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Raina Lee awarded first June Yom Student Award by the UNC Asian American Center

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Raina Lee was recently awarded the Asian American Center June Yom Student Award, a $2,500 grant, for her poetry endeavors this coming summer.

Raina Lee’s most recent "emotional image" is clementines.

Based on a craft talk from poet Natalie Diaz's "Building The Emotional Image," Lee said she looks for reoccurring themes in her life.

Right now, that's clementines.

“Every single person in their life, poet or not, has these reoccurring images or themes that come up for them very consistently, and I think that poetry is just about exploring that because the more you write, things keep popping up for you,” Lee said.

A sophomore American studies major, Lee was recently awarded the UNC Asian American Center's June Yom Student Award for her planned poetry endeavors this summer. The award is a $2,500 grant for an individual student looking to conduct research, work on an artistic project or take an unpaid internship with a focus on Asian American communities and studies.

This is the first year that the AAC is presenting the June Yom Student Award. The grant was donated by Eugene Y. Lao, a 1991 alumnus, founding member of the Asian Students Association and a founding donor of the AAC.

With this grant, Lee said she is planning on writing her first chapbook, a small poetry book ranging from about 15 to 30 pages.

“My pitch to them was the construction of selfhood," she said. "How do I create an original autonomous self when I constantly have the white male colonial gaze inside of me, looking back."

This summer, as part of her creative process, Lee will be spending time in New York City. She said she will be visiting the Asian American Writers' Workshop, poetry houses and spaces and also visiting an array of different museums around the city — all to spark her imagination.

Lee said she was encouraged to apply for the award by her Asian American Literature graduate teaching fellow, Abigail Lee, who also provided her with a letter of recommendation.

“It’s been great to have some students in the class like Raina who are writing poetry themselves," Abigail Lee said. "They always bring really rich prospects to reading and thinking about poetry."

Lee said she discovered her love of poetry after taking an Introduction to Poetry class last semester. Since taking the class, she has decided to minor in poetry and is now taking an intermediate poetry class.

Kylan Rice, the graduate teaching assistant who taught the Introduction to Poetry class, said Raina Lee's talents resemble that of a natural-born poet.

“To have lived 19 years of her life and then to take an introduction class and then so voraciously engage the material and seek out her own knowledge outside of class and to produce the high caliber quality of work that she is — she was ready,” Rice said. “And that was a real joy to watch."

Over the course of her time studying, Lee has discovered many different connections between poetry and imagination.

Originally, she believed that poetry distilled a real life experience, but as she continues exploring the craft, she's realizing that it is a practice of discovering the highest limits of her imagination.

The more she writes about these themes and images, the more she is able to explore different concepts and dive deeper into her imagination, Lee said.

“She’s really interested in using the imagination, essentially, to do world building that again has social justice as one of its primary objectives," Rice said. "Just more broadly though, I think that she’s a deeply philosophical poet.”

Teaching Assistant Professor Tyree Daye is teaching Lee’s current Intermediate Poetry Writing class. 

“I think it makes so much sense that Raina would have this scholarship," Daye said. "(She’s) ambitious, just goes for it, she’s one of those students you know will do the work and that’s what us as professors want.”  

Lee has not yet published any of her work, but receiving this award from the AAC means that she will now have the opportunity to do so over the summer.

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"Having the Asian American Center say 'We support you,' and 'We want to invest in your work,' and give me a chance to do something I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do," Lee said. "It feels really special as my first point of emergence in the world of sharing my work with everyone."