We gave our Highland Capital Management Tower Scholars carte blanche to interview our experts and ask anything they would like to know. Nia Kamau ’22 took this opportunity to speak with SMU Tower Center Senior Fellow Dr. LaiYee Leong on her life and expertise. Read the interview below.
Dr. Leong, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. Can you start of by sharing when and where were you born?
I was born in Singapore. My formative years growing up tracked Singapore’s rise as a global city. In many ways, I have grown up with my country. I came to the United States for college and attended Yale on a scholarship from the Singapore government. I spent four years here in the United States, and then I went back to Singapore. After working for a few years, I returned to Yale for my graduate education.
During your undergrad time at Yale, what did you consider as some of your goals for your future?
The thought at that time was to return to Singapore, live in Singapore, and serve my country in some fashion. I remember in my college application actually writing about the importance of serving my society because I felt that a lot had been given to me. I felt very much the need to give back. At that time, I did not consider an academic career. I already had a job offer to work as a journalist. And I returned to Singapore and did that. I was a TV journalist for four years.
What sent you back to Yale?
It had to do, actually, with my career at that time. As a journalist, I covered foreign affairs, so that got me very interested in questions of politics and international relations. Singapore back then and even now has a news media sector that is somewhat controlled and regulated by a soft, authoritarian government. I didn’t like the censorship, and I found it frustrating because I found myself having lots of questions into which I wanted to dig deeper but opportunity to do so. So I decided to go to graduate school.
What did you study at Yale, and where did that take you?
I decided to go to graduate school for political science. It actually was quite challenging because I really had to learn to think in a different way, not having been a political science major in college (I’d majored in English). I’m glad I did. My thesis explored the role of Islamic groups in Indonesia and their positive contribution towards the democratization process in Indonesia. I felt like I contributed a slightly different perspective to the scholarship on Islamic politics.
Did you immediately transition into a full-time career in academia?
It’s really a series of accidents in many ways. it took me longer than I anticipated, to tell the truth, to complete my dissertation because life sometimes gets in the way. And life in this case took the form of my now 16-year-old daughter. I had this vision that I would sit at my desk and I’d be writing my dissertation. She would be at my foot in a little bouncy chair and I could occasionally tap at the bouncy chair, you know, and writing would get done. (Laughter) Of course, it didn’t work out that way. Children were a little bit more demanding than I expected. And so that took a little longer. In the meantime, my husband, who also has a doctorate and a law degree, got a job at SMU law. That was what brought us to Dallas. I eventually did complete my dissertation. I was fortunate enough that there’s a postdoctoral fellowship at the Tower Center. And that’s what started my association with SMU and the Tower Center.
What is one of the most significant lessons that you’ve learned in your current career?
Well, that’s a hard question. I think an important lesson that I’ve learned is about maintaining a good work-life balance. I think academia, maybe more than most other careers, presents a challenge in that regard because, you know, you can always pick up a book and always read another journal. I think over time I’ve learned better to shut it off, to try and carve out space where I say, OK, this is time for my family, this is time for my children, this time for me. That’s been a challenge to learn to do better.
What advice would you give to a college student who is interested in your careers?
I think in both careers, you really need to have an insatiable curiosity. To be a journalist, I think it really is about reading widely, being constantly interested in things, asking questions. As for being an academic, you should obviously always be asking questions, questioning assumptions in particular. But in terms of actually preparing yourself career-wise, I think as an undergraduate, before you get to graduate school, it’s important to do two things. One is to try to make the most of the research opportunities that might be there for you. The other thing is to form a good relationship with one or two faculty members, you know, treat them as mentors. Talk to them about your aspiration. Get a sense of what it’s like to be an academic, because there are trade-offs, important trade-offs, and it’s a career that requires a lot of investment. It’s not surprising that a lot of people drop out of doctoral programs. It’s a hard, hard slog. It’s tough on women because of that work-life balance. It is a demanding career.
What would you say has been one of the most fulfilling moments of your career in academia?
I think my favorite thing about my job at SMU is interaction with students. They’re open to new ideas, and in many ways, I’m almost seeing younger versions of myself. I try to see each student as an individual and provide the mentorship that they might be looking for. I find it extremely fulfilling. Nothing gives me more delight than having a student, a former student or even a present student, write an email to say, “Hey, you know, I’ve been thinking of you,” or “I just want to catch up and say hi,” or “Oh, you know, I came across this today and it reminded me of a class I took with you.” Every so often I get emails like that and it just makes me feel great. It makes me feel like I’m actually making a difference. That’s really heartwarming.
Dr. LaiYee Leong is a Senior Fellow at SMU’s John G. Tower Center for Political Studies and a Fellow at the SMU Center for Presidential History. In addition to teaching in the Political Science Department, she is also on the faculty of the Graduate Liberal Studies program.
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