so I’d like to encourage current students to consider goal-setting as a way to inspire and motivate their academic journey.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: During the pandemic, I have stayed at home every day. This became my favorite place for intensive studying. I used to like to study in Ross Blakley Hall, the home of the English department. I liked our building, which provided wide spaces and several options for studying — quiet hallways, reading rooms. Looking outside at the nice view of the ASU campus was soothing. I also felt great when I walked around the intramural fields next to our building for light exercise after studying.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will continue to teach and conduct research at the university.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: If “social divisions” can be considered a single problem, then this would be the issue I would choose to resolve. In light of recent social issues, based on divisive ideologies in the world, I believe this would be an important area on which to focus in order to actualize certain values of truth, freedom, and justice. I would seek ways to minimize the chaos in our society.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


Soon-to-be grad already at work as spokesperson for state treasurer's office

December 8, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2020 graduates.

Part-time jobs, which students often take while finishing school, aren’t usually known for their location at the Arizona State Capitol. Hannah Roehr won’t go full time in her position until she graduates from Arizona State University in December, but she’s already the public information officer, known as a PIO, for one of the state’s top elected officials. Hannah Roehr, Kimberly Yee, Arizona State Treasurer, public information officer Hannah Roehr won’t go full time in her position until she graduates from Arizona State University next week, but she’s already the public information officer, known as a PIO, for one of the state’s top elected officials. Download Full Image

Roehr is a Spirit of Service Scholar, a program administered through the Congressman Ed Pastor Center for Politics and Public Service at the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Her internship at the Arizona state treasurer’s office had her working for a PIO who was leaving that position and trained Roehr to succeed her.

Roehr will go full time as spokesperson for Treasurer Kimberly Yee – a Watts College graduate with an MPA degree – when Roehr receives a Bachelor of Arts degree in business with an emphasis on public service and public policy from ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business.

“I was first introduced to Arizona state government and policymaking by being a Senate page at the Arizona State Senate my freshman year at ASU. I met many people involved in Arizona state government through the Senate page program,” Roehr said.

“The former PIO who I connected with at the Arizona State Senate was leaving. She knew I appreciated Treasurer Yee’s work as a public official and would be interested in interning at the Arizona state treasurer’s office. Looking back, I had no idea that the connections that I made as a Senate page would lead me to my current role as the PIO for the Arizona state treasurer.”

PIOs are often people who have worked professionally in public relations or journalism, but even though that’s not her academic background, Roehr said the classes she took at Watts College taught her the important role of public administration and of transparency and accountability in government.

“I learned how important being outwardly focused is,” she said. “I am not only responsible to my boss, I’m responsible to the public.”

The treasurer’s office is responsible for the state’s banking and investment management duties and provides investment services to Arizona’s local governments, according to its website, whose revamping was one of Roehr’s recent accomplishments.

Read on to learn more about Roehr and how her time at ASU helped prepare her for a career in state government:

Question: Tell us a little about yourself today and your early years. 

Answer: I am from Prescott, Arizona. I have always been creatively orientated with my hobbies of drawing, graphic design and even music. I will graduate in December 2020 with a bachelor's degree in business (public service and public policy). In my time at ASU, I have interned at the Arizona State Senate; U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar's office in Washington, D.C.; the Arizona governor's office; and the Arizona state treasurer's office. 

Hannah Roehr, Kimberly Yee, Arizona State Treasurer, public information officer

Hannah Roehr, left, an ASU senior and Spirit of Service Scholar, is the public information officer for Arizona State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, right. Roehr expects to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree in business in December 2020. Photos courtesy of Hannah Roehr

Q: Tell about what are you doing now. 

A: I am the public information officer for the Arizona state treasurer's office. Before I started this position, I was their communications intern for over a year. Now, I am the liaison between the treasurer's office and the public, including the media and constituents. By creating content for the office's website and social media, I inform the public about how their taxpayer dollars are being safely invested and managed by the Arizona Treasury. I write press releases, articles and speeches. I attend events with Treasurer Kimberly Yee and coordinate her media interviews. Additionally, I manage the communications and much of the marketing for the AZ 529 Education Savings Program, which is newly housed in the Arizona Treasury. The treasurer's goal and my goal is to reach individuals and families with this financial plan so that they can save for their future higher education. 

Q: Tell us about your experience as a Spirit of Service Scholar. How did it prepare you for life after college?

