April 19, 2023

Doctoral Student Discovers “Transformationally Healing” Family Connection in Class Assignment

In an emotional and serendipitous moment, Kona Lew-Williams was reconnected with long lost relatives when she stumbled upon her father’s family history along with a photograph of her ancestors while reviewing a dissertation for class.

Kona Lew-Williams Kona Lew-Williams is a current student in the graduate school's doctoral program and a District Human Resources Officer for the Hillsboro School District.Kona Lew-Williams, a District Human Resources Officer for the Hillsboro School District and current student in the graduate school’s doctoral program, knew she was looking toward her future as an educator and leader when she chose to pursue her EdD at Lewis & Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling. She had no idea an assignment would also reconnect her to her past.

The story begins in an early course in the doctoral program, History of Leadership in Education, taught by professor and fellow alum Lisa Collins. This course explores the fundamental questions that are the bedrock of the American public school system— “Who is to be educated? Who will teach them? What will they learn? Is postsecondary education also a public good? Who gets to access a college education? What dictates a quality higher education experience?”—and explores how leadership, organization, and ethical and political issues relate to these fundamental questions. The assignment itself was unassuming; select a dissertation from another institution to examine and present to the class.

Lew-Williams selected Race, Space, and Gender: Re-Mapping Chinese America from the Margins, 1875-1943, by Adrienne Ann Winans at The Ohio State. This decision would soon fling open a door to her ancestry and family history that she thought was closed for good.

“I had very limited information about my grandparents and great-grandparents growing up—my parents rarely spoke of their childhood,” shares Lew-Williams.

I always wanted to see the faces of my great-grandparents, Mary and Harry Yee, and to be able to connect with their story and my history as a Vietnamese, Chinese Asian American. Unfortunately, the divide only widened after my mom passed away at a young age in 1999, and my dad in November 2020.

She began to study the selected work. Then magic.

“I found my great-grandparents’ and grandmother’s name in the footnote of the research.” Tears begin to pool in her eyes as she describes the moment. “But I originally only had access up to page 25 of the dissertation.”

Thanks to the support of Elaine Hirsh, Associate Director at Lewis & Clark’s Watzek Library, Lew-Williams gained access to the entire manuscript.

I turned the page and there they were. I was looking at a photo of my great-grandparents and their five children, including my grandmother, June Yee.

The Yee Family, c. 1922. Top left to right: Mary Yee, June Yee (being held), and Yee Shing Bottom left to right:  Eugene Yee, Lillian Yee, V The Yee Family, c. 1922.
Top left to right: Mary Yee, June Yee (being held), and Yee Shing
Bottom left to right: Eugene Yee, Lillian Yee, Vincent Yee, and Edwin Yee. June Yee is Kona's grandmother, being held by Kona's great-grandfather.
The tears now spill over as Lew-Williams recounts the experience, describing the moment she saw the photo as transformationally healing.

“I felt immense emotion in seeing their beautiful faces. Through ancestry.com, I have connected with a cousin who has shown me a single photograph of my great-grandmother, Mary, but I had never seen a photo of my great-grandfather. I cried when I saw their faces and I stood in disbelief that I was able to see their entire family as a part of the dissertation. It was a moment that I will always treasure.”

“I spoke with Kona that night, and she asked to present first the following day,” says Collins. “We all had to collectively remember to breathe after she revealed what she found in the dissertation. The class had to take a break and regroup. It was incredible.”

Lew-Williams describes her cohort as incredibly supportive, amazed, and surprised by this information.

“We were able to experience an incredible moment where I feel all things were aligned for me to learn this history about my father’s family with the incredible support from my cohort and Dr. Collins. It was simply magical and synergistic!”

Lew-Williams hopes to use this experience as a springboard to write a book about her family history, and shares that she has been feeling called to write their story.

I will always remember pacing my office in disbelief of this amazing moment and feeling immense gratitude for Adrienne Ann Winans for writing this dissertation that included my family. I believe my learning through my doctoral program at Lewis & Clark is preparing me for the next phase in my journey as a researcher and writer, and I feel a deep responsibility to bring their story to life.

Lew-Williams was already a graduate school alum when she chose to pursue her EdD here as well, having had “an incredible learning experience and support in my professional administrative program.”

She says she feels fortunate to have found this program, and credits her experience at Lewis & Clark with helping her grow as an administrator from elementary principal, to HR Director, to the HR Officer for the Hillsboro School District.

Wiping the remaining tears, Lew-Williams smiles in gratitude, reflecting on the family that now looks back at her from the page:

I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.

Lew-Williams currently works as the District Human Resources Officer for the Hillsboro School District. After originally being hired as a temporary third grade teacher, she was afforded the opportunity to grow in leadership to a district-level executive administrative position. She feels blessed to serve the district’s students, staff and families for the past 19 years. Lew-Williams previously served as an educator in Idaho and Japan, and earned bachelor degrees in English and elementary education from Northwest Nazarene University; a Master of Science in Education with an Initial Administrative License from Portland State University; a Professional Administrator License from Lewis & Clark; and is currently enrolled in the doctoral program for education in leadership. She loves that the Lewis & Clark doctoral program enables her to learn with an amazing group of humans from cohort 18 and in collaboration with their wonderful professors.

Her family includes her partner of 29 years, Keanan, her son, Jeff, who is an 11th grader, and Ruby, their 6-year-old Chesapeake Retriever. She enjoys reading, singing, cooking, being outdoors, running, and spending time with family and friends who enrich her life with incredible conversations, laughter and connection.