When Northwestern Law student Nikki Lee was little, she dreamed of being two things: famous or a lawyer. Oddly enough, her first goal was easier to accomplish.
Lee, known in Korea as Lee So-Eun, is a famous Korean singer. Now, she is working on making her second dream come true as a second year law student at Northwestern University.
Lee’s career began in high school when she won a songwriting competition in Korea. After winning, she was put in touch with producers and managers who helped launch her career as a Korean celebrity.
As an artist, Lee compares her style to U.S. singers like Sarah McLachlan and Leann Rimes. While she loved the musical aspect of her career, acting as a spokesperson brought unwanted pressure.
“I realized I don’t just want to be a promotion or an ambassador,” she says. “I really want to sit down [at] the table and talk about issues I am passionate about.”
Law seemed to be the “universal language” to speak about these issues, says Lee. In 2008, she applied to law school. When she eventually enrolled at Northwestern, the Korean media covered her decision extensively.
Though the connection between law and the music industry might not be obvious, Leonard Rubinowitz, a Northwestern Law professor and Lee’s mentor, says the pairing of both fields might be logical.
“There are ways in which lawyers are performers, and she’s certainly a performer,” Rubinowitz says. “The kind of confidence she got from her work in Korea will be very beneficial to her.”
Rubinowitz met Lee through a criminal law class last year. Before meeting her, he heard about Lee’s life in Korea from a student at orientation. As a student, Lee is engaged and interested, Rubinowitz says.
As of right now, Lee has yet to decide which type of law she will pursue; however, she is particularly interested in environmental law. She is currently enrolled in two environmental law courses with Professor Michael Barsa.
A passion for the environment seems to be ingrained in Lee just like her passion for music, Barsa says.
“I feel like music is kind of an expression of who she is, and I think environmental consciousness is as well,” he says. “It’s something I think she is deeply committed to on a social level. I think it’s a natural thing for her.”
Both professors describe Lee as an enthusiastic student. She frequents office hours and discusses her courses outside of the classroom. Despite her unusual background, she seems to be a normal, motivated student.
“She’s just kind of a regular student in the classroom,” Barsa says. “She doesn’t present herself with any kind of air of entitlement or pretense or anything like that. That’s frankly kind of refreshing.”
Lee appreciates the level of anonymity she has in the U.S. She rarely tells others about her background as a Korean celebrity. For the past year, she has volunteered in a local church choir, but the group only learned about her past a few months ago.
Now, when Lee is recognized she finds it refreshing.
“When someone recognizes me, it’s like ‘oh, right, I forgot, this is how it used to be,’” Lee says.
Shin Young Hahn, a third year law student and a friend of Lee, knew about her K-pop status while growing up in Korea. However, she never imagined she would meet the singer later on in life.
“When I was in high school, I knew her as a singer,” Hahn says. “I never thought I would meet her in law school, or even become friends with her.”
Hahn met Lee at orientation after hearing about her acceptance to NU from Korean media. The two friends relate over their experiences and challenges as international students.
Lee says the adjustment to Chicago itself has been easy; she grew up in Seoul and is a self-described “city girl.” Her adjustment to the language has not been as seamless.
English is not Lee’s first language. While professors like Rubinowitz rarely notice her language issues, Lee says she struggles with legal terminology and American idioms.
The other struggle Lee faces as an international student is a feeling of isolation, particularly in a law program.
“It’s easy to become lonely here because it’s such a solitary process,” Lee says. “When you study, especially law, you really have to plug at it by yourself. The atmosphere is not what I’m used to.”
Despite these struggles adjusting to life in the U.S. and life in law school, Hahn says her friend is funny and outspoken. She brings a different attitude to the law school with her artistic background.
“She’s more of an idealist. Law students are usually very analytic and realistic and practical in what they want to do, but Nikki is more like the dreamer and she pursues the ideal,” Hahn says.
As far as her music goes, Lee does not envision herself picking up where she left off with her old career. However, she says she might release some singles or albums in the future. But despite her hiatus from the industry, Lee says she never really stopped singing; she just does it in a different way now.
“Music is something that makes me so unbelievably happy,” she says. “It’s something I can never part from. It’s one of those things in life that could never go away from you.”