'I Was One of Them'

Social Work doctoral student looks to improve health care for immigrants.

A South Korean native, Sangeun Lee studied in her home country and Australia (for a master’s in translation and interpreting), lived in the U.K. (while her husband was earning his Ph.D.) before returning home for a spell, moved to Connecticut (he landed a visiting professorship at Yale), and finally settled in the Philadelphia area (another university position).

That peripatetic experience gave Lee a textured understanding of the challenges that immigrants face. For example, in the States, visa restrictions meant she could work only sporadically. For her, that meant starting out part time as an in-house Asian interpreter for a small nonprofit.

After a couple of unsuccessful immigration petitions, Lee knew that she wanted to learn more about immigration and permanent residency in the U.S. Today, as a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, she is studying the immigrant experience, and her own life story gives her rare insight. “I felt what immigrants felt because I was one of them,” she says.

More specifically, her research focuses on access to health care among Asian immigrants—a topic that, again, resonates with her own life story. The mother of three children, Lee saw the advantages and disadvantages of the medical systems of three countries—the U.K., South Korea, and the U.S. And when she was finally able to work full time in this country, she signed on as a Korean navigator for the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—a job that gave her an even deeper understanding of the U.S. healthcare system.

The more I learned about immigrant healthcare issues, the more I saw the close relationship between their legal status and healthcare access,” Lee says. Wanting to learn even more, she carved out time on her own to study charity care programs, surprise medical bills stemming from the ACA, and the financial burdens facing Asian immigrants because of their legal status.

Work with Asian senior citizens in a local senior subsidized residency sparked an interest in long-term services and supports (LTSS) provided through Medicare. “I wondered how the culturally and linguistically appropriate services are operated under the LTSS, and as an Asian social worker, I would like to study their positionalities in Human Service Organizations as well,” she explains.

A first-year doctoral student, Lee hasn’t nailed down her dissertation topic just yet, but she’s certain that it, too, will reflect her interest in the immigration experience. Her best guess is that she will focus on how Asian immigrants with limited English proficiency navigate the LTSS healthcare system.

As for her post-doctoral plans, Lee is cautious: “The doctoral program at GSSWSR is very rigorous,” she says, “If I had not moved to the U.S. or experienced difficulty as an immigrant, I would not be here as a social worker and future researcher. I only wish to prepare myself well enough to deliver immigrants’ lived experience to whoever is willing to listen. I want to do it the right way and do it well.”

Books and People

Asked about her goals at Bryn Mawr, Lee answered, “I would like to engage with diverse people and opportunities. I profoundly believe in education and the power of people. I am confident that building a relationship among Bryn Mawr students, faculty, and staff will enrich my academic life and personal life as a future scholar and as a humble human being. “Life is full of learning—from books and people.”