BY JOE GARDYASZ
This article was originally published in Business Record on Dec. 4, 2015, and is reprinted here with permission.
Ellen Yee has two long-held passions: the law and international relations. Yee, who joined Drake University’s law faculty in 2005 and was named director of the law school’s international programs in 2013, recently was honored with the inaugural Principal Financial Group Global Citizenship Award. The award recognizes her work in expanding the law school’s international exchange programs. Drake now has relationships with three universities in China and with the University of Havana in Cuba, in addition to its 20-year relationship with the University of Nantes in France. Yee has been a visiting professional to Cambodia as well as at the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Prior to teaching law, she worked as a criminal prosecutor for the Marin County, Calif., district attorney’s office. In the community, she serves on the boards of the Iowa Asian Alliance, the Des Moines Social Club and The Homestead, a nonprofit that provides training and support for people with autism.
What attracted you to Drake?
Drake is a smaller school in terms of law schools. I think law school is a difficult and challenging endeavor, and I think being in an environment where people know and care about each other is a really important aspect that will help make people successful.
Did you gravitate to international studies early on?
I think that was ingrained in me as a child (with family trips). And I had the good fortune to be a Rotary Scholar when I was 18, so I spent a year living abroad (in Belgium), and that was really formative for me coming from suburban Minnesota. When you’re immersed in a culture for that length of time, you really start to learn about how much culture can impact the way you think about things and the way you solve problems. When I went to college, part of what I wanted to do was to continue that inquiry.
You have conversational skills in French, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and Russian. Do languages come easily to you?
I wouldn’t say they’re easy for me, but I love it. I’m probably not the most talented person for it, but I think learning languages is essential. It changes the way you think about the world. When you learn Chinese and it’s actual images (you’re reading), that must impact the way you think about the world. I also find that in traveling, it’s essential to really try to communicate on other people’s turf with their own languages.
How you view your role as director of international programs?
It gives me the platform to grow our programs, to speak on behalf of the law school, and to think more strategically about what we can do as a law school to connect with people in both directions — both sending people out and bringing people in. It’s like the best of all worlds, being able to combine these things I’ve always been interested in with criminal law and teaching law. So my job has just gotten better and better.
Who were your mentors and what did they teach you?
When I was in law school, I had a professor who kept telling me that I should be a prosecutor, and I thought, “That’s just ridiculous. That is not something that is part of who I am.” I was interested in social justice and wasn’t even sure I was going to practice law. But I took his advice and acted on it, and I really found my calling in terms of what kind of work I wanted to do in the law. Another mentor was also a professor of mine who suggested that I think about entering teaching. That was really key for me. I was at this point in my career in prosecuting that I realized the criminal justice system could only do so much, and that the future really lies in the generations that follow me.
Leadership advice for a woman in this field?
I would say, persevere. Because I think our society needs a more representative perspective in this field for justice to really be achieved. Women are a minority by far, and there are times when it can be really challenging and at times may seem insurmountable. … The decision-makers and the advocates need to really reflect the society that we live in in order to fairly make decisions about the society that we live in.
What challenges have you faced to get where you are today?
There are definitely challenges for anybody who’s going to be a litigator and a trial lawyer. When you’re in a trial, it’s a 24/7 job that you have to be committed to. I never had a hard time with that, primarily because of the types of cases I mostly worked on — domestic violence cases — where I think, if I don’t give 110 percent, this is going to impact someone’s life significantly. … I guess you could call those sacrifices, but on the other hand, it’s a privilege to be empowered to be able to do that.
Personal accomplishment you’re proud of?
I started a food recovery program here at Drake (called Next Course). That’s been a passion of mine as of recently. I grew up with Depression-era parents, and we never wasted anything. As a professional, I go to events, and there’s always food there (that’s left over). I always felt bad that there was waste there. I thought, I can’t just feel bad about it all the time. I researched it and I contacted Sodexo (the food service provider) and I thought I was going to get a lot of resistance. Five minutes later, the manager said, “Great, Ellen, let’s do it.” It just started from there, and I recruited some students. A formal student group has been established, and I’ve integrated it into three courses, because ultimately I want people to start asking the deeper questions and to become integrated into the curriculum at Drake. And shockingly, it’s happening.
What do you enjoy about Des Moines?
I’ve always enjoyed living in bigger cities, but I’ve really come to adjust to Des Moines and appreciate a lot of the benefits that this size city has over other places. … I think it’s a more community-oriented place, more so than other places I’ve lived. Secondly, it’s a very livable and easy city, and I don’t think you can underestimate that impact on your life. I like a lot of different things, so when you live in a city where it’s not hard to get around, the number of things you can fit into your life compared to somewhere else is significant. So I find that I’m able to have a richer, more varied life here.
I like biking; that’s the great thing about Des Moines. It’s fantastic to roll out of your garage and be able to get on a trail.
Read the original article in Business Record.