By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
When asked about a pivotal memory from growing up, Chung-hyung Lee, an honoree of this year’s Top Contributors to the Asian Community Awards, reached back to her childhood in Seoul, where she lived until age 36, when she immigrated to Moscow, Idaho with her husband and three children.
“In Korea, junior high and high school students take their year-ending finals, and all the students are ranked within their school’s respective class year,” she explained.
“After earning a top score for two years in a row, my junior high homeroom teacher encouraged me to pursue higher education and a career. This acknowledgement and encouragement to a female teenager was rare in the 1950s in Korea, and I felt inspired to dream and envision myself as someone more than a wife, mother, and homemaker.”
Lee recalls her parents as passionate, encouraging, and surprisingly free of conventional notions for Korean women at that time. She was the middle child of six.Her parents dubbed her “the smart one.” Armed with high scores on her college entrance exam, she entered Ewha Womans University.
Ewha, founded in Seoul in 1886, is a private university for women, founded by the American Methodist Episcopal Church. The university provides both bachelor’s degrees and graduate school education to Korean women of all backgrounds in Liberal Arts and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.
Lee earned a degree in pharmacy from the university. She credits a female biochemistry teacher at Ewha for setting her on that path.
“I was awestruck by her knowledge, and it was influential in my choice to pursue a degree in pharmacy.”
Ewha, its name taken from the Korean word for “pear blossoms,” is the largest female educational institute in the world. Lee began working for the Seattle chapter of the university’s Alumnae Association in the 1980s, after relocating to the city.
The Seattle chapter had, at that point, 10 members. Lee worked very hard, often with shoestring budgets, to build the chapter and prepare it to award scholarships out of its own pocket.
“I am extremely proud of our members’ energy and talent,” she summed up. “In 2010, after years of fundraising, the Seattle chapter established its own scholarship fund for Washington state college students, to promote Korean history and cultural awareness.”
Currently, the Seattle chapter’s membership is more than 200 members strong. It is an active member of the Ewha Alumnae Association of North America and funds scholarships both abroad in South Korea and locally in Washington state.
In 2008, utilizing the talents of Seattle Ewha alumnae, the Seattle chapter successfully campaigned for and hosted the annual Ewha Alumnae Association of North America membership meeting that was attended by more than 300 members from across the United States.
As summed up by Seungja Y. Song, who nominated Lee for the Top Contributors honor, Lee transformed the local chapter from an ordinary alumni organization into a vital resource through imaginative programs and wide-ranging fundraising events in the community.
These include concerts, photographic exhibitions, and an annual day-long bazaar, including a variety of homemade, delicate, and exotic Korean food and desserts contributed by members. Comprehensive activities are planned each year by the leadership team, with Lee at the head.
Outside experts are frequently invited for lectures during monthly meetings on topics of current interest, such as women’s health, advice on taxes, finances, retirement, and the history of fine arts. Within the chapter, special interest groups carry out activities, such as hiking, mountain climbing, golf, travel, East Asian fine arts, photography, calligraphy, and museum trips, with monthly reports to the chapter.
When asked her thoughts on Seattle’s Asian community, Lee opined that when she first moved to Seattle, she felt there was a separation between the ethnic groups within Seattle. That line of separation has blurred over the years, in her view, which she attributes to our younger generation’s open-mindedness and community vision.
“It’s good to see the Seattle Asian community supporting and learning from each other. When we partner together as a community, I feel we can advocate for each other and have a bigger voice.”
Chung-hyung Lee will be honored on Dec. 2 at the Northwest Asian Weekly’s annual Top Contributors Awards Dinner, held at the House of Hong Restaurant in Chinatown.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.