Journalist Brings Worldly View, Activism to Amherst
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:23

I first heard about Jisoo Lee during a Tuesday evening editors’ meeting for The Indicator: we were brainstorming articles, and one proposed topic needed a particularly capable and discerning voice. The immediate chorus was, “Let’s ask Jisoo.”
If you have had the privilege of taking a class with Lee, and encountered her insightful comments and discreet, empathetic ear, you likely would agree that her presence in the classroom clearly aligns with a talent and passion for journalism.
Throughout her four years at the College, Lee has been an invaluable literary voice both on and off campus, whether contributing to the College’s mesmerizing anonymous-submission blog for campus sexual assault, documenting her summer work abroad or interviewing various shop owners in town. Having grown up around the world, hers is an exceptionally multicultural outlook, and she’s more than made the most of her stint here at Amherst.

After I informed Lee that she would be profiled in the Commencement issue, her response was only self-deprecation and surprise, which was soon contradicted by a litany of testaments to both her character and her accomplishments. As Lee’s close friend Dana Bolger ’13E said, “I’m always struck by her humility — she’s talented and accomplished in a million different ways, but that doesn’t ever seem to be on her mind.”

Biking and Adapting

Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea, an only child and a Korean citizen along with her parents. But starting at two years of age, Lee’s notion of “home” would undertake many transformations. Lee and her family moved to Japan for a year and a half, returning to Seoul until she was four. The family then moved to Geneva, Switzerland, when she was five. At nine years old, Lee moved to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to Beijing, China when she was 15. Lee’s father’s occupation at the International Labour Organization, which has branches in all of these countries, was the reason for these travels. Nowadays, Lee’s parents again reside in Geneva, while Lee has acclimated to the small-town environment of Amherst.

“You’d think I would have become accustomed to moving around, but coming to Amherst was probably the hardest move,” Lee said.

Having attended international schools for most of her life, Lee was familiar with a relatively diverse student population, as well as English-language instruction. But moving to a rural U.S. town of 30,000 people proved to be a huge cultural shift, vastly different from Lee’s home cities of over 10 million people. It didn’t help that Lee had never been to Amherst in person before stepping off the Amtrak train just before Orientation.

But over her four years at Amherst, Lee has grown to love the scenery.

“I tried to adapt by exploring the surrounding areas, because it’s only by exploring unfamiliar territory that I can become comfortable and confident in it,” she said.

Lee started running and biking more often, and loves to spot snakes, wild turkeys and rabbits.

“I biked around the city sometimes when I lived in Beijing, but you don’t get fresh air, clean streets, trails and woods in a city,” Lee said.

She has biked to Montague, Florence, the Quabbin reservoir and South Hadley, and nearly completed a trip to Pittsfield on a cold, snowy ride, where she was “happy to have all [her] fingers and toes afterwards.”

“I’m not a fast biker, but I get there,” Lee said. “So getting to know this place physically has been one way I’ve become more comfortable here.”

Biking and exploring has been Lee’s method of acclimatization for longer than she admits. Lee’s mother, Nawon Jung, describes the young Jisoo as “very shy and reserved,” partly as a result of the challenges of growing up in five different countries. She recalls the freshly-uprooted Jisoo, age nine, panicking in a Bangkok grocery store and clinging to her mother’s side. But Jung also remembers her daughter biking alone to the center of Beijing upon moving there.

“With her adventurous spirit, she ended up making a 1,500-km bike trip in China last summer,” her mother said. “I am very proud of my shy little girl who has become such an adventurer.”

Lee undertook the month-long, self-sustained bike tour through China with two friends — one from college and one from high school. They began in Beijing and moved west, then “cheated for about 500-km by taking a bus through the deserty parts that just looked extra miserable and windy to bike through.” Lee acknowledges that she has fantastically supportive friends at Amherst, but said, “this trip required a whole new level of giving a shit about each other.”

College Prose

Lee’s other method of acclimatization stems from her identities as a writer and editor. She served as editor-in-chief of her high school’s Model UN newspaper, but she was also influenced by her mother’s occupation as a freelance journalist. Now an independent photojournalist, her mother recounts her own advice to her daughter: “I tell her two things: You can have your own perspective, but you should not be one-sided as a journalist. You should write for your community, not against it.”

Lee seems to have embraced her community through writing. At Amherst, she began by joining The Amherst Student and became Managing News Editor her first year.

“I had to talk to a bunch of different people across campus to write articles, like the head of dining services, Frost employees, people from different student organizations,” Lee said. “So I got to know the different parts of campus a little more quickly than I would have otherwise.”

After her time at The Student, Lee branched out to the town of Amherst for her writing, citing the insularity of the college as preventing her from feeling like a member of the greater community. She also began writing and illustrating for The Indicator, Amherst College’s journal of social and political thought.

“My friends and I used to wonder how the typewriter shop, which sells what seems like an obsolete machine, could survive on Amherst’s main street in the 21st century,” Lee said.

