Graduate Student Profile: Leafia Ye

Leafia Ye

Ye will begin as an Assistant Professor at University of Toronto in Fall 2023.

What are your research interests and current research projects?
Right now, I am working on a few different things. I have a project, which was funded through the Retirement and Disability Graduate Research Fellowship Award, where I look at how immigrant economic trajectories change as they age and retire. Immigrants are often times moving to the U.S. for work at relatively young ages. We know on a very aggregate level that they have quicker growth which leads them to converge with the U.S.-born labor force. This is a positive phenomenon that maps onto to popular ideological concepts like the American Dream, however this picture masks a lot of heterogeneity between different groups of people, but what we don’t understand is how this impacts retirement, which is a complex system in the U.S. This project was funded by the Social Security Administration through a fellowship where I look at how immigrant economic trajectories change as they age and retire. What I found is in later life, we see this reversal with immigrants versus U.S. born workers in regard to economic progress. It’s not surprising because we have to think about how people make investment and pension choices and being an immigrant, you are in a more vulnerable state and these types of planning decisions aren’t well understood by the masses. In my data, I see immigrants’ pensions are lower and social security is lower. I am trying to better understand this through my data. Another project I’m trying to understand better involves how experiencing mobility or stagnation is related to immigrants’ later life outcomes. We know our health at any point of our life is an aggregate product of our lifetime. Scholars have identified how early life factors influence our health, but I am interested in how achieving that mobility within the labor force can influence immigrant health later in life. In pursuing the mobility needed to succeed as an immigrant in the labor force, one will experience obstacles and have to overcome extra hurdles, which can also include discrimination, and this may not affect one’s immediate health, but I want to better understand what the long-term effects look like. I am interested in how achieving that mobility within the labor force can influence immigrant health later in life. In a collaboration with Jenna Nobles, we are using data from the U.S. and Mexico to better understand kinship proximity. We know that as one ages, they may often rely on children and family more for help, so if you live closer or further from each other, this may impact older adult wellbeing. With the understanding of recent immigration restrictions and mass deportations, we know that impacted the longstanding cyclic migration flows between the U.S. and Mexico, which may change older adults access to children in regard to care and financial support. We want to understand if we can observe the cyclic differences of this kinship proximity at the present. In my time at CDHA, I’ve dabbled in many things, but these are the recent pieces.

How did you first connect to your field of research?
I grew up in Shanghai, and when I moved to Hong Kong for college, the language and cultural differences made me realize being someone new in a big city is something that is challenging, and there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. I was privileged being in college and getting a lot of help sorting through difficulties, but many people don’t have that support. I became interested in why people move, how they blend in, and what a society can do to help newcomers succeed as they are. When I came to Madison to study abroad as an undergraduate in 2014, I learned a lot about immigration from a demography perspective via a class “Population and Society” Michal Engelman taught. The Salmon Bias was fascinating to me and the statistical perspective of how mortality rates are calculated was very interesting to me. I wanted to learn more about how aggregate statistics of peoples’ wellbeing are calculated now and how we can calculate it better. Only with accurate statistics can we adequately understand disparities relating to health and wellbeing and find solutions. Something lit up in me with demography and my passion grew! I come from a family where I wasn’t even sure if I would go to college. My parents helped me, and I worked many jobs to be able to afford my undergraduate education, and so I never considered graduate school, as I thought it wasn’t something I could afford. Coming to Madison for study abroad and learning from Michal about the opportunities for funding in the higher academia that will provide you with tuition remission and even pay you for your work as you progress through your graduate studies program was really exciting for me and opened an entirely new door in regard to my future aspirations.

What attracted you to UW-Madison? To CDHA?
I really enjoyed studying abroad at UW-Madison as an exchange student during my undergraduate degree. I knew I wanted to land somewhere for my Ph.D. with a Population Center based on my quantitative interests. I knew Madison was a very solid training program with a diverse set of interests across faculty members. I have a soft spot for smaller cities, and I already knew I adored Madison and could build community here.

