November 10, 2016

Celebration of Unexpected Champions: A Scholar’s journey to NASA

The Tiger Woods Foundation’s 20th anniversary celebration in New York City last month brought together many of our longtime supporters and fellow advocates. While we were able to look back at what we’ve achieved, our “Celebration of Unexpected Champions” also gave us an opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of all our students and scholars. During the evening’s program, guests met three exemplary Earl Woods Scholars whose inspiring stories of courage and fortitude captivated the room. In today’s post, you’ll read South Korean immigrant and UC Berkeley graduate Grace Lee’s moving speech about the uncertainty she and her family faced, and how she never let fear hold her back from achieving her dreams.

Good evening, my name is Grace Lee, and I’m so honored to have the chance to join all of you here tonight at the beautiful New York Public Library for such a wonderful cause.

The Tiger Woods Foundation has been part of my journey for quite some time now. They helped me get where I am today — an engineer for NASA. But my road to NASA was paved with a lot of uncertainty. In fact, uncertainty has marked my life from the moment my parents, brother and I arrived in this country from South Korea 15 years ago.

Growing up in a cramped two-bedroom apartment during my middle and high school years, the mood in our home was tense. My parents were always looking for steady work and visa sponsorship. The constant financial struggles coupled with the overwhelming task of navigating through the immigration process left us stressed and hopeless. More often than not, I remember feeling uncertain if life would ever get better.

I imagined college to be my escape, that I would be free from the pressures of being an immigrant. I was wrong. My burdens only followed me to college. By the time my sophomore year at UC Berkeley came around, I had used up all of my parents’ and grandfather’s savings to pay for my first two semesters of tuition. Being in this country on a visa meant that financial aid was never an option for me, and without social security, the scholarships available to me were few and far between. I was worried sick about possibly having to drop out of college due to a lack of funds and haunted by the uncertainty of our visa status.

And beyond the extreme financial hardships, college itself also presented challenges that I wasn’t sure I was ready for. As an electrical engineering and computer science major, I felt insecure being just one of five females in a lecture hall with 200 of my male classmates. Despite the crippling financial burden and the high demands of my classes, dropping out of college was not an option. It was up to me to graduate and get a steady job to lessen the load for my parents and younger brother.

Fast forward six years, and I am now an engineer in a robotics group at NASA. We have come a long way from the insecure, anxious and fearful days during my high school and college years. I say “we” because it’s a journey that I have taken with my family, my longtime Earl Woods Scholar mentor Michael Johnson and the Tiger Woods Foundation, all of whom have witnessed and shared in the lows and highs of my life. 

It’s this team of advocates that never let me succumb to the pressure and slip through the cracks, and tonight is my chance to say thank you. Thank you to my family at the Tiger Woods Foundation for always having my back.

Champions of the unexpected for 20 years.