Michelle was the reason I started using the term “career badass.” Somewhere at my parent’s house, I have copies of the paper for which she wrote in high school. And here she is now, Michelle Ye Hee Lee, reporter at the Washington Post.
I met Michelle when I was six years old on my first day of first grade. She came with her mom from Korea all the way to my little Ohio town, where they were staying for a short time before her family moved to Guam. We were only friends in person for about six months, yet she is one of the most special friends in my life to this day.
I could write an entire post about our friendship. Luckily, Michelle already did that for me a couple years ago, saying it better than I ever could in this heartwarming article she wrote about our friendship. One of the most vivid memories I have from childhood is the last night and following day that we spent together, crying as she prepared to move to the other side of the world. We took this picture right before she left for good.
After Michelle moved to Guam, we stayed in touch by writing letters for several years. As we got older, we were focused on other things like boys, school, and the friends we saw all the time. Naturally, we drifted apart for a little while.
At age 13, I got an unexpected phone call. I’ll never forget the surprise of hearing Michelle’s voice for the first time in seven years. Her family was in town, and she was hoping we could meet up. Filled with excitement and nerves, I remember thinking, “What if we don’t have anything in common? What if she doesn’t like me?” But, as it turned out, we clicked right back into place as if she’d never left.
We’ve remained in touch since. As it goes, there are times when we don’t talk for several months or more, but when we connect again, it’s always easy and natural.
Michelle was one of the first women I thought about when I started dreaming up this series; she’s so talented and humble. I’m thrilled she agreed, so that you can all meet her.
WHAT DO YOU DO?
I’m a reporter at The Washington Post, and I write for The Fact Checker column. We check out claims that politicians make, and issue a rating of One Pinocchios (equivalent to “mostly true”) to Four Pinocchios (“false”). We’re focused on the 2016 presidential election right now. When I’m not working, I volunteer as the senior vice president at the Asian American Journalists Association, which is a nonprofit dedicated to increasing diversity in newsrooms and ensuring accuracy in coverage of diverse communities.
YOU’VE WORKED AT THE ARIZONA REPUBLIC AND THE WASHINGTON POST; BoTH ARE CONSIDERED TO BE TOP U.S. NEWSPAPERS. CAN YOU DESCRIBE THE PATH THAT LED YOU TO THESE INCREDIBLE OPPORTUNITIES?
During college, I interned at Creative Loafing in Atlanta (an alternative weekly newspaper) and Chicago Tribune. Those experiences helped me get a fellowship at the Arizona Republic after graduation. Phoenix is a big metro market, with lots of interesting news and personalities, and my experiences there led me here to Washington.
WHERE ARE YOU FROM? HOW HAS YOUR UPBRINGING INFLUENCED YOUR CAREER PATH?
I was born in Seoul, South Korea, and my family and I moved to Guam when I was 7 years old. I grew up there until I left for college, and I got naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2011.
Guam is a very diverse place with a mostly immigrant population. My group of friends when I graduated high school was reflective of the island’s diversity: Caucasian, African-American, Korean, Chinese, Chamorro (native Guamanians), Filipino and Japanese. I grew up appreciating other cultures and understanding that everyone’s perspective on life is shaped by their upbringing and their experience. I learned the value of diversity of perspective and experience early on, and didn’t realize it until I left Guam.
My upbringing has greatly influenced my career path and who I am. I’m a Korean American who appreciates her Korean roots and her life in America. As a journalist, my background helps me appreciate and accept new ideas, surroundings and customs, wherever I am, whoever I meet. It motivates me to be involved in AAJA, by helping newsrooms become more diverse, and ensuring communities of color and diversity are covered accurately and fairly.
WHAT DID YOU WANT TO BE WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP? WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO TAKE THE PATH YOU DID?
Growing up, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. By the time I was in middle school, I knew that I liked to read books and write poetry for myself. So my parents sent me to a writing camp at Duke University and I really enjoyed it. The next year, I applied for a high school internship program called “Vibe” at Guam’s Gannett-owned local newspaper, Pacific Daily News. Over the next three years, I basically grew up in that newsroom. I clicked immediately with the reporters and editors there, and my sense of humor and curiosity seemed to fit right in in the newsroom.
When I got to college, I wanted to try something new and avoided writing for the college paper. But I missed writing news stories. It didn’t take me long to realize that this was what I was passionate about, and if I pursued this career, it will keep me learning new things, experiencing new stories and meeting new people. And here I am — still writing, experiencing, learning.
WHAT IS A TYPICAL DAY LIKE FOR YOU?
There’s no real typical day. We’re guided by whatever is newsworthy and important to voters, and write about the latest false or misleading thing being told to the public. Depending on the day, I’m meeting sources, in meetings for a project, interviewing people on the phone, researching archives, doing an interview on TV or radio about my article, doing a story for Snapchat, being interviewed on Facebook Live … and whatever else is happening that day.
WHAT’S THE COOLEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO YOU ON THE JOB, OR WHAT WAS YOUR BEST DAY EVER AT WORK?
This is such a difficult question! I can’t pick one best day or coolest thing that happened. One of the coolest things ever was being able to write about our friendship as the Sunday cover story for the features section of The Arizona Republic. I got a lot of great responses from readers about their own friendship stories, and it gave me a chance to write something totally different than government or politics.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR WRITING STYLE? WHAT KINDS OF PIECES DO YOU WRITE?
I mostly write news, but I try to switch it up every once in a while by pitching and writing a personal essay or a more feature-y story. I’m a matter-of-fact person with a healthy sense of humor, and I think my writing voice reflects that. I’m still trying to figure out my writing style, and I can’t say that I have strategically developed one. I try to learn from the writers I like to read, but ultimately it has to sound natural to me.
IF YOU COULD DO ANYTHING ELSE FOR WORK, NO SKILLS OR EXPERIENCE REQUIRED, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I always thought I’d make a great event planner. I’m very organized, I like to meet new people and I like to plan. I also love to travel, so it’d be great to make money and live comfortably while traveling all the time! If I were any good at science, I would’ve loved to be a doctor, chemist or astronaut and contribute medical or scientific advances to society.
HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED AND INSPIRED?
I naturally am not ever satisfied with the status quo, so it makes me want to try harder and do better. I like to set goals, whether as a mental note, or something I add to my five-year goals list. I don’t believe in planning out my life by the minute (and I don’t), but I do believe in keeping track of things that I want to experience and accomplish, and holding myself accountable to doing those things. I also seem to surround myself with people who inspire me and who I want to emulate, which keeps me motivated and inspired.
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