After her family fled war-torn Laos and started a new life in Wisconsin, Mai J. Lo Lee felt something was off.
Here, in her new home, Lee noticed a distinct lack of Asian American women in key leadership positions.
So she took matters into her own hands, and became one.
Lee, ‘07, is the diversity director at UW-Green Bay. In August, she was named one of Wisconsin’s 48 most influential Asian American leaders by Madison 365, a nonprofit online news outlet.
The honor is a source of both gratification and discomfort for Lee, who says she has an aversion to being recognized.
“I come from a patriarchal society where women aren’t highlighted as leaders or for the work they do,” she explains. “I’m very proud of my community service, but it’s been a challenge for me to remove those barriers and just allow good work to be recognized. I’ve tried to be especially conscious of that because I have a 7-year-old daughter, and I’m always curious who she sees as a leader.”
In her role at UWGB, Lee is a liaison between multi-ethnic students and the university, assisting with retention efforts, academic support services and the creation of leadership opportunities.
Her department is especially busy now, at a time when the United States is experiencing a national reckoning on racism, social injustice and police brutality. And then there’s the pandemic.
“We’ve had to balance educating and being physically present with our students, with making sure we’re not endangering them with COVID-19,” she notes. “When we listen to our students, a lot of them just feel lost on the issues. They’ve had these very rosy glasses on and maybe thought that racism was dead or not present. This is their first time being engaged in protests and seeing the damage and riots that have taken place.”
Lee’s guidance on these issues does not end at the borders of campus. She is an active member of her community, serving on several local boards and volunteering with organizations in and around Green Bay.
While she has always been internally motivated to help others, Lee says she is indebted to the faculty at UW-La Crosse. She was inspired by a number of professors, she says, while earning her master’s degree in UWL’s Student Affairs Administration program.
“Whether it was Barbara Stewart or Thomas Harris, they really helped me see everything through the lens of social justice,” she says. “I always tell my students that the root of my work really started at UWL, and it allowed me to branch out.”