A Lifelong Learner and Traveler

Roy and Lila Ash Fellow Priscilla Lee


  • Maisie O'Brien

Priscilla Lee MPA 2016 holds up her phone displaying a picture of a beaming mom in a bright blue headscarf holding her newborn son. “This is Decca and Isaac,” she says. “I took these last week when I visited them in the hospital.”*

Decca, Lee explained, faced countless obstacles to starting a family. She was born in Somalia and lived much of her life on the move or in refugee camps before coming to the US where she was separated from her family for years. The two met when Decca enrolled in an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) class at the Community Learning Center in Cambridge where Lee was a teacher and administrator.

“When I met Decca she was very much alone,” Lee says. “Then, as now, much of her paycheck goes to supporting family members still abroad. We often talked about what she wanted to do with her life, and being in her late 30s what she really wanted was to have a baby, and the challenges before her were numerous. Seeing her holding Isaac was one of those wonderful miracle moments.”

During her long career developing and teaching educational programs for immigrants, Lee has known students like Decca through celebrations and joyful times, harsh setbacks and disappointments, birthdays, holidays, and graduations. “You’re never just a teacher,” she says. “You’re a learner with them. I’ve approached my own life choices with an equanimity gained equally through the experiences of others.”

The Community Learning Center where Lee worked for 25 years serves new immigrants as well as those in need of adult education. Twenty-three staff members, an equal number of part-time instructors, and a cadre of volunteers provide instruction in the areas of ESOL, HiSET (high school equivalency testing), US citizenship, workplace training, and college prep. Students are assigned an advisor who helps them set goals, gauge progress, and seek additional resources to support their endeavors.

The student demographics of the Learning Center reflect the diversity of Cambridge’s immigrant community, creating an atmosphere that Lee believes is particularly valuable. “In our beginning ESOL classes there might be 11 nationalities among 15 students,” she says. “You see the walls of ‘those people’ come down pretty quickly and within a few weeks everyone is learning and hanging out together. It’s incredible to witness the diversity coming together. People of different ethnicities, ages, and gender sharing resources and building social networks… it’s empowering.”

In many ways, the act of bridging boundaries across language and culture has always been a part of Priscilla’s life. Her parents emigrated from China and her mother worked as a math teacher, instilling in her an appreciation for learning and a constant curiosity about other cultures. “In high school, I traveled to South America with a group called Amigos de las Americas and that’s when the travel bug really kicked in,” she said.

“Being the only Asian family in a predominately white community, I always felt like an outsider, so traveling to a country where I didn’t look like anyone or speak the language was already familiar. It was like I had discovered a skill I didn’t know I had — a comfort in being different. Those early experiences also led me to realize the rewards of delivering public and human service.”

After graduating from Mount Holyoke College with an anthropology degree, Lee traveled across Europe, working technical jobs in a pewter workshop and a fine arts foundry. She then headed to Asia and taught ESOL for several years in Japan before moving to Thailand where she volunteered to work with teams of teachers, preparing Cambodian, Lao and Hmong refugees for a transition to American life. “My parents came to the US when their country was in turmoil,” she said. “I was glad to be in a position to help people who had also been displaced.”

In September, Lee entered Harvard Kennedy School as the Ash Center’s Roy and Lila Ash Fellow in recognition of her work improving democratic institutions and encouraging public participation. She is taking courses in negotiation, leadership, ethics, and public policy, while exploring international career paths after graduation including a possible return to work with refugees.

After years of teaching and working to support others, Lee has time to reflect on her vocational choices and what it means to give back. Her academic advisor is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy Marshall Ganz and she took his course “Public Narrative: Self. Us. Now” in the fall, which requires students to examine their personal histories and explore how they can be harnessed to advance social change. “It’s been a challenging course,” Lee says. “Opening up to my peers has been painful at times. I’ve worked with immigrants and refugees and marginalized populations. I’ve healed myself by doing healing work. I think that’s something that makes sense: Someone helped me, so I’m going to return the favor.”

Lee values the diversity and breadth of expertise present in the HKS community. “There’s an urgency to spending a year at the Kennedy School,” she says. “My classmates have such a wealth of experience and insight that I feel excited about making authentic connections quickly. One of the benefits of being at HKS is knowing  I’ll be tapped into a network of people from all over the world whom I can later call for advice and they’ll help me out; not because they’re financially motivated, but because they’re people who care. It’s a vibrant place and I’m very proud to be able to learn and contribute here.”

* The names of Lee’s student and the student’s son have been changed to protect their privacy.