A career in politics comes with a lot of pressure. “I was told at the beginning that I would have to work with candidates I didn’t agree with,” says Maine Coast Semester at Chewonki alumna Kanghee Lee (55). “But, it’s not just a job for me. Your platform as a candidate should be something you’re willing to lose for.”
Lee, a 22-year old communication major at NYU, spent last summer interning for Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate to launch a major presidential campaign. Although Joe Biden ultimately won the primary, Buttigieg’s campaign was groundbreaking in many ways – as evidenced by his stunning early win in Iowa.
Lee felt an immediate connection to Buttigieg when she saw him on the news for the first time in early 2019, even though he was still relatively unknown. “He seemed very genuine and had a lot of heart,” says Lee. “We forget that gay marriage was only legalized five years ago. This person served in the military in Afghanistan but was closeted until his mid-30’s because he couldn’t be out. If he could fight through that, then he could be my president,” says Lee.
Lee resolved to work for Buttigieg’s campaign. By the spring, she was hired as a finance intern in New York and began supporting campaign events. “We did a lot of events with the older, queer population,” says Lee. Buttigieg would invite his husband on stage and introduce him to attendees as the love of his life. “These were people who had lived through the AIDS epidemic and never believed they would see this. A lot of the older men cried. To see a candidate understand their life experience – it gave them so much hope and happiness,” says Lee.
Lee herself has a deep understanding of what it means to feel othered. She emigrated from her birthplace in Seoul, South Korea, to Los Angeles at age three and later attended a majority-white boarding school in New England. “I like to say that I didn’t know I was Asian until I went to high school,” says Lee. “Suddenly, I was forced into a role that I had never assumed before.”
By the time Lee was a sophomore, she was looking for an alternative. One day, she noticed a stack of Maine Coast Semester viewbooks in her high school guidance office. “I remember looking at the brochure and thinking that this place couldn’t be real,” says Lee, recalling pictures of Chewonki’s coastal campus, wilderness trips, and Salt Marsh Farm. She applied and was accepted to attend the following spring.
Unlike most of her semester mates, Lee didn’t visit campus before the first day of the semester, and she hadn’t spent a lot of time outdoors. “I couldn’t swim,” says Lee, and camping was a foreign concept to her. “All these outdoor things are very white activities,” says Lee, “I hadn’t faced a lot of physical challenges before.”
However, despite her lack of experience, “I wasn’t seen as a diversity candidate”, says Lee. “My difference was valued.” Her favorite memory of Chewonki is when kitchen manager Bill Edgerton helped her prepare a traditional Korean meal for the whole semester. “It was hard to find all the ingredients, but Bill got everything – the pepper paste, the seasonings…”
Lee says that was never something she would’ve done at her high school. “Even though Korean food is popular now, my whole life, it was considered gross. My classmates yucked my yum,” she says, using a phrase that commonly refers to a western judgment of other cultures’ cuisine.
“The night I got to share Korean food with my semester was the moment that they really became family,” says Lee.
Lee’s Chewonki experience did more than reaffirm her identity; it helped her redefine her comfort zone’s boundaries. “The best thing I learned at Chewonki was not to be afraid to meet a challenge head-on,” she says, recalling a white water kayaking trip and frigid polar plunges, “whereas before I would seek ways to avoid it.”
Lee decided to get into politics after the 2016 election. “I felt the need to be involved and do my part in moving our congress and senate into a body that better-represented people.” Soon after, Lee was hired by Susie Lee’s congressional campaign in Las Vegas, Nevada, (no relation), a Democrat running in a district that had voted 51% for Trump in the 2016 election. The congressional hopeful had started the first homeless shelter in Las Vegas and hoped to reform public education funding.
When asked about the most challenging part of her first campaigning experience, Lee says, “I don’t remember a downside of that campaign, I really don’t.” It was a small team of just six to eight people, and Lee says she did a little bit of everything. Their campaign ended up winning against a conservative candidate known for his anti-LGBTQ+ views, flipping the seat blue.
What advice would Lee give to other Chewonki alumni considering a career in politics? “Don’t compromise who you are,” she says. “You can navigate [American politics] by being yourself, even if it feels like the space wasn’t made for you or people who look like you.” Lee explains, “Asian American’s are not considered an important voting block. There’s never been a Korean American elected official, not in the lower house or the senate.” Lee even faced pressure to Anglicize her name. But, “If people can learn to pronounce Schwarzenegger or Buttigieg, they can learn to say Kanghee, too,” she says. “You can stay yourself.”
Lee is currently in her junior year at NYU and although she’s not sure she’ll ever run for office herself, she plans to always stay civically engaged. “I find purpose in politics,” says Lee. “I don’t think I’m the kind of person who could do a job where I didn’t feel like I was working towards [change] every day.”