An Unexpected Path to STEM Education by philanthropy

Crystal Lee

By Theresa Steinberger

Crystal Lee ’21 always loved math and science –– but during her childhood, these subjects were not a part of her education. She began attending a non-accredited homeschool in fifth grade and did not attend high school. She earned her GED in 2001 when she was 17 years old. Now, fueled by personal motivation and an inquisitive mind, Lee is pursuing a physics degree at UC Davis.

“I’ve learned that life is short and precious,” she said. “I’m excited to dedicate the life I have to physics.”

Recently, the Cal Aggie Alumni Association recognized Lee as the 2018/19 Blue and Gold Leadership Scholar, a prestigious honor for incoming freshman or transfers from California, Oregon or Washington who have demonstrated leadership in extracurricular activities, community activities, employment or a personal situation. The scholarship includes $10,000 dispersed over two years.

Energized by physics

In her twenties, Lee began teaching herself math and science by watching videos on the internet. Each new concept left her hungry for more, and she decided to continue honing her math and science skills at Berkeley City College and Laney College, where she earned an associate’s degree in mathematics. She earned a 4.0 GPA, scored in the 98th percentile on her American Chemistry Society exams and was hired as a chemistry teaching assistant.

She transferred to UC Davis in the fall of 2018, where she began her journey toward her physics degree at age 34.

“I wanted to study physics, which combined my scientific curiosity with my rekindled love of mathematics,” Lee said.

Lee worried the academic rigors of a research university like UC Davis would be challenging, but her curiosity for science overpowered her fears. She sat in the front row in every class and asked as many questions as possible. She continued to turn to YouTube to help understand any concepts she was having trouble grasping. She’s determined to succeed.

“I’ll be the first woman in my family to earn a STEM degree, and I’m proud to be a role model for my niece and nephew,” Lee said.

Paving the way

After graduating, Lee is interested in being a professor and paving the way for adult learners who want to get their education later in life. Lee hopes her non-traditional path to higher education demonstrates that it is never too late to follow your dreams and that, with an education, we can give back and help others.

“Transferring to UC Davis after not even going to high school was pretty intimidating,” Lee says. “Knowing, through the Blue and Gold Leadership Scholarship, that UC Davis alumni believe in me and see my potential makes me want to work even harder, to give back even more.”

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