Master of multicultural counseling

Dr. Song Lee, an associate professor in the counseling, special education and rehabilitation department, recently received one of the nation’s highest awards in counseling. Lee, who fled war torn Vietnam with her family when she was a child, may be the only Hmong speaking Ph.D. in counselor education in the United States.
Juan Villa / The Collegian

In the war torn jungle of Laos, a then 2-year-old, Dr. Song Lee began the flight that would take her from Vietnam to Fresno.Even though she was only a toddler at the time, Lee had to face unimaginable circumstances.
She, along with her mother and six siblings, walked through the jungle and even a dangerous border-crossing of the Mekong River, after being forced out of their home by Communist Vietnamese.

The threat of attack shadowed the family’s every move.
“My dad was a soldier at the time, so he was not with us when we were trying to escape,� Lee said. “My mom guided us to freedom.�

Because she was so young at the time, Lee said she remembers very little about the ordeal, but details she does recall are etched into her memory.

“I don’t remember much because I was only 2 at the time,� Lee said. “I do remember some vivid details, such as when we were trying to escape, I was walking at night and I picked up a bark from a tree that lit up.�

That bark seemed to represent the light at the end of the tunnel — a symbol that life was going to get better for Lee and indeed, that light became reality.

Now at the age of 32, she is an associate professor in the counseling, special education and rehabilitation department at Fresno State.

Lee, a Fresno State alumna, just received one of the nation’s highest awards in counseling. The honor, The Courtland C. Lee Multicultural Excellence Scholarship Award, is given to a graduate student in counselor education whose dedication and academic work demonstrate excellence in the theory and practice of multicultural counseling.

“It is the first time anyone has won that award in the history of the [counseling] department,� said Dr. Charles Arokiasamy, chair of the counseling, special education and rehabilitation department. “This is a high honor for Dr. Lee and also for the program and the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. Fresno State students are learning from among the best.�

Even with such a distinct honor under her belt, Lee said she remains humbled by the experience. “It was an honor, but I feel like it is just a stepping stone to get to the next level.�
Lee joined the Fresno State faculty last fall after completing her doctoral degree at North Carolina State University in counselor education.

She now teaches three courses in the master’s program. Before that, she was a counselor, but Lee said although she loves counseling, teaching is her true passion.

“I love teaching,� Lee said. “Every day is hectic, but it’s a humbling experience. [Teaching] really makes me understand human beings a little better. I enjoy students and the different ideas they bring in. When they want to learn, it amazes me. Seeing students grow is exciting. They encourage me to work harder.�

Arokiasamy said Lee is a great addition to the staff because of the qualities she has.
“Song Lee brings all the usual gifts of a new professor — training in research and in counseling, lots of enthusiasm, interest in research and grants, and passion for teaching,� Arokiasamy said. “What is unique is that she is probably the only Hmong speaking Ph.D in counselor education in the country.�

Being a Hmong speaking counselor is significant in why Lee chose to teach in Fresno, which has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country.

“Fresno is not the most beautiful location, but it’s like a pot of gold for me because the Hmong community is here,� Lee said. “That makes it easy to study and collect data. I’m more connected to this community, compared to North Carolina, because there were not as many Hmongs there as there are here.�

Lee said being connected to her Hmong roots is important for her research. “Being here is more helpful for my job. I’m able to give back to the community and provide services and study the Hmong population.

Those services include free counseling services at Stone Soup about marriage and family therapy, depression and mental health.�

Her success makes her an excellent role model for Hmong and other Southeast Asian students, Arokiasamy said. “She brings lots of credibility and legitimacy when we do programs like working on Hmong suicide or parenting.�

Lee said she wants to be able to provide assistance, counseling and research to not just the Hmong, but other Southeast Asians as well, such as Cambodians and Laotians. “To be able to understand them, you need more adequate data,� Lee said.

Lee received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Davis. She came back to Fresno (where she spent most of her life) to obtain her master’s in counseling with an emphasis in marriage and family therapy. She then went to North Carolina for her doctorate.

When she moved to Fresno from Minnesota in 1984, Lee spoke no English at all. She didn’t learn the language until second grade, Lee said. She faced other hardships as well.

When her family moved to Minnesota in 1981, they lived in a one bedroom apartment with seven people all under the same roof.

“My parents couldn’t speak English, so it was hard,� Lee said, adding that her parents had to walk many blocks through the snow in order to get their children food and necessities — sometimes causing frostbite.

“I remember how hard it was for my parents,� Lee said. “I didn’t experience the hardships because my parents experienced it for me. Seeing them struggle made me want to try harder.�
Like many other immigrants, Lee said her parents farmed tomatoes and strawberries to bring in money. Lee and her siblings would sometimes go with their parents to help out.

Lee said being in that environment played a huge factor in her own career choices. “It was like a choice — this is the life I can go on doing or I can change it.�

Lee decided a change was what she needed, which led her to teaching. She doesn’t plan to stop here though, with hopes to of one day becoming a full-time professor high on her list of career goals.

“Being in that experience, you learn to be humble and happy with even the tiniest things. Now I’ve experienced being able to attain so many successes, such as going to school and getting an education. When I put my mind into it, I can do it.�

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