A Conversation With… Nara Lee

Nara Lee serves as the new director of the National Honor Societies at NASSP. Her career includes work with Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. She most recently served as director of member engagement for the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success—an organization that represents more than 130 colleges and universities with selective admissions. Lee is a first-generation college student who grew up in Baltimore, MD. Her connection with the National Honor Societies goes back a few years—she was nominated by her seventh-grade algebra teacher to join the National Junior Honor Society and was later inducted into her high school’s chapter of the National Honor Society at Loch Raven High School in Towson, MD.

Advise: As a former NJHS and NHS student yourself, what do you feel you gained from the experience? How will this experience aid you in your current role?

Lee: The biggest thing I gained looking back is confidence. I was a pretty shy kid, and didn’t really know or understand leadership. Because I experienced membership at both the middle and high school levels, I can approach my new position as director with some perspective. I think becoming a member means different things for different students, and it’s important for me as national director to recognize that.

For many students, becoming a member of NJHS or NHS is the first time they belong to something so formal, so large in scope, that requires induction and acceptance of responsibility. That was the case for me.

Advise: You were a first-generation college student. What was it like being the first to blaze that trail in your family? What advice do you have for students who are in a similar situation?

Lee: The label “first-generation college student” wasn’t even in my vocabulary until I began working in education. Back then, I just knew my parents had high expectations, which was a good thing. The bad thing was that I had no help or guidance in researching or applying to colleges. I think everyone assumed I knew what I was doing because I got good grades; my parents didn’t really know about higher education in this country. It was a bit scary and honestly, frustrating. But ultimately, it was empowering. I know students are told to ask for help all the time, which I also believe is important. There are great free resources out there and you should talk to mentors, teachers, parents, near-peers, whoever you trust to ask for sound advice. But it’s not a bad thing to navigate things for ourselves sometimes. Ultimately, it’s your pathway and it’s not valuable to have someone pave it all for you.

Advise: From your educational focus on out-of-school-time learning, to your work at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, and now your work with the National Honor Societies, it is clear you place a lot of value on extracurriculars. Why do you believe supplemental programs, such as NHS, NJHS, and NatStuCo, are so important for a well-rounded education?

Lee: The value of education in any setting, whether it’s in school or outside school walls, is learning. And why do we learn? So we can become better citizens, more empathetic people, and start seeing ways to help one another. Learning within a school setting is incredibly important for development of scholarship and skills, but so is learning in a service organization, on playgrounds, in nursing homes, on baseball fields. What I love about NHS, NJHS, and NatStuCo is that they celebrate multiple dimensions of a student leader—not just the mind, but the person. And for postsecondary success, whether it’s community college or a four-year college or university, students need to be multidimensional.

Advise: In your mind, what are the toughest issues students face today? What can student leaders do to not only overcome those issues, but to help others as well?

Lee: I see a real challenge for students, actually for all of us, to feel and be more connected. For students, specifically, I think the great thing is that they’re still in school, and that school community grounds them in a way. Some of us adults don’t have that grounding, even with our work, career, family, and other group settings.

Being a part of a community, even though one remains an individual with personal passions and ambitions, is critical for success. And I mean success not only for the individual, but also for the community itself. We all know that social media and technology have driven us to engage with one another in different ways. But I wonder how connected we all really feel, especially students, to one another, and how much they identify with a school community, their town or city, neighborhood, place of worship, and so on. Social media is powerful for spreading ideas and generating excitement and awareness of critical problems, but community is about identifying with and valuing people—not just ideas.

In 2016, Gallup surveyed K–12 superintendents and asked them to rate the top factors for effective schools. The responses were 1) graduation rates, 2) student engagement, and 3) hope.

Student leaders like members of National Honor Societies can do a great deal through their service and scholarship to help engage their peers and create more positive school communities.

Advise: Please provide an elevator pitch for those who might be new to advising an NHS or NJHS chapter. Why should they do it? What can they expect?

Lee: Do you want to help students? Being an NHS or NJHS adviser is a perfect way to get involved, whether you’ve helped one or one hundred students with a club or this is your first time. The national office provides a whole suite of resources and guides to help you be a facilitator, coach, and adviser to student leaders. The best part is that we believe student leaders should take charge of their chapter, and we can help with that.

Advise: It is the close of the school year. What do you suggest students can do to continue honing their leadership skills over the summer months?

Lee: Good, effective leadership requires experience. Nobody can be a leader without actually working through a problem, being a team member, or learning something new. I strongly recommend that students focus on building experience in the summer. For some students, that will mean getting better at math so that they can be a leader who understands mathematical modeling for future projects. For others, it will be about connecting with peers from different backgrounds. Maybe doing a summer program. And some students may have a specific project in mind that’s far enough along to get off the ground during the summer months without the busyness of the school day. Even working a part-time job is great experience. I remember my days of scooping ice cream at my neighborhood diner fondly. Whatever a student chooses to do to build experience, I strongly recommend setting a goal or goals along with that experience. A goal helps maintain focus and satisfaction that there is something greater ahead.

Advise: What excited you most about taking on this new role with NASSP?

Lee: The opportunity to go back to student programs. I had been an adviser to scholarship students with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation and then moved toward managing campaigns and delving into higher education issues. I enjoyed all the facets of working with leadership at different colleges, universities, and nonprofits, but I missed student programs. A chance to work with such a premier organization and global community of students and advisers was too good to pass up.

Advise: What is your vision for the future of the National Honor Societies?

Lee: The National Honor Society, specifically, celebrates 100 years in 2021. For the National Honor Societies, I see a future where we find new and exciting ways to help student members grow as scholars and leaders at school, in college, career, and beyond. I think the next 100 years of the National Honor Societies will see new programs and ways for us to build up students, advisers, and school communities promoting the pillars of scholarship, leadership, service, and character.