Kayla Lee

Meet the Fellows


Front row (left to right): Naomi Sternstein, Kayla Lee, Karen Nguyen, You Bin Maeng, Ariel Hoffmaier, Amber James, Lauren Yan; back row (left to right): Mary Catherine (Casey) Devine, Ian Sears, David Beinhart, Yong H. Kim, Isabel Bleimeister

In early May, members of the 2016-17 group of Honors Fellows joined the 2017-18 cohort for lunch, where they discussed their challenges and successes and offered pointers to the new group.

Attendees included David Beinhart, Isabel Bleimeister, Mary Catherine (Casey) Devine, Ariel Hoffmaier, Amber James, Yong H. Kim, Kayla Lee, You Bin Maeng, Karen Nguyen, Ian Sears, Naomi Sternstein and Lauren Yan.

Working with Unanticipated Elements That Become a Part of My Own Narrative


Fall 2014 FORGE semester outing with our refugee family

Each week, I open up the thesis proposal I wrote in March to re-evaluate my research goals and scroll down to the timetable that I’d created with my adviser.

Looking at it, I’m realizing that I need to adjust the deadlines I’d set for myself. There were several unanticipated bumps along the road that had kept me from completing the bulk of my fieldwork for my research by the end of September.

I felt disappointed and frustrated. Now that I had classes Monday through Friday, I wondered whether or not I could make up for a few months of fieldwork. For days, I contemplated over how I would reallocate my timetable and it proved to be extremely difficult. Without any data, I struggled to imagine the extent of my abilities to conduct interviews while juggling classes. It’s easy to schedule in time where I work on my literature review and put together my poster for a presentation for a Dietrich College Family Weekend event, but the interviews will require a few hours that include commute time, the actual duration of the interview and the time it will take for me to transcribe the recorded interview and reflect on the interviews as part of the analysis.

The longer I wait for the IRB to approve of my study, the more anxious I am. Whenever anyone asks me how my research is going, I feel a knot in my stomach because all I’ve accomplished in the last week is adding a few more articles to my annotated bibliography.

I still see my FORGE family on the weekends and it’s amazing how a few hours with them helps me relax. I relax because the conversations I have with them are not about my research. I relax because I can sit on their couch with them and watch Hindi movies without subtitles. I relax because they’re looking forward to celebrating the upcoming Nepali holiday. I relax because being present with them reminds me why I was motivated in the first place to pursue my thesis.

I’m looking forward to my weekends as soon as my IRB proposal is approved, because I will be having conversations with a community that reminds me of the importance of the present.

It’s ironic to me that as I constantly think about narrative inquiry, one of the methods I am using for my research, I realize that it’s much easier to talk the talk than walk the walk. Narrative inquiry is a methodology that encourages researchers to value the lived experiences of their subjects.

Lekkie Hopkins, who advocates using narrative inquiry in refugee research, wrote, “Researchers must understand that if storying is to grapple with the richness and complexity of lived experience, it will probably be chaotic and messy, as well as clear and straightforward. Researchers wanting to investigate the sociology of refugee experiences might be well advised to ensure that the stories they gather from research participants are not too neat, too straightforward, too much reduced to bare essentials in their telling, lest the chance to allow the stories to become personally and politically resonant be lost.”

I remember reading Lekkie Hopkins in March of this year and interestingly, I’m looking back at her abstract and making a connection to my own narrative as well as the narratives of the refugees I hope to hear soon. My own narrative, or my own lived experience, will be messy and chaotic at times and that’s how it should be.

I know that this sounds cliché, but it really is important to live in the present. Too much time is spent organizing, and reorganizing, my Google calendar. I’ve adjusted my timetable, come to terms with it and moved on.

Learning From Refugee Youth

Student example from Story Exchange

Student example from Story Exchange

“There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature; the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. In short, it was conversation.”

– Studs Terkel

As I continue to prepare to conduct interviews (which will likely begin around the same time as fall semester), I’ve been working with PRYSE Academy, which stands for Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment. At PRYSE, we encourage the students to tell stories through a variety of media. The story doesn’t have to be their own, however, it usually ends up being their own, and it usually begins with “I like…” The PRYSE Academy students have given me some ideas about narrative inquiry before I’ve even begun the interviews.