What are some of the memorable and meaningful collaborations you’ve had within CDHA?
My work with Jordan Conwell, who is now at UT-Austin, looked at Black, Hispanic, and white children whose families had the same level of wealth, and yet their children had different achievement levels at school, which led to the paper “All Wealth Is Not Created Equal: Race, Parental Net Worth, and Children’s Achievement.” We tried to understand how different types of wealth can look across different families, including “good” debt like a mortgage on a house versus “bad” debt like credit card debt. I learned a lot from Jordan and how he thinks about inequality. I also worked with Jason Fletcher on a project which led to the paper “Immigrant status and the social returns to academic achievement in adolescence.” I walked into his office one day and presented this idea – I am interested in understanding how for immigrant children in schools, how their grades and achievement levels impact their popularity. I knew immigrant children were exposed to different structural factors like expectations of their achievement, so I asked Jason about the data available and if he’d want to collaborate on that. We found that for native-born white children, having better grades in school boosts their popularity, but for Black and Hispanic children, specifically immigrant Black and Hispanic children, this was not the case. This matched up with our theoretical predictions that there are many different stereotypes about Asian and Hispanic children in schools and having a better grade might go against or feed into that stereotype, which in turn may effect children’s popularity. It was interesting to see how these small pieces that can really effect youth operate so differently across different populations and it shows how we need to pay attention to these different stereotypes that may operate in schools, especially when we think about policy interventions. I learned so many different things from collaborating with faculty at CDHA, whether it be how to efficiently move through a project, how to find and interpret literature, and how to approach different types of data. Everyone has been very supportive and helpful through my time here at CDHA and I’m very thankful for that.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, how?
Being in graduate school, public sociology was not something I was particularly strong at. For a long time, I was trying to do good work and make sure my papers came out right. Before going on the market, I was motivated to get onto social media more. It made me realize when you post a certain finding you have, in a way that is easy to understand for the general public, it can actually make a difference in terms of people reading that finding and having a reaction to it. My contribution to the Wisconsin Idea is more so in the future with the expansion of my project on aging immigrants. I really want to expand that project into two things (1) a survey of older immigrants on how immigrants plan for retirement and what are the obstacles they face and (2) conduct interviews with immigrants and second-generation immigrants to better understand how they think about these things and navigate these complicated plans. Once I have that, it could be very impactful to translate that all into reports and media pieces regarding how these things impact immigrant communities and what are the things we can do to help them plan for the future. Ultimately, I want to write a book and I want to make that a bigger project. I want to give voices to these respondents I am studying – this is something I sometimes miss when doing work with big datasets – I might discover a big disadvantage with a group via the data, but I don’t get to hear their thoughts, feelings, and what are their reactions to the findings. Hopefully big things coming up! I’m more and more active on social media now. I’m trying to build a habit of every time I publish a paper, I try to publish a companion piece for the general public explaining the findings so that everyone can get a sense of it and have their reactions to it.

What’s one thing you hope people who are exposed to your research will come away with?
I hope people better understand intersecting identities and how that really changes things for people. I have invested a lot of time into studying older immigrants specifically and I’ve learned how getting old as an immigrant is so different from getting old as anyone else. There’s not just one kind of identity within immigrants either, there are so many different groups with different experiences. I want for people to pay more attention to these group and invest more time into studying them. In the future, I hope to continue this work. I want people to think about how older immigrants may deal with new challenges that they haven’t as a younger person, and also think about how older people in general within immigrant communities are vulnerable for many different reasons.

What are some hobbies and interests that have occupied your time outside of your academic work?
During the pandemic while it was nice out, I spent so much time exploring the county and state parks around Madison to hike and enjoy time outdoors. I also like to sing, play the guitar, and paint. In grad school, I got back into art for the first time since I was younger, and took art classes via Wheelhouse at the Memorial Union. Now it’s a nice relaxation activity for myself.