Pomona College Trustee Bobby Lee ’02 and his wife, Sophia Whang, have donated $1 million to establish the Dr. Martin Hyung-Il Lee Scholarship Fund in lasting tribute to Lee’s late father.
President G. Gabrielle Starr commented on the importance of Lee and Whang’s gift: “This gift serves as a moving example of a family giving back to an alma mater so that future generations of students can realize the American Dream. As a trustee family, Lee and Whang have been extremely giving with their time and leadership, and this gift further bolsters that generosity.”
The gift will strengthen the College’s commitment to need-blind admissions and financial aid, providing funding in perpetuity. Positive consideration will be given to certain students, and the Lee family is delighted that it will support those facing financial hardships, immigrant families, first-generation college students and those pursuing careers in science or medicine.
Pomona College is one of a handful of institutions committed to need-blind admissions and meeting the full demonstrated financial need of all students who enroll. What makes the College even more unique is that, while loans are available, Pomona does not use them to meet a student’s financial need. That means Pomona students graduate without the imposed burden of significant student debt, helping provide graduates more freedom to pursue their careers and passions.
However, Pomona’s financial aid is not fully endowed and would require an additional $620 million to wholly endow at current levels. This year, more than $31 million of financial aid is being provided by the College from non-endowed sources, but the availability of this funding is subject to change. Without increased investments to secure the future of financial aid, the College’s exemplary liberal arts education and need-blind admissions may be significantly diminished.
The Dr. Martin Hyung-Il Lee Scholarship Fund helps fill that gap and is a fitting tribute to a father and physician who achieved the American Dream. A self-made man, Martin Lee, M.D. was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1956 and immigrated to Los Angeles in 1974 with his family, who were in search of greater opportunities and better treatments for Lee’s mother, Inwon Lee, who was suffering from liver disease.
After attending Van Nuys High School in the San Fernando Valley, Lee matriculated to UCLA on scholarship, where he met his future wife, Aeri, during his freshman year and developed a love for UCLA basketball and football. The college sweethearts married the summer before Lee’s senior year and had two children, Bobby Lee and Jennifer “Jenny” Jean Lee ’07.
Martin Lee attended USC’s medical school thanks to a partial scholarship supplemented by student loans and completed his medical training at Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, specializing in gastroenterology and hepatology before opening a private practice in Los Angeles’ Koreatown.
“Both Bobby and Jenny got their work ethic from their father,” Aeri Lee recalls. “They both saw how hard their father worked and how much he cared about every one of his patients, regardless of their ability to pay. Jenny has followed in his footsteps by becoming a doctor, whereas Bobby is giving back through his work on Pomona’s Board and this scholarship donation.”
The Lee family attributes the dedication Martin Lee had for his patients to the fact that he witnessed his mother suffer from liver failure and lost her when he was only 23.
“My father definitely inspired me,” Jenny Lee, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Saban Community Clinic, a nonprofit affordable health care provider in Los Angeles, says. “He exposed me to all of it and showed me how to be a good doctor. I remember older Korean widows who didn’t have the money to cover their copayments coming to his office. They would bring in bags of chilis they had grown on the windowsills of their apartments, and my father was always happy to accept these as payment.”
Martin Lee was the first in his family to graduate from college, and the pursuit of higher education was very important to him. The Lee family is proud that, through this gift, Martin Lee’s name will be forever linked with support for young college students who, they hope, will pay it forward to their families, communities and humankind.
“By supporting the educations of my sister and me, my father provided us the freedom to start our careers without debt,” Bobby Lee noted. “He was never one to seek recognition. But Sophia and I thought that this scholarship would be a great way to inspire others and recognize his life—what he did for our family and for his patients.”
Martin Lee remained dedicated to serving his patients, even after being diagnosed with cancer near the end of his life. He was determined to beat the odds, and he did, fighting stage 4 cancer for almost eight years. He was determined to work throughout his treatments so he could continue to serve his patients, and he did.
His determination to live also allowed him more time with his beloved family and his young grandchildren, Jackson, Coby and Aiden.
Martin Lee died on January 27, 2021 at the age of 64, but through his family and through the generosity of Bobby Lee and Sophia Whang, his memory will live on in perpetuity.