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Sunday, October 1, 2023

CSULA Master’s student Sungwon Lee overcomes blindness and graduates as valedictorian

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A blind Korean-American man who initially had no idea how to read English Braille and had to stay up all night studying with his fingertips is taking the podium as valedictorian.

Sungwon Lee (Joseph-33), who is graduating summa cum laude from Cal State Los Angeles (CSULA)’s Master of Arts in Communication program, will be speaking as the master’s valedictorian at CSULA’s College of Liberal Arts commencement ceremony on May 23.

Lee said, “I was very excited when I received a call from my school telling me that I had been selected as valedictorian. It’s only a short speech, but I hope it inspires people with disabilities like me.”

“Many Korean Americans with disabilities who go to college often give up on their studies,” he said, “but I want them to know that everyone has setbacks and faces challenges. Mine just happens to be vision. No matter what kind of disability you have, I want you to keep trying and not give up on your dreams.”

He came to the U.S. when he was 11 with his single mother, Hee-sook Yoo, 58. He lost his vision on the right eye as a side effect of a retinal optic nerve surgery he underwent at age 1 and eventually lost his left vision when he was 15.

Despite being in a whole new environment with no friends or family to turn to, he immersed himself in math and computer studies that he loved and became the first blind student to be accepted into the computer science department at UC Riverside. But school wasn’t easy. There weren’t many textbooks available for the blind, and the cost of tuition held him down. Reluctantly, he decided to take a leave of absence in his senior year.

His mother, Ms. Yoo encouraged him, “Don’t sit on the sidelines, go to a community college and find something you like.” That’s when his interest in communications blossomed.

He went on to attend the Los Angeles City College (LACC) where he first got to experience public speaking, and then transferred to CSULA’s undergraduate program. After encouragement from his professors to compete in the regional and national speech competitions and tournaments, he began to win awards. In 2020, he was one of only 15 students from across the country to receive the Top Student Award from American Speech Association (ATA).

Of all the awards and achievements, Lee’s favorite was making it to the final 12 in the 2019 National Impromptu Speech Competition. His speech was about Apple’s new disability-related emojis, where Lee explains, “Seeing the emojis of sticks, wheelchairs, etc. that symbolize people with disabilities, it made me look back and think about my own interaction with people with disabilities, people without disabilities, and people with disabilities with computers.”

This single thought led him to graduate school and back to his doctoral program. “I will use both my communication and computer science major to study communication between people, as well as communication between people with and without disabilities digitally through computers and ChatGPT,” said Lee, who’s starting his doctoral program at the University of Colorado Boulder in July on a full scholarship.

For more than a decade, Lee has taught himself to play the piano and saxophone, and for one day a week he volunteers at an Australian nonprofit organization for people with disabilities to develop program code or to translate Korean to make computers more accessible to blind people around the world.

“Most people with disabilities can’t afford to buy a screen reader that helps you read what’s showing on the TV screen, so I developed a program to help them for free,” Lee said.

After graduation, Lee plans to travel around Southern California with his mother, who has spent the last 30 years providing for him. Yoo has been working part-time at the Alcott Rehabilitation Hospital on weekends to pay the bills so her son can focus on his studies. She is planning to accompany him to Colorado to support him in his doctoral program.

“I’m happy and proud of my son for continuing to challenge himself. I hope he completes his studies and plays a role in the growth and development of American society and the Korean American community.”

BY NICOLE JANG [support@koreadaily.com]