Professors Beyond the Classroom: Provost Karen An-hwei Lee

Dr. Lee’s delight in baking and sharing baked goods hails back to her family’s New England kitchen. If you see her on Gratitude Basket days, be sure to say hello, share stories, and pick up a treat!

Words: Cassidy Keenan ’21
Photos: Josh and Alexa Adams

Wheaton College IL Provost Karen An-hwei Lee Gratitude Basket

Provost Karen An-hwei Lee shares two Gratitude Baskets filled with homebaked goods.

Her office shelves are faithfully lined with the publications of Wheaton College faculty.

Provost Karen An-hwei Lee began her first full year at Wheaton in the middle of the pandemic. This was far from ideal for a number of reasons, but one lesser-known cause for disappointment was the temporary hiatus of the Gratitude Basket.

Dr. Lee enjoys baking, a hobby that she has loved from a young age, ever since she and her little sister and mother made desserts together in their kitchen in New England. When she grew older, Dr. Lee turned her hobby into an act of meaningful connection and generosity by creating the Gratitude Basket. From her very first tenure-track position, Dr. Lee would assemble her basket, which quickly became a welcome sight to her colleagues—sizable, simple, wicker, and filled to the brim with piles of home-baked goods—and carry it with her from department meetings to casual campus strolls. Throughout her career, Dr. Lee’s colleagues have savored some of her best and most beloved recipes, including applesauce cake, blueberry buckles, lemonade poke cake, quick breads and cookies, and even special-occasion homemade chocolate peppermint patties at Christmas. On the basket, Dr. Lee has taped a small sign with 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, the Scripture that first inspired the idea: “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Wheaton College IL Provost Karen An-hwei Lee Gratitude Basket

“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (Thessalonians 5:16-18, NIV).

Rather than despairing when the pandemic hit the pause button on food sharing, Dr. Lee seized the opportunity to re-evaluate how she could continue to serve the faculty, students, and staff at Wheaton. “It forced me to think creatively about how we connect as a community and what’s meaningful to us in terms of human interaction,” Dr. Lee said. She managed to find ways to offer hermetically-sealed treats or individually-wrapped items like chocolates or candies. Often, Dr. Lee took the time to arrange personalized baskets for her colleagues with items selected to honor and celebrate that person, usually including selections of her own poetry or her favorite poetry of others.

In those plague-ridden days, Dr. Lee’s literary spirit drew parallels with Emily Dickinson, who refused to leave the house late in her life due to agoraphobia. “She was an inspiration to me, just as a woman and a poet who was sort of different from other people and did her own thing and wrote in a way that was unconventional for her time,” said Dr. Lee. “And she had a basket. She would put baked goods in this basket and lower it from her second-story window in Amherst for the neighborhood children, who would come and dip their hands in it and take out the goodies.”

When COVID restrictions on campus began to lift, Dr. Lee returned to her practice of carrying the Gratitude Basket with her wherever she went. The modern-day Emily Dickinson could scarcely pick a favorite recipe when asked, but she holds a particular fondness for the applesauce cake that she and her family used to make.


  • 1 cup applesauce
  • 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • ½ cup butter, melted
  • 1 ¾ cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cloves
  • 1 cup raisins (optional)
  • 1 cup nuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a bowl, mix applesauce, brown sugar, and melted butter. Set aside. In a large bowl, sift in the flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Add the raisins and nuts (optional). Add the applesauce mixture to the flour mixture. Pour the batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch square baking pan and bake for 40 minutes (until knife inserted comes out clean). Serve hot, cold, with whipped cream and/or ice cream.