Her journey to the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy started with a pen from Nikki Haley
Ashton Lee
Ashton Lee MPP'19

On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, Ashton Lee was working for then-Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, now the United States Ambassador to the United Nations.

With the Governor, Lee attended all nine of the funeral services for the victims, including the service for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney. President Obama gave the eulogy, in which he praised Governor Haley for removing the Confederate flag from the grounds of the South Carolina State House in the aftermath of the violence. Haley commented in the press, “It should never have been there in the first place.”

The tragedy and its aftermath shook Lee, as it did so many in her state and across the country. At the signing of the law to bring down the flag, Governor Haley signed the bill with 13 pens. She kept one for herself and gave two to previous governors who had worked on the issue, nine to the victims’ families, and, finally, one to Lee.

“Receiving that pen was one of the most touching moments of my life,” says Lee. “That moment in time, that moment of tragedy, really made me want to make a change. That’s when I decided to study policy.”

Lee is particularly interested in applying policy solutions to the problem of racial inequality through a conservative lens. She worries that, in her home state, “some don’t realize that there is a problem.”

She is also motivated by the powerful women of South Carolina government, namely her former boss, Nikki Haley, and her mentor, Cheryl Stanton, who was Director of Employment Workforce under two governors, Haley and McMaster. They have demonstrated what’s possible for women in state politics, Lee says.

“Electing Haley as governor was a big step for my state. She is the first female and minority governor of South Carolina. I love my state, but in a lot of ways it's on the bottom of lists you don't want to be on the bottom of,” says Lee. “I think more women in power can make a difference for the better. I want to help remove the stigma that, at times, still exists for strong women who care about their careers.”

Lee applied to ten different policy programs and was admitted to nine.

“I chose Harris because I felt welcomed and wanted,” Lee explains. “Harris hosted my favorite Admitted Students’ Day by far. Whereas, at some other schools, it felt like they didn’t care.”

Another reason why Lee chose Harris was because of its location in the world-class city of Chicago, a place that both she and her fiancé Tim Pearson love. The couple met while working for Governor Haley and are getting married in June 2018. From Chicago, Pearson has easy travel access to Washington, D.C. and Columbia, South Carolina for his work as a political and corporate consultant. He is currently working on the re-election campaign for South Carolina’s current governor, Henry McMaster.

Pearson says, “I love Chicago and the University of Chicago is one of the best universities in the world. It was easy for me to say, ‘Yes, let’s go.’”

The couple have settled into an apartment in the South Loop with their two dogs. They’ve even found a local Clemson bar where die-hard Clemson football fans like themselves (Lee is a graduate) can watch the games. Lee is involved with Harris student government and is on the social committee that plans after-hours events.

Although Lee and her partner are happy to be in Chicago for the Harris experience, they intend to move back home to make an impact in South Carolina. Lee would like to return to state government work. Armed with her master’s degree from Harris, she hopes to earn a position as a deputy chief of staff to the governor or work her way up to a director position at the governor’s cabinet agency. She is also not ruling out an eventual run for State Congress.

Lee hopes to inspire other young women in her home state to pursue politics, policy, and leadership roles. “You can tell girls all day long that they can do whatever they want to do in life, but you have to treat them in a way that they believe it. You also need to model it.”