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jane lee

by Ariel Bernal 

Jane Lee, originally from South Korea, decided to pursue a master’s in East Asian Studies at UVA after working at a think tank in Washington, D.C. Her thesis was on Zainichi Korean representation in South Korean documentary films. Zainichi in Japanese directly translates to “residing in Japan,” and generally refers to the Koreans and their descendants who moved to Japan before 1945. 

From a think tank to Charlottesville: Jane’s journey to UVA 

Jane used to work in Seoul, South Korea at a non-profit organization that helped asylum seekers from all around the world with their legal issues. She encountered North Koreans in that same building. North Korea defectors attended night school there, and she had the opportunity to listen to their stories and hear firsthand the hardships North Koreans go through in South Korea. Jane thought policy or a more top-down approach could improve asylum seekers and North Korean defectors’ circumstances, and thus majored in international relations.   

After getting her first master’s degree in a political science field, she quickly realized that wasn’t the area she was interested in. The think tank she worked for viewed things from a national security lens versus a humanitarian one. She learned that she wanted to approach the issues the think tank was trying to solve from a different angle, one from the humanities. She wanted to tell people’s stories. With that goal in mind, she applied to the UVA East Asian Studies master’s program to turn her career around.   

Researching Zainichi representation in South Korean documentary films 

Jane was embarrassed to admit it, but the first time she heard the term “Zainichi” was through Min Jin Lee’s best-seller turned Apple TV phenomenon Pachinko. She had a lot of mixed emotions after reading the book. The history buff in her was ashamed, but her academic side was curious as to why she had never heard of the Zainichi chōsenjin, who are primarily affiliated with North Korea, during her time in South Korea. A relaxing read made her reflect on why the darker side of Korean history is not widely known. After studying in the United States, she learned how some parts of Korean history have been intentionally avoided due to political reasons, and because previous generations were too busy struggling with internal political turbulence to revisit stories on Korean diasporic communities. The more she learned about her country’s history, the more responsible she felt about making sure that those stories do not remain forgotten. 

Jane also added, “Some ask 'why do you study Korean history in the United States when you can study better in Korea with more resources?'” Jane says it’s because you can better analyze a subject when you’re not in its immediate environment. Coming to the US allowed her to analyze her work from a variety of perspectives which provides her with different insights. “Now that I have the privilege and opportunity to look into some of the issues that have been covered and understudied with a more fresh and liberated point of view, I feel obligated to search for unheard and forcefully shut down voices of Koreans who have been dispersed in hard times.” 

UVA’s East Asia Center’s flexible program and supportive faculty 

Jane chose UVA because it was close to home in addition to some of the faculty on grounds, particularly history professor Dr. Joseph Seeley. She enjoyed reading his work and admired him as an academic and person, and he became her advisor after arriving on grounds.  

She spent her first year taking history, media, and even a course from the School of Architecture before tacking her thesis for the second year of her program. She recommends the East Asia Center’s master’s program in East Asian Studies for students that are craving academic freedom while still having one on one faculty advising.  

Finding a new home in Ann Arbor and long-term goals 

Jane decided on the University of Michigan for her doctoral program because she knew that getting a Ph.D. takes a village— she wanted to make sure that she had an advisor who she sees as a role model. In addition to her studies, Jane is a full-time mom and wanted a safe area with an established Korean community to raise her son.  

Going off her research on the Zainichi, Jane will explore how the Korean diaspora and Korean communities are represented in literature and film for her dissertation. She wants to take advantage of the world’s increasing interest in Korean contemporary culture and funnel some of that interest into Korean history. Ultimately, Jane wants to become a professor and help grow the Korean Cultural Studies field in the United States.  

Reflection on the past two years and advice to her past self 

Jane received her UVA admission letter while she was recovering in the hospital from giving birth to her son, Eden. She considered deferring the program but decided to accept it after receiving her parents’ support. Being a full-time student at the same time as being a full-time mother to a newborn was not easy. Pursuing a Ph.D. as a toddler’s mother does not seem any easier. Imagining how proud Eden will be when she walks across the stage to get her doctoral degree is Jane’s motivating force.  

Jane moved to the United States by herself for her undergraduate degree and was extremely determined when it came to her studies. How much her family sacrificed for her goals was always in the back of her mind. This was her motivation; she kept pushing forward to make her family proud. And while she worked hard, she never took the time to ask herself what she really wanted. Jane now says that “it was the prime time to make a detour and pause and make mistakes in the process of figuring out who I am, what I like, and what I am genuinely passionate about. It was the time to focus on oneself.” At the time, she thought film and literature could only ever be hobbies and that she should only take classes directly related to her career goals. Jane says that students should invest time in figuring out what they’re truly passionate about because it saves much more time later down the line.  

Jane concluded with, “Take classes that relate to your pure interest. If I knew that I would pursue a doctoral degree in literature and film after ten years, I am sure Jane Lee in 2013 would be in shock and make different choices.” 

She did not take this journey alone: expressing gratitude 

Jane would like to thank Professor Seeley for who he is as an academic but also as a person. As a father, Seeley was understanding of Jane’s needs as a mother. “His timely guidance and never-ending support carried me through this journey. I could not have imagined having a better advisor and mentor.” She also thanks Professor Aynne Kokas and Professor Andrew Johnston. All three of these faculty members are her role models. 

She would also like to thank her parents. Her parents are helping her raise her son and are one of the driving factors that Jane can pursue academia. “My mom put down her successful career of 36 years just to support her daughter. They did not want me to abandon this long-desired dream after having a child. I still cannot believe how amazing and supportive they were and did not even hesitate to make such a sacrifice. If I think of the lonely and tiring days my mother had to endure in her sixties changing her grandson’s diapers all alone, while she could have been respected at her job, tears well up in my eyes and motivates me to make my parents proud.” 

Lastly, she wants to thank her supportive husband, Donghoon, and her son, Eden, who fills her with bottomless laughter and love. 

Congratulations, Jane! The East Asia Center at UVA will miss you. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors and look forward to seeing all you accomplish.