By Joyce Erekson
When Soun H. Lee arrived in the United States from Cambodia at the age of 12, one thing became immediately clear to him. He had to learn English and he had to do it quickly.
Lee tells the story of how he carried an English-Cambodian dictionary around with him for the first few years and how he would watch people talk and then go home and practice at night.
“I had no option. I had to learn English fast or sit there and watch people,” Lee said. “For me it wasn’t if I was going to learn English, it was when. I worked hard at it because I wanted to understand what people were saying around me.”
As it turned out the 2012 Revere High graduate, who now lives in Lynn with his family, was a quick study. Lee graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College earlier this month with a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. He’ll have a month or so to catch his breath before he heads to Cambridge, or more specifically, Harvard University, to begin a PhD program in biological and biomedical sciences.
Standing out at a school the size of UMass Amherst, with a graduating class of more than 5,000 students, isn’t easy, but then again Lee has never looked for easy. Lee was one of 10 graduates honored with a 21st Century Leader Award. It was presented during the commencement ceremony held Friday, May 6, at McGuirk Stadium.
The recipients of the awards have excelled in one or more areas – some as researchers or undergraduate teaching assistants. Lee was both. Some were recognized for their ability to unite and instruct others (community activists), others were role models for having overcome personal obstacles and still others receive the award for their creative or artistic talent.
Lee crammed a lot into his four years at UMass. He studied abroad at Oxford University in England and he did two summer internships in biology lab settings. One was at the University of California San Francisco and the other was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“I’ve always know the Ivy League schools were very tough, but I never understood what tough really meant until I was at MIT. I worked the hardest I’ve every worked in my life that summer,” Lee said.
Lee said he also loved the time he spent at Oxford University.
“It was my first time in Europe. I remember taking the bus to the center of the city and seeing all the beautiful architecture. It was breathtaking,” Lee said.
As for the school, Lee said it was very intellectually stimulating,
“I’m not an avid reader but just being there I wanted to go into the book stores. It was very intellectually stimulating. It was a transformative experience for me,” he said.
Lee said his parents didn’t graduate high school or college, but they understand the value of education if you want to move up financially and socially.
“That idea of embracing education was imprinted in me since I was young,” Lee said.
Lee remembers the day back in February when he received a call from Harvard informing him that he had been accepted into the PhD program, which he said takes on average about six years to complete. The icing on the cake was learning the cost of attending would be covered by grants, scholarships and fellowships.
“I think I’m still trying to take it all in,” he said. “In the back of my head I was thinking I just got into a great university. I’m still trying to process it.”
While a student at Revere High, Lee played on the tennis team for three years and was a member of the Spanish Honor Society and the National Honor Society. He also got into debating at Revere High. At UMass, Lee was involved in research involving ways to personalize treatment of disease. He founded the UMass chapter of the Society of Asian Scientists and he served as a teacher’s assistant. It was that experience, he said, that fueled his desire to one day become a college professor.