The students, who are in middle and high school, love talking about themselves. Last week, we had educators teach a workshop on storytelling. Rather than giving each of the students lined paper, the students were given a large piece of white construction paper. The instructions were simple: At the top of the paper, write “I am…” and fill the rest of the paper with words, pictures, or drawings of your own. They were asked to answer the question, “Who are you?” through words and pictures creatively. As expected, many of them began with their name. The educators encouraged them to use adjectives to finish the sentence as well. However, very few chose to complete the sentence, “I am…” Rather, the students completed the question, “I like…”

Using a variety of craft supplies including markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, glue and glitter, the students made collages covered in soccer balls, music artists and food – posters of what they liked. When they are asked to talk about themselves and who they are, the first things that come to their minds are what they like and what they are passionate about.

From the combination of words and drawings on the students’ posters, the students were asked to share a narrative that showed a little bit about who they were. This was the most difficult part for the students, but their poster boards served as an outline for their narrative. One student had drawn himself playing soccer and basketball. He had his arms crossed unsure of what was being asked of him.

He said, “I don’t have a story to tell.”

I asked, “Why do you like soccer?”

He clasped his hands together, placed them under his chin and said, “I tried out for my middle school team and got in. That’s it.”

“Tell me more about the team. Do you like playing with your team?”

“Yes! We won our first game by 20 points! That felt great.”

“That’s great!”

“But then we lost our last game of the season…”


“But that’s not important, because I had fun.”

We had a story. We spent a little more time piecing together more details for the presentation. His narrative shows his peers his favorite sport as well as a glimpse into who he is – a team player. It took a bit of time for him to find the pieces of his story to tell.

The narrative process is not an easy one that will simply come to my interviewees. They won’t be middle and high school students; however, the Bhutanese-Nepali adults will also need time to piece together their own narratives. Narratology and narrative inquiry researchers agree that the interviewee should get the opportunity to express himself about the things that matter to him. This is often called “nondirection.” The interviewer should not always try to steer the interviewee into one direction. However, the interviewer should never lose control of the interview.

Just as I let the PRYSE Academy students navigate their own stories through creative processes on the topic of identity, it may be beneficial for my interviews to prepare example narratives on the topic of economic self-sufficiency, which will give them time to think about how to begin forming their narratives around this topic. This will hopefully keep what researchers call “specificity” in play during the interviews. For me, this means listening for what the interviewees want to talk about and ask follow-up questions about specifics when appropriate. Interviewing is a skill that I am working on and hope to develop through this research. I’m learning to do this with the students where they often make it very clear to us when something does or does not matter to them.

Learn more about my project.

Empowering Through Storytelling

The act of creating and sharing a narrative is a powerful experience. It’s a shared experience between the narrator and their audience. This relationship between the narrator and their audience is an intimate one.

Asking someone to share with me a story is not foreign. I’ve been doing it with one refugee family for years now as an in-home mentor. I no longer consider myself a mentor; I’d say it’s more accurate to call me a family friend. It’s as if we have an unwritten template. Hi, how was your day? What did you this week? Tell me something exciting that happened to you this week. One question never fails to excite the father of the family: How is work?

His eyes light up. He grins, straightens his posture and clears his throat. This is the beginning of his storytelling process. His narrative could start anywhere: How he’s feeling, maybe explaining where those feelings came from. Sometimes, he includes words that I don’t understand, but I prefer to avoid interrupting the flow as long as I understand the general storyline. He works at a drycleaner and they have codes for referencing the many articles of clothing.

He says, “I need 64 white. My co-worker needs 64 white. He gives me 64 white from the clothing rack.” As he talks about his interactions with his co-workers, he mentions “64 white” multiple times. Then, he pauses.

He must’ve noticed my confused expression, because he chuckles and says, “64 white? All clothes are identified by a number and a color.”

I notice his body language. In his story, he talked about the different materials with which he had to work. When describing the thickness of the material, he said “thick,” and held up his hands about six inches apart. Each time he said “thin,” he held up his hands only about an inch apart. Each hand gesture was followed by a smile of confidence and I would nod to show that I understood. My own body language contributed to the process of his storytelling. I nodded at certain times to show that I understood what he had said. When I tilt my head, he immediately stops, backtracks and takes a moment to retell that segment a different way.

I was not his only audience member. His daughter sat beside me and reacted. She asked questions in Nepali and then asked again in English for me. She and I often nodded at the same time. His storytelling served a different purpose for everyone in the room. As I prepare for more interviews for my research, I practice listening and interviewing skills. How can I improve upon my interviewing skills in order to make the interviewees feel comfortable and excited to share with me their experiences? For his daughter, she gets to hear about his experience at work. The father-daughter relationship grows as she learns about a part of his life that she doesn’t get to see. And finally, for him as the storyteller, he is empowered. He is given assurance and confidence to tell us about his life.

I think back to three years ago, when the father of this family didn’t say much and was often shy to repeat vocabulary words. Today, he shares with confidence. Today, he’s more comfortable talking about life and about himself.

When he ended his story, his daughter said, “’My dad uses a lot of actions. I think it shows confidence.” She is referring to his hand gestures he used throughout his story. The two of them laugh and threw their hands up in the air to mimic the way he talked with his hands.




Preparing for a Conversation

Kayla Lee - ConversationPreparing open-ended questions and then developing follow-up questions that anticipate the kinds of narratives that could be brought into the interviews is a challenge. It is especially challenging when I am simultaneously redefining my role and presence within a community that is familiar with me.

The first few interviews will be with a family who I have known since my freshman year at CMU. Over the years, I’ve been an in-home mentor to the family, helping with everything from teaching them the English alphabet to demonstrating how coupons work at the grocery store. The countless stories they’ve already shared with me during the weekend visits may have to be retold within the more formal context of my research.

Just the other day, the family turned their television on and shared with me an hour-long video they had produced during their time in the refugee camps in Nepal. It was as if I was taking a walk through the camp with the family. I noticed everyone featured in the film looked a bit younger; it had to have been filmed at least four years ago. This was the first time they shared with me about their lives in the refugee camp. They didn’t have to say much; the sounds and moving images spoke for themselves. Occasionally, someone would stand up and point excitedly to the screen whenever he or she made an appearance. The shared experience in reliving the past with the family that only took place just a few years ago reminded me of why I chose to take a narrative approach for my research project.

For the most part, I watched the video. What fascinated even more was what was happening in the living room I was in. The family and I were sitting on a couch watching the television screen. This was not just for me. I think they enjoy sharing with me a part of my past in this creative way, but more importantly, it is a chance for them to remember. The act of remembering is a powerful tool for humans. People keep journals, take photographs, film short videos and tell stories with others in order to document the memories. It is an empowering tool for humans to be able to remember. For the refugee family, it is especially important for them to share the past with someone who is a part of their new community in Pittsburgh.

For a family who I consider to be friends and know me, what should my first question be? I will need to formally ask them for consent and ask them for biographical information – most of which I already know. Throughout the process of preparation, I realized how important it is to be intentional in forming each of the questions as well as the follow-up questions. I want them to feel empowered as they share their narratives with me.

A great interviewer is someone who makes the interviewee forget that he or she is in an interview. I will need to redefine my role as a researcher with this loving family while maintaining the valuable relationship that I have already developed with them.

I discovered that a lot of my inspiration in preparing for these interviews comes from ESL teachers who work with refugees. English teachers understand the importance of storytelling within the classroom. This derives from the idea of creating a lasting relationship with a new language. I will leave with you one particular experience from an ESL teacher stood out to me this week.

“As we struggled through the first writing assignments, I rejoiced as I saw the tentative beginning of their voices, powerful voices struggling for the words to speak their hearts.” –Approaches to Adult ESL Literacy Instruction.

Walking in Someone Else’s Words

Kayla Lee photo 1

Classroom in Temuco, Chile

The first time I was alone and taking field notes for an independent research project was in rural Chile. I spent about a month observing and talking with students and teachers, many of whom spoke an endangered indigenous language as well as Spanish. The school that I worked with was a multicultural institution whose students were 99-percent indigenous. I remember feeling unprepared as I wandered onto the school grounds the first day, not knowing how I’d be perceived: a small Asian girl carrying a notebook and pen.

In addition to my notebook and pen, I had my phone which I used to record all of the conversations I shared with people. That was all I used for my interviews with students and teachers. As I asked a few questions that I had prepared, I took mental notes, because I discovered that the most organic conversations happened when the sound of a pen being scribbled on paper wasn’t creating a wall between the interviewee and me.

A year has gone by since that incredible experience where I learned a great deal about the preservation of a culture and language within an academic setting. Students and faculty shared their stories with me. I haven’t started the conversation with the refugees in Pittsburgh yet, but I’m already preparing myself for the moment I begin; the moment where I step into their lives and begin several months of conversation.

