Bridging Two Worlds: One Student's Story of Finding His Passion for Diplomacy
When William Yuen Yee arrived at Columbia University as a transfer student in 2019, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to study. He tried different student clubs, wrote for the Columbia Spectator, and got involved with the radio station on campus. But it was one email he sent to a professor that would change his future, and help lead him to multiple international trips through State Department scholarships and a post-grad scholarship in Paris to begin his career in foreign relations.
“I sent that email because I was in the space of trying all these different things and just looking for where I could find my footing at Columbia,” William said. “I was just throwing darts …..trying to see what stuck. I got fortunate that [the email] worked out.”
William’s email was to Professor Thomas Christiansen, Interim Dean at SIPA, Professor of International Relations, and Director of the China and the World Program at Columbia University. William was interested in doing research for him. Despite having no foreign policy research experience or relevant coursework, William said Professor Christiansen gave him a chance and took him under his wing.
William may not have had the traditional academic training, but had studied Mandarin for years and participated in a cultural exchange program in high school; he traveled to Beijing and studied there for three months. For him, the trip was a transformative experience and helped him develop a love for getting different worldviews and perspectives.
“It also really shaped my ability to have international conversations, which I think is a bit of a skill - recognizing the stereotypes about Americans that exist and that often really can shape someone from abroad and their perception of you when they speak with you.”
With his foot in the door as a research assistant, William was able to help Dean Christiansen with a forthcoming book on CIA operations in Manchuria during the Korean War, papers about the US-China relationship, work with scholars from other universities, and work on the Belt and Road Initiative - a global infrastructure development strategy.
"I always talk about the view from low stacks overlooking Butler at night, and just things like the lights of Butler, it's beautiful. It never gets old. I feel like I will not again be in a place like Columbia where you're just surrounded by these incredibly brilliant people.”
At the same time, William would begin a series of trips to China and Taiwan through various U.S. State Department scholarships. He credits these trips with developing an interest in Chinese foreign policy. Through the prestigious Critical Language Scholarship program, William studied Mandarin Chinese for several hours each day, participated in cultural activities, and met with locals. He said his research and coursework at Columbia allowed him to take his cultural experiences in China and put them in an academic lens.
But the trips to East Asia also held significant meaning for William in a different light. While most of his family now lives in the United States, William has family in Taiwan and loves being able to learn about his family’s history, as well as modern Chinese history.
“Not only is it through this academic lens that I'm just interested in because it's truly fascinating and very much shapes the kind of US-China dynamic today that I study,” William said. “But at the same time it's also a chance for me to learn more about my family's own history. I very much see that not only is Mandarin Chinese a professional skill that I can use in my research and in talking to Chinese diplomats on foreign policy–that's the dream in the future. But it can also make it possible to speak with my elderly family members who live in Taiwan and who I don't keep particularly close contact with now.”
In the midst of traveling and researching for Dean Christiansen, William has also written for a number foreign policy publications on China's foreign relations and U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific. Altogether, it gave him more confidence in deciding his career path.
“I think each time I visited, I was more mature and honestly more able to truly take advantage of those opportunities,” William said. “So I'm really appreciative to organizations like American Councils [high school cultural exchange program] for giving me that opportunity. I felt I could really lend a new voice to the conversation in the U.S.-China political tense climate that we live in now.”
Like many others, in the midst of his studies, William also had to adjust to classes going fully remote once the COVID-19 pandemic began. Although it impacted his ability to travel and required him to complete his internships fully remote/virtually, he still reflects fondly on his time at Columbia.
“I have a huge stash of Broadway playbills,” he said. “And they're all from the first semester I was here before we got sent home from COVID. Some of them have autographs scribbled on them. So when I look at those playbills, I think about my friend who I met at the Chinese placement test and us entering these lotteries, running through Times Square Theater District, and trying to get these autographs. It's so cool.”
William says he’s still unsure exactly where he wants his contributions in foreign policy to be, but knows it will be in the China foreign relations space. His first stop as a Columbia alum will be to Indonesia through another State Department scholarship. He’ll be studying Bahasa Indonesian and also looking to gain more knowledge and understand the Indonesian perspective on foreign relations.
He deferred his admission to Harvard Law School to 2024 after being named the 2022 Michel David-Weill Scholar, which is awarded annually to just one American student. He will soon head to Paris and pursue a master's degree in International Governance and Diplomacy at the Paris School of International Affairs.
“It’s definitely both bittersweet and really exciting. I'm definitely going to miss Columbia a lot. In talking to alums, mentors, and professors, it's something you take for granted when you're in the moment. Just like late nights at Butler. I always talk about the view from low stacks overlooking Butler at night, and just things like the lights of Butler, it's beautiful. It never gets old. I feel like I will not again be in a place like Columbia where you're just surrounded by these incredibly brilliant people.”
William Yuen Yee is a Columbia College ‘22 graduate who graduated with a double major in Political Science and East Asian Studies. He was recently named the 2022 Michel David-Weill Scholar and will pursue a master's degree in International Governance and Diplomacy at the Paris School of International Affairs before attending Harvard Law School in 2024.