December 07, 2019

Passion Ignited: How TGR Foundation empowered Yeon Jin “Grace” Lee to pursue her passion for filmmaking


At TGR Foundation our mission is to empower students to pursue their passions through education. The Earl Woods Scholar Program supports students beyond financial aid to help them achieve college and career success, and for Yeon Jin “Grace” Lee, it was just what she needed.

After being accepted into the University of California, Berkeley, the uncertainty she felt around her future at the university and in the United States dwindled as she went on to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in engineering. From UC Berkeley to NASA, her education opened doors to ignite her career and help her reach higher to obtain a Master of Science in software engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. It was through this experience that she gained her green card and security in her place in America.

Although she had accomplished many of her goals, her passion for filmmaking was the missing link to her personal fulfillment. After five years as a computer scientist, Grace shifted her career trajectory and enrolled into the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

Inspired by her experiences as a minority engineer and first-generation immigrant, Grace’s portfolio of short films chronicles the journeys of marginalized populations including undocumented immigrants and has been featured in several film festivals. Grace is currently working on her thesis film at USC and will soon graduate with a Master of Fine Arts in Film and TV Production.

From South Korea to Southern California, Grace overcame obstacles in her path as an immigrant and achieved great success. We recently connected at the flagship TGR Learning Lab in Anaheim, CA to reflect on her journey and how she’s using her platform and experiences to empower other students like her.

TGR Foundation: What is your passion and why?

Grace Lee: My passion is storytelling and making films because I think films have an ability to provoke important questions and to heal through lived experiences.


TGRF: When do/have you feel/felt most empowered?

GL: I feel the most empowered when I’m on set when we’re shooting a film. It’s really empowering to work with a team and to collaborate in such a tight and close-knitted way. I think the empowerment comes from the fact that you’re surrounded by people that are talented, and supportive and who all share the vision in telling that story. To me, that experience is very empowering.


TGRF: What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?

GL: My biggest challenge was graduating from college. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to afford each semester. It was the very first time that I grappled with that kind of anxiety where not only was I not sure about affording tuition, I also wasn’t sure about my temporary immigration status and where that would lead. There were higher stakes because I needed to get a job right after I graduated, but if I didn’t have the money I couldn’t graduate. So it was a bit of a conundrum, but the scholarship organizations really stepped up. I was an Earl Woods Scholar, and I was also a New American Scholar. Those two scholarships helped me.


TGRF: How has your journey been shaped by education?

GL: Education shaped everything in the sense that my parents immigrated to the United States because of our education. I wouldn’t even be in this country if it wasn’t for education. It is the reason why we moved from South Korea to the United States because here it is more merit-based in the sense that if you work hard, no matter what your socioeconomic status, you can succeed. Education has done some great things for me. I got to travel because of education, and I got to meet very interesting people, including Tiger Woods, cool scientists who are doing research at MIT and researchers at Berkeley to filmmakers and animators at Pixar. That all was through education and eventually my United States permanent residency was through education. My education led to a job, which then led to my permanent residency. It gave me a lot.


TGRF: How are you using your education and experiences to empower other students like you? 

GL: A lot of the role models that I admire inspire and empower others just by doing a great job in their role and existing. I want to give whatever I’m doing 110% and do a good job, but at the same time, I’ve been using filmmaking as an advocacy tool to tell stories of undocumented immigrant students that I met through college. That’s been my way of dealing with all of the emotions that I have around that issue and empowering that community.


Redefining what it means to be a champion.

The Earl Woods Scholar Program is funded through support from TGR Live Events, State Street, Farmers Insurance, Aptive Environmental and Bank of the West. Join us to Empower The Journey of more students like Grace in this season of giving. With a $41K match from our Board of Governors, all donations made on Giving Tuesday, December 3, through the end of the year will be matched, dollar for dollar. Click here to learn more and donate today.