A: My experience as a Spirit of Service Scholar was gratifying and challenging. My fellow scholars and I coordinated two public seminars about free speech on college campuses and another about overcoming trauma through storytelling. These events were a challenge to arrange with bringing in expert speakers, scheduling, marketing and narrowing down the subject matter. I learned many aspects of event planning with these daylong seminars. One of my favorite parts of the Spirit of Service program was the biweekly visits to a local high school to meet with a group of students. My fellow scholars and I encouraged these high school students to consider attending college and to think about their future. These students deeply impressed me with their vulnerability and desire to tackle issues at their school and in their community.

Additionally, I had a wonderful, well-experienced mentor, Tanya Wheeless, the deputy chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Martha McSally, who gave me practical advice and encouraged me to have a service mindset and to "work for the job you want to have." My fellow scholars were from a variety of backgrounds and all had different aspirations for their future career in public service from social work to law to local advocacy. The Spirit of Service program prepared me to collaborate with others from different backgrounds and to practically inform and equip people with the knowledge to make a difference in their communities.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: I had no idea that I wanted to pursue a career in the public service sector when I started at ASU. I began at ASU with a marketing degree program, thinking that I would go into advertising. I liked designing and creating visually pleasing content, but I was missing the "why" behind my work. I didn't want to advertise products or services that I did not genuinely like or believe in. One day, during my freshman year, I saw a poster outside of my dorm building advertising an internship as a page at the Arizona State Senate. I had no prior knowledge about the Arizona Legislature, but for some reason, this opportunity piqued my interest. I applied and for some reason got the job even though I was 30 minutes late to my interview because I got lost in downtown Phoenix traffic. As a Senate page, I learned about the Legislature, the policy process and the issues facing this state. I realized that I wanted Arizona, my home state that I deeply care about, to be the "why" that I was looking for. The page internship led me to meeting the people who later connected me with working at the Arizona state treasurer’s office. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: As someone from an extremely small high school with a graduating class of 10, I was looking for a larger community and a challenge. All the degree options and opportunities at ASU attracted me. I wanted to stay in my home state of Arizona, hoping that I would find a job here. Additionally, something that I did not realize at the time I enrolled is that ASU is conveniently close to the Arizona State Capitol, a place where I would spend a lot of my time in college. 

Q: Which professor(s) taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? Are you still in touch with him/her/them?

A: A professor that taught me a lesson that still rings true for me today is Pat Tillman Foundation Distinguished Professor Michael Mokwa (of the W. P. Carey School of Business) in my Pat Tillman Scholar class titled Leadership Through Action. My sophomore year of college, I had overcommitted myself with multiple club leadership positions, classes, church commitments and an internship. I was drowning in my anxiety of meeting people's expectations and failing them because I did not have enough time for everything. In a lecture about how to transition from "good" to "great,” Professor Mokwa explained that success is not defined by the quantity of tasks that you do but the quality. He encouraged the class to focus our time and energy on what was most important to us so that we could give our absolute best effort to those tasks. With difficulty, I dropped a couple clubs that I genuinely enjoyed but were not my focus. I narrowed my efforts to my classes, the Senate page internship and my church community. I became more satisfied and present in my work. I am still in touch with Professor Mokwa and the Tillman Scholar community today! I hope to keep this principle prioritized as I transition to my career. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Apply for the internships! Even if you believe that you are underqualified, you will never know unless you try. Not only will internships give you good time management skills with balancing school and work, you will learn so much being out in the field. Most importantly, you will make personal connections that will potentially help you in your future career. Many college students have a general sense of want they want to do in their future, and their career aspirations can be confirmed or shifted through internships. Classes are great for giving you a broader context of the real world, but you won't know how it truly is until you experience it yourself.

Q: If you had college to experience all over again, what would you do differently? The same?

A: If I could have changed anything about my college experience, I would have not been so anxious about the looming future. A healthy amount of ambition pushed me to work hard. However, I would often worry and unnecessarily stress about situations out of my control. If I was a bit more relaxed and present, I would have been more appreciative of the opportunities and the people around me.

Q: What is something you think would surprise people to learn about you?

A: I have played bass guitar on my church's worship team since I was 13 years old. There aren't many female bass players out there! 

Q: What are your top three favorite music artists right now? 

A: When I am designing graphics and writing, I like to listen to creative, unique yet calming music from King Kaleidoscope, Chris Renzema and Brandon Lake. 

Q: What is your life motto in one sentence?

A: My cup overflows. 

Mark J. Scarp is media relations officer for the Arizona State University Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions.

Mark J. Scarp

Media Relations Officer, Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions