Heller Profiles

The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University

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Pa Kong Lee

USA

MA-SID '15

AmeriCorps and Peace Corps service lead former refugee to Heller

Pa Kong Lee's strong belief in community service governs her career and life choices

Pa Kong Lee, MA-SID ’15, an experienced national service volunteer, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. During the Vietnam War, many Hmong people were recruited by the U.S. to help with the war effort. But they could not return to Laos after the American troop withdrawal from Vietnam, and many ended up without a place to live. Lee’s family, along with many others, spent years moving from refugee camp to refugee camp until an aunt living in the U.S. sponsored her family to migrate. So, when Lee was still a young girl, Minnesota became home. 

Lee’s family instilled strong community service values as she was growing up. “If you couldn’t give money, you could give time and that is priceless,” she says, and it made a lifelong impression that has governed her choices. 

Lee was extraordinarily grateful for the difference between their lives in Minnesota and the struggle in the camps. “I appreciate things others may take for granted, like being able to get an education,” she says about the juxtaposition of those two experiences.

While studying at Hamline University as an undergrad in St. Paul, Minnesota, Lee was a volunteer tutor. Later, the volunteer spirit still strong, she joined AmeriCorps and worked as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, where she coordinated other volunteers. Her interest in service continued and after graduation she joined the Peace Corps. Lee’s Peace Corps work took her to the Philippines where she worked with young people teaching life skills, environmental awareness, art, and HIV/AIDS prevention.

One day, a Peace Corps friend pointed out an ad in the Peace Corps newsletter featuring the Heller School. Lee says, “Many others also had mentioned the Heller School to me as a place to continue my education.” Lee had always wanted to attend graduate school to further her career choices and acquire additional skills. She liked Heller’s Sustainable International Development program because of the theory and skills taught in the first year and the ability to put them into immediate practice during year two through a practicum. She was also eligible, as a returning Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteer, for scholarship aid from the Heller School based on her service.

“I like Heller because it’s practical, and integrates gender, class, theory and history. Our professors make the link between the curricula and how what we are learning will be helpful to us as development practitioners.” This is authentic because they have been practitioners themselves and have worked with a variety of population groups, she says.

Lee has found a home at Heller, where so many international students learn from each other. Lee’s future career thoughts, though still developing, include working at a U.S. based international agency, or any NGO with links to the international community. She says, “There are lots of options and many resources here to help you decide.”

“All of us come here for the same reason, to learn, to change the world, because we share the same passion and vision,” she says.

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