Michelle Ye Hee Lee navigates her journalism career with the help of AAJA
by Caroline Lobel
An 18-year-old Korean American uncertain about a journalism career met CNN anchor Richard Lui while living stateside and alone for the first time. Inspired by seeing an Asian American on air, Michelle Ye Hee Lee soon found an entire community of people similar to her.
Lee, who grew up in Guam, has been involved with journalism since age 15, when she joined a local newspaper internship program for teens. She later moved to the states to attend Emory University, where she earned a degree in international studies and English. In her first year at college, she joined the Asian American Journalists Association’s Atlanta chapter. That provided her with an avenue to meet professional journalists in the U.S. for the first time and to be part of a diverse community with shared interests and experiences.
“When I graduated from college, I knew that I always wanted to give back to AAJA the moment I could,” said Lee, who’s the Washington Post’s incoming Tokyo Bureau Chief. “I believe so much in creating this community and building this community and being a part of it and growing from it and helping others grow from it because there’s nothing like it.”
In college, she received a student scholarship to attend an AAJA convention. After graduating and relocating to Phoenix for her first job, as a government accountability reporter at The Arizona Republic, she organized a garage sale to raise money so college students could have the same experience.
Aside from volunteering, Lee has held numerous leadership roles within AAJA, moving from the Arizona chapter board to the national board. On the national board, she served as National Secretary during Paul Cheung’s presidency. Now, she’s in her second term as AAJA President.
She has steered the nonprofit all while working for the Washington Post, which she joined in 2014. She began as the newsroom’s “Fact Checker” before becoming a reporter on their foreign desk. She officially starts her Tokyo role in August.
Over the years, she’s learned a number of lessons in the field. The stories that stick with her “are the ones where someone gave me the opportunity to experience life with them and understand their life, especially during times of great vulnerability, or pain or tragedy or change.”
One of the most challenging moments occurred recently amid the rise of Asian hate crimes within the U.S., particularly the shootings in Atlanta. Lee said she placed emphasis on the victims and their families in her coverage. Using her lens as a Korean American journalist, she also worked with AAJA to provide mental health resources to the AAPI community following the shooting.
She said the nonprofit has been by her side every step of the way.
“I just don’t know where I would be without AAJA, as a person, as a journalist, as a friend, as a leader,” Lee said.