In 1991, Gil Sik Lee and his wife were making plans to adopt two children from low-income backgrounds in hopes of giving them a better life. An unexpected detour in Washington D.C. made him realize that education — instead of adoption — could be a way to help improve the lives of underprivileged children.
While on sabbatical from Louisiana State University doing research at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington D.C., Lee, an electrical engineering professor, took the wrong exit off of Highway 295 early in the morning. He found himself in a poor neighborhood with kids of all ages playing on the street during school hours.
This scene reminded him of his childhood in Taegu, South Korea, where most students dropped out before middle school and out of the 700 kids he went to elementary school with, only 10 pursued a college education.
“I have three mottos in my life: to be fair, consistent and humble,” Lee said. “It’s not fair that some kids are born into richer families, get good education and they can have a good living. Some kids are unfortunate and born into poor neighborhoods. They don’t care about education, but it’s the only thing that can break the cycle of poverty.”
He said he realized that education would turn these children into good citizens more than his upbringing would if he were to adopt them. So, in 1993, Lee and his wife, also an electrical engineering professor, started a tutoring program called Math School of Baton Rouge.
It was held in McKinley High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours. Elementary students from second to fifth grade would attend and volunteers from LSU would dedicate their time to teaching children math.
“Kids from low-income areas believe they are weak in math, and they are because they don’t start at an early age,” Lee said. “But, that is not their choice.”
In 2001, Lee and his wife closed the Math School of Baton Rouge and moved to Dallas to start working at UTD. They immediately started negotiating with school principals in South Dallas to allow them to hold tutoring sessions at their campuses, but their efforts weren’t successful because administrators didn’t want to deal with liability issues.
Lee said he was upset about the fact that he wanted to open up opportunities for underprivileged students but his efforts and proposals went unacknowledged.
Finally, in the spring of 2005, Ora Hankins, the manager at Martin Luther King Branch library, welcomed their proposal for a free tutoring program.
Later dubbed IntelliChoice, the program has since then opened four other branches at the Harrington Library, the Vietnamese Community Center, the Emily Fowler Libarary and Skyline Library. A sixth branch in Carrollton will soon be established in 2015.
Soo Hyun Lee, a ninth grade math teacher at Newman Smith High School, heard about Lee’s program and was interested in making it available to her own students. She has volunteered to be the manager at the Carrollton branch once it opens. The location is still undecided.
“There are many good volunteers,” Lee said. “That is why the program is operating.”
UTD alumnus Joshua Choe is the branch manager at Martin Luther King Branch Library and drives 50 miles from Denton every Saturday to tutor.
“I think UTD has a history of students going out to make an impact in their community,” Choe said. “It’s not just about studying there. It’s about ‘What can I do with my life?’ I think that’s a big part of education and UTD has definitely had an impact on my service-oriented mindset.”
Saikrishna Singireddy, a senior at Plano East Senior High, also dedicates his time to assisting the non-profit and helping students succeed.
“There’s one girl who has attended tutoring since I first started volunteering and she used to really struggle,” Singireddy said. “ Now, she finishes her homework within the first 15 minutes and tries to learn advanced material to get ahead in school.”
Singireddy was referring to eight grader April Pibrdant, who is now two years ahead of her school’s curriculum as she learns algebra and geometry.
“It’s not that the students are weak in math,” Singireddy said. “They just need extra attention and motivation which their parents aren’t able to give them.”
The volunteers focus on preparing juniors and seniors for the SAT by conducting practice tests. Lee provides a variety of free prep books that the students wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
“I’m trying to work with the high school kids who are taking their SATs,” Choe said. “A lot of these kids are going to be the first in their families to go to college. If I can help them in any small way to improve their possibility of getting into college, I think that’s making an impact in the community, and that’s what I look forward to in my commute every Saturday.”
Lee said the owner of Young Jae Academy in Irving has offered to provide professional SAT prep free of charge to those who can achieve a certain minimum score, so Lee is working toward arranging this opportunity for his sharpest students.
Saachi Minocha, an information, technology and systems freshman, volunteered at the Harrington Library branch and helped two sisters who had just moved from Mexico overcome their communication barrier to learn math. She looked up Spanish vocabulary relevant to math and taught the kids how to count U.S. currency and tell time.
“They were really curious, attentive and ready to learn,” Minocha said. “I put in the extra work because I found it awesome that what I was learning in school was applicable in the real world. I thought, ‘If I had the skills to help them, then why shouldn’t I?’”
The two girls, Rosalini and Shirley, stayed with Saachi throughout the program from the end of her sophomore year to her senior year in high school.
“I tried to put my knowledge to good use and the students were genuinely trying to learn,” Minocha said. “Both parties were invested in the program for the right reasons so I think everyone benefitted.”
Lee hosted a banquet at the Omni Hotel in November 2014 to award scholars with good attendance and high work ethic. A total of $20,000 in scholarships were given out to 40 kids chosen from among the five learning centers. George Fair, dean of the School of Interdisciplinary Studies, was the keynote speaker at the banquet.
Companies such as Texas Instruments, Exxon Mobil and Samsung either donated $20-25 for every hour that their employees volunteered at IntelliChoice or matched their employees’ donations with their own contribution.
The donation money is used for scholarships and books. Lee wants to expand this fundraiser to as many individuals as possible to make it more of a community fundraiser rather than receive large sums from one or two companies. He is also looking for volunteers to serve at the Carrollton branch and contribute to existing branches.
“I think that there should be more of a spotlight on professors like Dr. Lee who have a vision to give back to the community,” Choe said. “He’s focused on what he can do as a professor at UTD for the people around him and he sets a great example.”