Naturally, Lee contacted and interviewed the owner, who told her, among many things, about the racist attitudes he had encountered in town as one of the few African-American business owners. And, naturally, Lee didn’t stop there. She spoke to the owner of Paul’s Shoe Repair, a business maintained for 40 years in the same location, to an ESL tutor in Jones Library, and to the tutor’s Tibetan student studying for a learner’s permit. Lee went on to become an ESL tutor at Jones. She also took a journalism class at the Univ. of Massachusetts and interned at the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton this past summer.

“I’ve always been pretty shy and quiet, but I like listening to people’s stories, and through journalism, I can connect with people with whom I’d never otherwise cross paths,” Lee said.

Lee’s journalistic involvement steered toward and preceded last fall’s media explosion concerning former Amherst student Angie Epifano’s brave article in The Student on her own assault and the shortcomings of the administration’s response. Last spring, Lee took photos for “It Happens Here,” a sexual assault awareness magazine that publishes submissions from Amherst students. After Epifano’s publication, she took photos for the magazine’s response project, where students held signs describing the insensitive comments that counselors, administrators and even friends had made to them. The project was received with acclaim, covered by the Huffington Post and a host of other blogs.

Lee’s multimedia pursuits led her to take a video production class this past semester, which has been one of her favorite classes. She also works for Frost Library Digital programs. Noting that the College has been all-male and all-white for the majority of its history, this past semester she began work on a documentary looking at the place of women at the College, which, inevitably, expanded to conversations about race and class.

“There are people who feel uncomfortable here — not because the institution actively discriminates against certain marginalized groups, but because it has failed to adapt and update itself to support these newly diverse groups of students. But not everyone knows or understands that there are people who are uncomfortable here,” Lee said.

The project was inspired by a documentary made by a group of women at Amherst College in 1988, just over a decade after Amherst went coed, which discusses the experience of being a woman here. This documentary was discovered purely by accident by a friend, buried in Frost’s video section.

“Watching this 1988 documentary, my friends and I were struck by how little had changed in the quarter-century since it was made. So I’ve been interviewing students and faculty for the project, and over the summer, I’m going to do some archival research to get a better sense of the history of the College,” Lee said.

Lee’s experience with activism and publication also extends to her time outside of college. The summer before her junior year, Lee interned at Beijing Yilian Legal Aid and Study Center of Labor, a legal aid NGO for migrant workers. She did policy research on occupational disease prevention mechanisms, interviewing lawyers and directors of legal aid NGOs who work to improve migrant workers’ rights in China. She wrote an article on legal aid NGOs in China that was published in two international journals. In addition, the summer before her sophomore year, Lee shadowed a foreign correspondent for a Korean newspaper in Beijing, which helped to refine her Korean writing skills. In addition to Korean and English, Lee is proficient in Chinese and French.

Friend-Lee

According to Bolger, Lee “has an incredible way with people, at drawing them out, getting them to open up to her; she exudes sincerity, honesty, and care.” Bolger also wonders whether most people know how quirky and downright hilarious her friend can be, recounting how Lee once ate an entire cup of sprinkles at Val, just to prove something she had heard about how a film would develop on the roof of her mouth.

As one of the most visible sexual respect advocates on campus, Bolger also had a lot to say about Lee’s own role in the matter.
“[Lee] has been integral to the anti-sexual violence activism on campus…I think a lot of her activism was born out of watching her friends suffer through rape and abuse, and betrayal on the part of [the College]…to care so much as to fight on [a friend’s] behalf to change things for them and the women after them…I feel completely blessed and undeserving to have been one of the recipients.”

Lee’s own comments only confirm these words.

“It’s only in the last year or so that I really started to form a deeper political consciousness and gain a better understanding of structural racism and sexism,” Lee said. “I’ve been unconscious for so much of my time here, and much of the consciousness gaining has come from experiences outside the classroom. It came from watching friends go through some difficult experiences…and realizing how much these experiences are products of larger social structures. […] It’s been cool to see a sort of collective consciousness gaining among my friends over the years.”

Lee’s professor and advisor, Jerry Dennerline, was equally generous in his assessment of Lee, a history major.

“When I first met [Lee]…I thought she was rather shy. Then I learned that she was just thinking. She empathized with people, even people who were long dead, and she wanted to compose what she had to say about them. She was very careful. This…has made her a good historian and an excellent writer,” Professor Dennerline said.

“When she learns something she writes about it. She doesn’t need school to make her do that. So…she got an article published in the Journal of Undergraduate International Studies at the University of Wisconsin. Neither President Martin nor [her] advisor had anything to do with this,” he said, speaking of Lee’s work that stemmed from her internship at the legal aid NGO.

Professor Dennerline also revealed a crucial aspect of Lee’s already-ambitious bike trip last summer.

“She wanted to turn that trip into an investigative journalism project, or maybe a Ph.D. project, interviewing migrant workers who had returned to their villages as she cycled through. I think her friends persuaded her to just enjoy the ride. But she will get back to this, I’ll bet.”

Lee doesn’t know where she’s headed next. But Professor Dennerline has no question.

“She will get on to something else, equally interesting, equally challenging and she will write empathetically, sensitively and intelligently about it. You and I will be reading what she writes, I’ll bet.”

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