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CLA Dean's Medalist 2017

History’s Erika Lee
April 19, 2017

Portrait: Erika Lee pictured in front of an embroidered tapestry depicting Hmong history

Portrait: Erika Lee pictured in front of an embroidered tapestry depicting Hmong history
Erika Lee, Distinguished McKnight Professor and CLA Dean's Medalist 2017

Professor Erika Lee can claim many titles: path-breaking researcher, innovative and highly sought-after public intellectual, award-winning author, and director of one of the College of Liberal Arts’ most prestigious units, the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). 

Add to that: The Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History, a University of Minnesota Distinguished McKnight Professor, founder of the Immigrant Stories project, and organizer of the recently launched #ImmigrationSyllabus website

Unifying her many roles and projects, says Professor Lee, is a central mission: “To contribute to and expand the larger narrative of American history.” She explains, “I focus on peoples who have largely been excluded. I examine that question of ‘what is an American?’ I look at who gets to ‘count’ in American history.” 

“I am so proud to be a part of the journey of students who are telling the histories of their communities for the first time. They are doing ethnographies, archival research, and asking hard questions. They are publishing some of the very first books in their fields.”

Arriving fresh from her PhD program at UC Berkeley 19 years ago, Lee thrived on what was a rapidly-changing campus. “I came at such a great time—the University and the College were hiring wonderful faculty who specialized in the study of race, law, gender, sexuality, and also Asian American studies.”

Her research honed in on migration, race, and ethnicity; Asian Americans; transnational US history; and immigration law and public policy. She has published widely and her award-winning books have broad national and international influence. Her latest, 2015’s The Making of Asian America: A History, was named an “Editor’s Choice” by the New York Times, a Best Nonfiction Book of 2015 by the Kirkus Reviews, and was awarded the 2015 -2016 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Adult Non-Fiction from the American Library Association.

Lee has discovered new sources of historical research and developed new frameworks that have changed the way scholars understand and write American and global history. Along the way, she has mentored a new generation of new scholars.

“I am so proud to be a part of the journey of students who are telling the histories of their communities for the first time. They are doing ethnographies, archival research, and asking hard questions,” she says. “They are publishing some of the very first books in their fields.”

The focus and scope of her work made Lee a natural fit as the IHRC’S director, a role she took on in 2012. An interdisciplinary research center, it is world-renowned for its work promoting interdisciplinary research in migration, race, and ethnicity, and advancing public dialogue. Her position at IHRC has only increased Lee’s passion for public scholarship.

She is often interviewed in prominent media outlets and gives many national and international talks, always aiming, as she says, “To contribute to our public conversation about immigration.” Of course, at a time when public discourse around immigration is politically charged and contentious, Lee’s prominence in the field means facing criticism.

“As a historian I can honestly say that we are living through one of the most divisive immigration debates in our history,” she says, “It brings with it some incredible challenges as well as opportunities.”  

Shortly after the presidential elections, Lee teamed up with scholars across the country and the University of Minnesota Libraries to create the #ImmigrationSyllabus, an online educational resource packed with immigration history, research, and analysis. “I was looking for a way to share our expertise with the public, and to do so beyond the typical academic avenues,” she explains. 

It launched on January 26, one day after President Trump signed his first two executive orders on immigration and a day before his third executive order banning immigration from seven mostly Muslim countries and halting the US’s refugee resettlement program. In the weeks and months since, the website has gotten almost 40,000 hits in 75 different countries.

Current and potential changes in immigration policy and enforcement will fuel Lee’s work in the years to come. She has just begun a new book project on the history of xenophobia in the United States from the colonial era to the present, looking for the roots and causes of today’s divisive and anti-immigrant public rhetoric. 

“Americans often view our history as one of progress,” she says, “I, too, thought many things had changed. But today’s debate indicates that we’ve lost sight of how xenophobia has never gone away; it’s just evolved, and in some ways, expanded.”  

Though studying xenophobia can be disturbing, Lee also finds hope. “If xenophobia has been something that we have produced, it’s also something that we can dismantle.”

“I have this very clear commitment,” Lee says, “To demonstrate how history really matters. History is not a static ‘thing’ that happened in the past; it is something that’s happening now, and it’s something that we have the power to shape.”