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Diversity making a difference: Kevin Lee provides support to students through advising and representation

Seeing little representation of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in academia as a student, Honors College Academic Advisor Kevin Lee dedicated his life to providing that mentorship to students. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/USF

This story is part of a continuing series that features leaders at USF during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

For Judy Genshaft Honors College academic advisor Kevin Lee, fostering a community of support through compassionate leadership has always been a place of personal significance.

Emigrating from South Korea to the Chicago suburbs as a child, Lee reflected that a majority of his upbringing was spent balancing his identity between his Korean heritage and newfound American environment.

“[My family and I] were pretty involved in Korean and Korean-American churches, so I was regularly surrounded by people that looked like me,” Lee said. “I never really faced any challenges or successes in the sense of my identity being of Asian descent.”

It wasn’t until Lee was in graduate school at University of the Pacific when he was given a new perspective on the importance of being in spaces where he was represented.

“When I got my master’s, I had my first Asian supervisor. Not until then [did] I realize that I really have to deconstruct my identities,” Lee said. “What does it mean to be an Asian American? What does it mean to be East Asian, the intersectionalities of being an immigrant male and queer?”

Following this realization, Lee said he went through a challenging journey of consolidating his identity.

“It was a lot of nights not sleeping, lots of therapy and lots of long talks with close friends, supervisors and mentors. Some of the more challenging aspects that first came was the whole coming out process, with adding on multiple layers of what it means to come out if you’re an immigrant, and how that affects your whole family dynamic,” he said.

“There’s [been] endless nights of thinking [about] my Asian identity the past couple of years with the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes … so I think that part of my identity has been really focused on how I can give back to Asian community. And that’s for me, being an educator and an advocate.”

Having his first mentor of Asian descent in graduate school also made Lee realize there was a lack of diversity in academic representation, causing him to struggle finding role models he could relate to.

This understanding led him to begin seeking support in other minority groups, leaning on his intersecting identities to feel less alone. Eventually, their impact on his journey helped influence his desire for his future career.

“Through [graduate school], it wasn’t as specific as looking for Asian mentors or anything like that, but specifically the people of color, other LGBTQ individuals and women,” Lee said.

“They really helped pave the way for me to not feel as alone as a student. To want that support and someone that looks like me as professors, mentors, leaders and supervisors. So that’s kind of what led me into the field of higher education and student affairs.”

Following his introduction to USF in 2018 as an academic advisor, Lee advised over 300 students in the Honors College.

Lee had to regularly listen to and counsel students from varying walks of life, a responsibility that Erik Mundy, USF contracts analyst and Lee’s husband, said was the perfect role for him.

“Kevin is very personable. And with being an academic advisor, especially, he’s someone who really takes the time to listen and get to know people,” he said. “He’s very much a social butterfly in the sense that he can really go up to anyone and have a meaningful conversation with anyone that he interacts with.”

During his career at USF, Lee said a particular point of pride in his work was creating a new honors course for the college’s study abroad program with his colleague, Ky Pontious.

“[Pontious and I] created a new honors course on Korean culture and identity. We didn’t get to go abroad due to COVID, but just being able to create a course that students have provided so much positive feedback for shows that there’s a need for more diverse courses,” he said.

The class included high impact and experiential learning activities to help students gain a better understanding of South Korean culture. For senior chemistry student Nia Martin, the class was not only enjoyable because of this curriculum, but also because of Lee’s instruction.

“I have always been pretty interested in Korea, but he just gave a different perspective of it being a Korean American,” she said. “Minority figures in the Honors College are very important, we need representation of everyone there. But he’s also easy to relate to. Even as an advisor, you feel comfortable talking to him.”

While being an advisor, Lee shared that he had the opportunity to participate in a number of organizations that allowed him to broaden his work on campus.

Some of Lee’s work takes place in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA), an institute dedicated to student affairs, professional development and policy advocacy.

“I have been involved in NASPA’s Asian Pacific Islander Knowledge Community, or employee research group in volunteering capacities,” Lee said.

“For me, being a part of NASPA gives me the opportunity to connect with other professionals to share best practices and advocate for common causes in the field. I am also on the NASPA 2023 Conference Leadership Committee, a planning committee for the 2023 annual conference in Boston.”

On campus, Lee serves as chair for the Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American Council, staff advisor for the Asian Students in America (ASIA) and facilitator for the Safe Zone Training Program.

For Lee, the work was not always easy, but he felt like it was his way of giving back.

“My mission here at USF is to make change where I can,” he said. “I hope to start and continue the conversation that we need to dive a little bit deeper on just going past the checkoff box of being Asian and being Pacific Islander and seeing where the students need the most support.”