YCA Story | Jae Young Lee: Growing a Community

Jae Young Lee is a 2022 Yenching Scholar from Seoul, South Korea. His first encounter with the Yenching community was in 2016 when he started his undergraduate program in World History at Peking University. He was involved in the English team for student press at the Office of International Relations, PKU, first as a reporter and then as an editor. Through this network of student journalists, he became friends with some Yenching Scholars. “I was impressed by the professionalism, competence, and knowledge of my colleagues from the Yenching Academy, and I came to realize that the Yenching program is all about growing a vibrant academic community with like-minded people interested in China.”

This realization sparked his interest in the program and decision to join the Yenching community and he was fortunate to enroll in the Fall of 2022. He is currently in the History and Archaeology track, with research interests covering the transmission and interpretation of Western philosophical and historiographical concepts in China, problems in Chinese-English philosophical translations, and global approaches to the study of modern China. “I am orienting my coursework to cover the aforementioned interests from historical and philosophical perspectives.”

Yenching Experience Thus Far

Jae Young stressed that Yenching Scholars are the heart of the program. He is excited to learn with and from his fellow Scholars from different cultural backgrounds on topics that concern contemporary issues related to China. “I have learned a lot through having conversations with my peers and seniors. Many of us have already discovered our academic focus within the program, so our conversations often reflect our new insights and experiences in studying such issues.”

With the Spring semester in full swing, Jae Young is determined to get the most out of his coursework to develop a more concrete outlook for his master’s thesis topic. Yenching Scholars are encouraged to participate in classes outside the options provided by YCA to facilitate the program’s interdisciplinary perspective. Jae Young described this as an excellent opportunity to help Yenching Scholars pursue their research interests and better integrate themselves within the broader PKU academic community. “I am taking a few courses from the Department of History and the Department of Philosophy. Thanks to the program’s interdisciplinary nature, I remain in contact with my undergraduate professors in the History Department through courses, which is important for my academic development.”

He also lauded the quality of the courses taught at YCA. He noted that two history courses offered in the Fall semester sparked his interest: Development of Chinese Civilization, taught by Professor Lu Yang, and History of the Field, taught by Associate Dean Brent Haas. “These courses were well-designed with carefully-selected readings for a discussion-based graduate seminar, and I thoroughly enjoyed the discussions and presentations in the classes. Many of us interested in Chinese history were enrolled in both courses, which was very helpful because we could formulate a small ‘history group’ within the Yenching community.”

Jae Young expressed satisfaction with the opportunities that YCA offers its Scholars to connect with esteemed professors and seasoned industry professionals across China, who guide students’ studies at YCA and career trajectories through various capacities. “I am very grateful to be advised by Professor Lu Yang, who provided ample constructive feedback in writing essays, coursework, and more through our online and offline meetings.” Commenting on his participation in the Professional Leadership Mentor program designed to help Scholars get advice from industry leaders, he notes, “I joined the group led by Ms. Li Lingxi of the Princeton University Press due to my interest in discovering more about the global academic publishing industry.”

Exploring and Learning about China

Jae Young joked about spending most of January writing final essays because he chose five elective courses in the Fall semester. He was also engaged in other research projects which required him to travel. “In the first week of February, I spent four days in Shenzhen as a part of my project for the Dean’s Research Grant with five other team members. We interviewed several professionals across the public and private sectors to investigate the subject of development zones in Shenzhen and their relation to the global value chain.” The trip helped Jae Young appreciate Shenzhen as one of the most representative cities encapsulating Chinese economic development since Reform and Opening Up. The research experience also allowed him to contextualize Chinese economic growth from a local perspective.

He also planned other trips across China to gather firsthand experience of the country’s rich history, culture, development, and beautiful scenery. “Before and after my visit to Shenzhen, I decided to spend more time in the surrounding region and visited Guangzhou, Hong Kong, and Macao. I enjoyed the warm southern climate, local culinary delights, and the opportunities to practice my Cantonese after some months of self-study.” Jae Young noted his preference for traveling to places where he can spend quality time with his good friends. “We celebrated two birthdays for our closest friends in the program, respectively, in Shanghai and Hong Kong. We had a really fun time in both cities.”

Besides, he recounted other trips that have enriched his experience. “We visited Xiangshan, the Forbidden City, Yunju Temple, and other historically significant sites in Beijing last semester. This semester, I have had three opportunities to travel outside Beijing through YCA. I traveled to Shandong with fellow students in Professor Lu Yang’s course Chinese Classics and Thought in late March and to Shaanxi in early April for my research for the course China in Transition.” Furthermore, Jae Young participated in the Yenching Global Symposium held in Hainan this year. He enjoyed the experience as it offered a fresh perspective of China and the world, with discussions by many leaders in academia, industry, government, and social organizations. He added that he was looking forward to the field trip to Sichuan-Chongqing planned for mid-June.

Helping to Build a Sense of Community

Jae Young is the Co-President of the Yenching Academy Graduate Student Union (GSU). The academic year has been extraordinary because many Yenchingers started their studies online and gradually adapted to the offline environment. Jae Young and other GSU committee members are responsible for planning and operating events including welcome receptions, holiday celebrations, and town hall meetings, as well as faithfully representing YCA to the broader PKU community. “We prioritize fluent communication between Scholars and the YCA administrative office as well as student unions across PKU so that we can contribute to the betterment of the student experience at YCA.”

Jae Young recounted several activities that GSU organized in the past year. He charmingly credited Yenching Scholars and alumni, noting that none of the programs would have meant anything without their support and active participation. “We had successful rounds of holiday celebrations at the end of October and December, where most Scholars on campus could relax and bond. We also collaborated with some interest groups and helped organize ping pong tournaments and World Cup-watching events.” There were also new initiatives designed to contribute to community building at YCA. “For example, we designed and produced YCA puffer jackets in the winter and are working to introduce a more comprehensive YCA merchandise collection. Also, we started organizing Chinese Corners, a Chinese-only informal session, and we plan to launch other programs such as Chinese-only weekends or tables.”

Moreover, Jae Young and his team are making meaningful efforts to reinitiate and establish inter-program relations with other departments in PKU and prestigious English-taught programs outside of PKU, including the Schwarzman College at Tsinghua University. “I hope that the friendly competition between Yenching and Schwarzman programs can be continued and more Scholars can visit each other’s campuses in the near future.”

A Few Words to Incoming Scholars

Jae Young explained that Yenching Scholars are talented in many ways, and finding people with common interests is easy. Hence, he recommended incoming Scholars start or get involved in many interest groups. “Many Scholars in the program are multilingual, and there is an ongoing initiative of teaching and learning foreign languages through student-organized lectures. I personally enjoy learning new languages and am happy to have contributed to this initiative by teaching two sessions of Korean language.” He also recommended incoming Scholars  to participate in PKU student associations – as it is one of the most accessible ways to connect with the wider PKU community – and GSU.

Jae Young can be found in the classrooms of Jingyuan Courtyard 4, the third floor of the Main Library (where he can easily surround himself with books related to history, philosophy, foreign languages, and more), or in common spaces at Shaoyuan 6, almost always with a cup of coffee. He encourages incoming Scholars to reach out to him for a chat if they are interested in the humanities, contemporary issues on China, or the work of GSU.

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