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Emerging Scholars: The Poetic Gift – Karen An-Hwei Lee

Title: Professor and chairwoman, Department of English, Vanguard University

Education: Ph.D., English (British and American literature), University of California at Berkeley; M.F.A. and B.A., Brown University

Age: 38

Career mentors: Hertha Dawn Sweet Wong, U.C. Berkeley; Meredith Steinbach, Brown University; Sandra McPherson, U.C. Davis

Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: “Cultivate empathy and listen. Understand the cultures of your campus. Share your passion for teaching and research.”

When Dr. Karen An-Hwei Lee was a first-grader, she enjoyed writing and illustrating chapbooks under the instruction of a “wonderful teacher” who guided her creativity as she produced books about butterflies and seeds. “I’ve been writing ever since,” she says. “I started keeping journals; writing letters.”

But as a member of a family of scientists, the Massachusetts native attended a high school with a nationally competitive science program and entered Brown University as a pre-med biochemistry major. Nevertheless, her passion for writing prevailed. She enrolled in one creative writing workshop after another.

“I kept returning to my love for writing. …This work culminated in an honors thesis,” she recalls of her years at Brown, where she went on to earn her bachelor’s in literary arts and an M.F.A. in creative writing. Lee earned a Ph.D. in literature in 2001 from the University of California, Berkeley, where she was the recipient of a coveted Cota-Robles Fellowship in English.

As a full professor at Vanguard University, Lee heads the English Department and co-leads the university’s diversity committee.

Vanguard is a private, Christian, liberal arts and professional studies institution in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Lee was drawn to the campus of just under 2,000 students for those reasons. She speaks frankly about how faith plays an important role in her work as an educator and writer. Her faith, she contends, is “rooted in dynamic multicultural communities — Korean Presbyterians in the charismatic vein and African-American Pentecostals.”

Her words to live by are from 2 Corinthians: “Live by faith, not by sight.” Her highly acclaimed 2004 book of poetry, In Medias Res, was described by publisher Sarabande Books as “an investigation into how God hides in language.” In Medias Res won the 2005 Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America and was a Kathryn A. Morton Prize winner.

Her latest book, Ardor, is a 70-page poem made up of letters and prayers. While writing and publishing prolifically, Lee views her most exciting work as teaching and advising students, especially as director of the university’s writing center.

“I just like coming into work every day, hanging out with students. I try to spend a lot of one-on-one time with them.”

Her own inspiration comes from iconic activist Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Lee’s own activist spirit has caught fire at Vanguard, where she organized two major events for students in the past year — a breast cancer fundraiser and a regional literature conference.

“The conference was wonderful for the university,” says Kelly Kannwischer, Vanguard’s vice president for university advancement. “She deeply cares about her students, knows them all by name, and she is not frustrated by a student who comes in and may not have had a strong writing background. She finds that to be an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Lee has received many honors, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant. In addition to the Farber and Morton prizes, she has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. Most notably, Lee has had more than three dozen journal publications, and she has been included in several anthologies.

Most recently Lee’s work is included in The Best Spiritual Writing 2012.

Lee is working on projects related to transnational feminism in the Asian diaspora. “I’m interested in how innovative language arises from the margins of difference or ‘boundaries,’ weaving multilayered hybridizations and migrations. I also dwell at the intersection of disciplines, examining the narration of healing journeys in different fields of knowledge, medical or miraculous, as forms of witness.”

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