Undergraduate Academic Affairs

April 22, 2015

A passion for East Asian diplomacy

Audrey Lawrence

Back to the spring 2015 UAA e-newsletter >

“Korea-Japan relations hang by a hair.”

“Two Koreas return to confrontation mode.”

UW undergraduate Benjamin Lee in Taiwan for study abroad.

Lee visited Alishan National Scenic Area in Taiwan during his study abroad placement in 2013-14.Ben Lee

News headlines often imply fatalism about relations on the Korean peninsula, but University of Washington senior Benjamin Lee hopes to play a part in finding a peaceful resolution. A finalist this year for the Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellowship, he researches the similarities and differences between inter-Korean and cross-strait relations.

Fluency in Korean, Mandarin and English granted him access to a wider variety of sources during his research, including primary documents and even in-person interviews during his study abroad year in Taipei, Taiwan. With support from the UW Early Identification Program Presidential Scholarship and the Mary Gates Research Scholarship, he will present his Honors thesis on Taiwanese and South Korean diplomacy this May at the Undergraduate Research Symposium.

“I am very excited to share my research. A lot of scholars have compared how democratization differed between South Korea and Taiwan, but very few scholars have compared how South Korea handles North Korea and how Taiwan handles China. I felt I could contribute to existing scholarship in this way.”

Born to Korean parents in Bloomington, Indiana, he moved to College Station, Texas before settling with them in Seoul for middle school. However, given the intense focus on test taking in South Korea, he and his family agreed that he would move away from his family to live in Shoreline, WA—its close proximity to Asia made frequent visits were possible—so he could study in the U.S.

About the scholarships and fellowships

  • Carnegie Endowment Junior Fellowship: Designed to provide work experience and financial support to students with a serious interest in international affairs, this competitive, national one-year fellowship assigns fellows as research assistants to the endowment’s senior associates.
  • UW Early Identification Program Presidential Scholarship: Awarded by the UW Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity to undergraduates with clear scholastic achievement, interest in research and graduate degree goals. Funding supports three quarters of faculty-guided research.
  • Mary Gates Research Scholarship: Supporting two quarters of faculty-guided research, UW undergraduates awarded the Mary Gates Research Scholarship deepen their inquiry into a discipline or project and join a growing community of Mary Gates Scholars.
  • FLAS Fellowship: Undergraduates, graduate and professional students are eligible for this competitive national fellowship that supports the acquisition of modern foreign languages or international studies competencies.
  • Boren Scholarship: Funded by the National Security Education Program (NSEP), this national scholarship supports undergraduate study abroad in areas of the world that are critical to U.S. interests and typically underrepresented in study abroad.
  • Fritz Scholarship: Open to UW undergraduates from all three campuses, this scholarship supports study abroad for students with declared majors in social science or humanities.

If a solo international move in high school sounds bold, Lee can confirm.

“Living by myself in high school was very tough, but I think I matured through that…the freedom given to me came with a greater responsibility to my own life.”

Given his background and interests, upon arriving at the UW he immersed himself in The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies classes to help “contextualize the Korean conflict in a regional and global sense” and to deepen his understanding of international conflicts. He is pursuing departmental honors in international studies and in Chinese, for which he received a FLAS Fellowship in 2012-13. The award helped him deepen his Mandarin fluency, allowed him to focus solely on his studies and grew his confidence.

“It felt like the U.S. government recognized me as someone who is valuable and worth investing in,” says Lee. “I feel like I have a moral duty to meet that expectation.”

Though driven, Lee is modest about his academic achievements and unique background. Part of this comes naturally to the articulate and unpretentious undergrad, and some grew out of his experiences at UW. He vividly remembers meeting guest-speaker Robert Galucci, the Italian American academic and diplomat who was the chief U.S. negotiator during the North Korean nuclear crisis of 1994, who told him that intelligence helps any diplomat, but that humility is key.

He also learned to value constructive criticism from mentors like his advisor Associate Professor Deborah Porter, Professor Yong-Chool Ha and Professor David Bachman who critiqued, guided and helped him sharpen the focus of his thesis.

Beyond his dedication in the classroom, Taiwan was “a life changing experience for me,” Lee remembers, who spent the academic year abroad in Taipei as a 2013-14 Boren Scholar with additional support from a Fritz Scholarship. As the only student hailing from UW, he was pushed outside his comfort zone to befriend locals and practice his Mandarin. Inquisitive Taiwanese asked his opinions about the U.S. government shutdown while he heard their perspective on Chinese politics. He left feeling like an insider.

“I probably deepened my understanding about Taiwan more than any reading I could have done.”

On a personal level, it was reading the book “Wonder” by R.J. Palacio while abroad that resonated the most. To him, the book underscored that “the best way to make the world a better place is to be kinder to other people,” an idea which has clearly directed his undergraduate research and future career aspirations in diplomacy.

Just as he reflects thoughtfully about his own evolution at the UW, he also speaks with boundless enthusiasm about the future and how he might contribute to peace in East Asia. One gets the feeling that he is just getting started.

Back to the spring 2015 UAA e-newsletter >

University of Washington students like Benjamin Lee are supported by the Office of Merit Scholarships, Fellowships and Awards (OMSFA). OMSFA works with faculty, staff and student groups to identify and help promising students develop the skills and personal insights necessary to become strong candidates for local and national scholarships that help them expand their academic experience and follow their passions.