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Claremont Courier - A Local Nonprofit Newsroom

Scholarship gift honors Korean-American doctor

Dr. Martin Hyung-Il Lee immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1974, becoming the first in his family to graduate from college before going on to medical school.

As a doctor, Lee for decades served immigrants in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, sometimes even accepting copayments in windowsill chili peppers from elderly widows with limited incomes.

Now students on Lee’s same path to the American dream will benefit from a $1 million gift to Pomona College devoted entirely to scholarships. The Dr. Martin Hyung-Il Lee Scholarship Fund is for students facing financial hardships, who come from immigrant families, are first-generation college students and/or are pursuing careers in science or medicine.

Lee’s son, Bobby Lee, and daughter-in-law, Sophia Whang, established the fund to honor Dr. Lee, who died in January at the age of 64.

“My father lived the American dream, and this is a way to carry on his memory and ideals,” said Bobby Lee, who graduated from Pomona in 2002. He is the president and COO of Los Angeles-based JRK Property Holdings and serves on the college’s board of trustees.

Dr. Lee was a resilient man and strong in the face of a challenge, from having two young children during medical school and residency to receiving a cancer diagnosis in mid-life.

He was determined to work throughout his treatments so he could continue to serve his patients, and he did, fighting stage four cancer for almost eight years. His determination to live also allowed him more time with his beloved family and his young grandchildren. Martin Lee died on Jan. 27, 2021.

“My father was never one to seek recognition,” says Bobby. “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.”

“My father definitely inspired me. 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,” adds Bobby’s sister Jennifer “Jenny” Jean Lee, a Pomona College graduate and obstetrician-gynecologist at the Saban Community Clinic, a nonprofit affordable health care provider in Los Angeles.

Located in Claremont, Pomona College is one of a small number of colleges that practice need-blind admissions and meet the full demonstrated financial need of all students who enroll. The college has been named by The New York Times one of the top 10 colleges “doing the most for the American dream.”

“This gift is meaningful in so many ways. It is a testament to a family’s love for their father, who believed in the pursuit of higher education,” says Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr. “It also serves as a moving example of a family giving back so that generations of Pomona students can realize their futures.”

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