The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Phyllis Lee Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Janice Dilg.

January 28, 2015


Phyllis Seid was born in 1936 in Portland, Oregon, the eighth of ten children. Her family lived above her father's grocery store in Portland's Chinatown until they moved to southwest Portland at the beginning of World War II. Growing up, Phyllis attended both American and Chinese schools. She graduated from Lincoln High School in 1953.

Phyllis earned a B.S. in Elementary Education from Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) in 1957. Following that, she taught in the Coos Bay School District until 1960 when she moved to the Lake Oswego School District. In 1962 she began teaching for the Department of Defense in Tachikaw, Japan where her husband was stationed for a military assignment. In 1965 she returned and taught again at Lake Oswego until she resumed university studies in 1968. Lee received a M.S. in Counseling from Portland State University in 1970 and worked in PSU's School of Education until 1975, at which point she entered the doctoral program in Oregon State University's College of Education.

During this period, Lee also joined a federally funded project working with school districts that were out of compliance with the Civil Rights Act. The team traveled throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Alaska, assisting districts in their efforts to make the changes necessary conform to the act. Lee was involved with this project for eight years.

Lee earned her Ph.D. in Counseling from OSU in 1983, completing a dissertation titled "Intraethnic Diversity: An Exploratory Study of Ethnic Identity of Chinese American Adolescents." From there, a post-doctoral opportunity took Lee to the University of Illinois to study at the Pacific/Asian American Mental Health Center.

In 1986 Lee began working for Kaiser Permanente, helping to develop programs and lead trainings on multicultural health practice. During this time, she was also appointed to the OSU Board of Visitors, a group formed by the Office of the President to promote ethnic and cultural diversity at OSU and to improve the recruitment and retention of students, faculty, and staff of color.

In 1990, after multiple racial incidents at OSU, the university created a Commission on Racism, which was chaired by Lee. Charged with investigating racial intolerance on campus and in the community, the commission recommended the creation of an Office of Multicultural Affairs, which would work to promote cultural diversity, awareness and sensitivity at OSU. In 1991 Lee was appointed Director of this brand new office.

In her role as Director, Lee served as a liaison between administrators, students, the community, and the police. The Office of Multicultural Affairs also worked with the Indian Education Program and the university's cultural centers to promote cultural and ethnic services, programs, and activities. The office likewise provided training, troubleshooting, consultation, and advice for members of the OSU community, worked to recruit and retain students and staff of color, and helped to transform the school's curriculum to better incorporate multicultural perspectives.

In 1999 Lee also served on the TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) task force, a group consisting of students, faculty, and staff that recommended additional actions to improve the climate at OSU. Lee likewise played a role in OSU's decision, in 2002, to sign a covenant that made its cultural centers a permanent part of campus.

Phyllis Lee retired from OSU in 2003. One year later, President Ed Ray created the Phyllis S. Lee Award, which is presented annually and honors a member of the OSU community who exemplifies Lee's commitment and dedication to social justice and to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.