I enjoy reflecting on life experiences. I believe that reflection brings life back to the memories and creates a space where I can rediscover myself as well as those around me. Reading my field notes, listening to the hours of interviews on my phone and looking at photos that I’d taken in Chile, I’m hooked. I’m reliving each of those interviews as I hear my own voice becoming more confident with each interview. I hear silences where the interviewee takes a moment to really think about what they want to say, well aware of the fact that they are being recorded. The voices are the only things I have left, but they say so much.

I want to share one particular interview that struck me. He was a history teacher who spoke with me a few times. The first interaction felt stiff as he talked for an hour about the history of the school. The second, he sang for me. I didn’t include this encounter in the academic paper that I had written, because at the time, I didn’t see the content being relevant to the research question with which I was working. When I look back at my decision to ignore this interaction, I wonder if I chose to ignore it because I couldn’t understand where he was coming from. Beyond the words and the actual content, the man that shared with me the history of the school had suddenly taken on a new persona and performed an original piece for me. As he sang, he’d become a different part of himself; this wasn’t what I was looking for a year ago.

I was reminded of one of my inspirations, Anna Deavere Smith, a playwright and actress. She interviews individuals who will become characters in her plays and listens to them. Rather than learning to walk in those individuals’ shoes, Smith prefers to learn to walk in their words. I bring this up, because this resonates with me as I listened to the year-old recording of the singing historian and prepare to create more in the next few months as I begin my research this summer through the Dietrich Honors Fellowship. I will never completely understand a stranger’s position unless I am that stranger, but I shouldn’t shy away from that. As someone studying anthropology, I am learning to embrace that. I will always be an outsider doing research and the best that I can do is to listen and really listen to their words. After all, I am not asking them to share with me their shoes; I am asking them to share with me their words.

Learn more about my current research.

Towards a Theory of Refugee Self-Sufficiency

kayla-lee_201x201I found my interest in the topic of refugees when a translator from Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JF&CS) introduced me to a Bhutanese-Nepali family of four during my freshman year at Carnegie Mellon. My participation in Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment (FORGE), the student organization that volunteers with refugee families through JF&CS, was an opportunity to immerse myself in the Pittsburgh community, off-campus, through civic engagement.

Two and a half years later, the family is my family away from home. As a freshman, I found the first couple of encounters awkward. Instead of conversations, the visits consisted largely of me talking and asking questions in English only to receive four blank stares. They saw me as their weekly English teacher, despite the fact that I had no formal training in teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). This perception has drastically changed over the years from a distant teacher-student relationship to one closer to a family friend. I discovered that our relationship was not only significant in their connection to the Pittsburgh community, but a connection that allowed them to share their own culture through stories. Saturdays no longer begin with a new list of vocabulary words and matching photographs; Saturdays are for storytelling. Today, the family can contribute to at least 50 percent of the conversations in English. They want to practice, but occasionally, I will ask them to share their own language with me. Usually, their eyes light up as they begin to find comfort in sharing a story in a familiar language.

FORGE has opened a lot of doors for me over the years, both personally and professionally. During my summers at home, I had the opportunity to intern with Jewish Family Services (JFS) of Seattle. It led me to declare Global Studies as my primary major and to come to Washington, D.C. in order to connect with the larger community that is working with immigration and refugee policy. Here, I see storytelling as a powerful tool in advocacy. A major part of my internship at the Center for American Progress (CAP) was collecting the stories of refugees and immigrants. The topic of immigration and refugee resettlement cannot be discussed without the myriad of stories told by the immigrants and refugees themselves. The stories are what paint the picture of a perpetually changing demographic.

As I am inspired by the stories of immigrants and refugees, my own story is not as easy. When an employer, for example, asks, “What is your personal story?” Intuitively, I want to start with, “I was born and raised in Seattle.” To someone I am meeting for the first time, it only makes sense to start from the very beginning. As I begin, I am simultaneously questioning the necessity of this introduction to a story that changes each time. Who cares about where I was born? Where will I take it from my place of birth? How do I make this conversation more engaging? Rather than talking about myself, I often talk about the lives of others that affected me.

It was not until I listened and told the stories of others that I began to understand the importance of knowing my own. The immigration story of my parents is somewhere I like to begin, because this is how I connected with my Bhutanese-Nepali family. It took me a while to see the impact my parents’ immigration story had in making the connection with the family. Listening to stories can inspire and spark curiosity, and to find ways to tell my own has taught me to self-reflect, another important skill. Other people’s lives affected me in unexpected ways and their stories were always more interesting than mine. They shaped me and this realization allowed me to see that storytelling serves an important purpose for me; it helps me understand how I am the individual I am.