Commencement Stories — Eileen Lek

First generation college student didn’t let her struggle with identity get in the way of her success

Eileen Lek

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Accepting herself didn’t come easily for Eileen Lek. In high school, she struggled a lot with identity — she wasn’t comfortable with who she was and questioned how she would fit in with her peers.

“I identify as queer now, but it took years for me to realize and to embrace the intersectionality of my identities,” Lek said.

Lek came to the University of California, Riverside as a freshman, originally as a biology major, but a quarter later she switched into environmental sciences with a concentration in environmental toxicology. In June, she will graduate with her bachelor’s degree. She credits UCR’s LGBT Resource Center for giving her the perspective she needed for self-discovery and personal development during her freshmen year.

“I used to be concerned with how I’d fit in with other environmental professionals — I’m a queer Asian American woman, and as a first-generation college student, there’s not much representation of that. So, I was always at odds with myself and worried about how I’d be perceived. But, as I gradually learned to accept myself, I realized that I could channel these experiences as a source of strength,” Lek said.

Concerned with how her parents would react to her coming out, it took a lot of courage for her to finally sit them down. “With my mom, well, it was rocky at first, but now we are so close — she’s incredibly supportive of who I am. The coming out, or letting in process, was not only about myself, but rather giving my parents and family the time to process and to open the lines of communication for future questions.”

Both of her parents were born in Laos, and come from large families — her mom has 13 siblings; and her father has nine. They escaped after the Vietnam War, and sought refuge in a Thai refugee camp before being granted sponsorship and immigrating to Northern California. Later they moved to Walnut, where Lek grew up. Given her parents’ journey, Lek has always felt the need to contribute to her family, and make the most of every opportunity.

“My parents worked multiple jobs so they could support our family. They struggled so my older sister and I could have endless opportunities. I didn’t realize it so much when I was younger, but I remember filling out my FAFSA before coming to UCR, and that’s when I realized how little we were able to manage with throughout the years,” Lek said.

To make college more affordable, she worked part-time giving guitar lessons, and took up internships during college. Lek reached out to the CNAS Freshmen Learning Community, as well as the Asian Pacific Student Programs, and the LGBT Resource Center — all of which she credits for getting her to where she is today.

Lek engaged in undergraduate research with chemistry professor Jingsong Zhang, served as a peer mentor, and attended conferences – all of which confirmed her interests in air pollution management, public health, and environmental justice.

She said she’s incredibly thankful for her internships with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and UCR’s Office of Sustainability, which gave her the opportunity to immerse herself in a variety of projects that have expanded her understanding of the governmental and institutional complexities of environmental regulations.

“Those internships also really guided me, and provided a foundation for me to develop myself professionally — it helped ease my concerns of how people would respond to me being out in the workplace,” Lek said.

Moving forward, she hopes her work will have a more interdisciplinary approach, and that she can advocate for communities disproportionately impacted by air pollution. Upon graduation, Lek plans to apply for full-time work to get more experience in all facets of environmental regulations, before applying to doctorate programs in environmental health science or atmospheric sciences.

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