The biggest lie Eunkyu Lee ever told his parents was that he’d only stay in the U.S. for two years before moving back to South Korea.
Lee graduated from Duke University with a master’s degree in business and thought he’d gain some work experience before returning to his hometown of Seoul, South Korea. That turned into a doctoral degree in marketing at Duke and a job as a professor at Seattle University. Throughout his career, Lee always considered returning to South Korea and thought of living in the U.S. as a learning experience rather than a permanent residence.
But Lee never returned to South Korea. And now as a marketing professor at Syracuse University, he appreciates the freedom — not necessarily political freedom, but openness to exchanging ideas, that the U.S. offers.
“Just pursuing your own life rather than being shaped by your surroundings too much,” Lee said. “I think that kind of individualistic way has certain pros and cons. But I think those are the things that really made me attracted to pursuing a career here.”
These qualities inspired Lee to study abroad in the U.S. in the first place. After earning a business degree at Seoul National University, Lee went to Duke in 1985 as a chance not only to work at Wall Street but to push himself out of his comfort zone and expose himself to other cultures and people with different backgrounds.
“Probably that was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.
At Duke, he found large differences between the university environment in the U.S. versus Seoul National University. Students were more talkative and interactive, and for the first time in his life, his grades were based on participation. He also had to adjust to cultural differences such as calling professors by their first names, which felt awkward at first and overcoming his insecurity about his English speaking abilities.
“Even during the first month, my reflex would make me bow whenever I saw a professor in the hallway,” Lee said. “I was really experiencing the clash of two different cultures, especially my only month of studying in the U.S. for the first time.”
After teaching at Seattle University and the University of British Columbia, Lee joined SU in 2000 as a professor in brand management. Since then, he has won a Whitman Dean’s Research fellowship and has become the Associate Dean for Global Initiatives at Whitman, where he coordinates the college’s efforts to become more globalized through research and partnerships.
Lee said the Whitman faculty are open to diverse views and backgrounds. But while he appreciates the commitment to diversity on a university level, he’d like to see more opportunities for open dialogue where the community members can have honest conversations and learn from each other. Lee said currently, people may not speak up about the challenges they face or the lack of understanding they may have, in fear of backlash. But he hopes more open discussions will encourage people to have those tough, but necessary conversations.
Lee said when he was an international student at Duke, his focus was on fitting in and getting through school as a student. But as a faculty member at SU, he is more mindful of the impact he may have on others. With the rise in anti-Asian hate in the country and the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, he thinks more often about how he can become a resource to Asian students, he said.
“Those things kind of sensitize me kind of get into a little bit more about how I can kind of help others who want to discuss those who are experiencing difficulties.”