Electrical engineering professors at UTD run a nonprofit tutoring program called IntelliChoice seeking to help underprivileged kids get ahead in school.
Gil Sik Lee’s respect for the power of education came from his background in Korea after witnessing the poverty his family faced.
“My parents have zero public education,” Lee said. “They never went to school. My father was laboring in coal mines during World War II in Japan, and his life was terrible.”
Growing up, Lee was one of seven children, just as his father was one of seven. Out of all his siblings and cousins, Lee is the only college graduate. Now, Lee and his wife, Jung Soon, teach at UTD.
“Fortunately, I had a good education and I came to America,” he said. “What really affected me was when I was at Louisiana State University. I saw a lot of kids playing on the street on my way to work. This is what I used to do as a kid instead of going to school. I thought I can do something for these kids’ futures and maybe help them go to college.”
In 1993, the Lees started tutoring underprivileged kids. Every afternoon, they would teach classes of about 15 students. Because they weren’t native English speakers, they focused on mathematics.
“English was too hard, with the pronunciation and accent and all that, but I thought ‘Oh math, we can teach that,’” Lee said. “It was almost like day care for these kids, but my wife and I tutored them in math.”
After 24 years, IntelliChoice now has 13 official branches, with numerous student organizations at high schools and colleges. Volunteer tutors help kids from financially insufficient backgrounds with mostly math, although Lee said assisting the students with completing homework was the first priority.
“When you have a poor kid in school, maybe he doesn’t get something as fast as the other kids,” Lee said. “We want to show them there’s a good future for them at a college like UTD or that they can do better in school.”
Biomedical engineering sophomore Reynaldo Ortiz used to be one of the almost 650 registered students at IntelliChoice. Ortiz met Lee he visited the Skyline Branch Library to see how the organization was doing. After growing up and attending UTD, Ortiz decided to go back to Skyline and be one of the 230 volunteer tutors at IntelliChoice.
“I remember hearing about it in high school, so I checked it out,” Ortiz said. “I got help there in calculus and it helped a lot, so when I came to UTD, I thought I would give back.”
Ortiz uses his Saturdays to tutor students from elementary to high school in math, and he finds that spending his time teaching has benefits for himself as well.
“Sometimes I enjoy teaching, and it makes me wonder if I want to be a teacher in the end,” he said. “It helps me see what grade level I’d like to teach.”
When IntelliChoice was just starting to grow, Lee said he needed more tutors for the rising number of students. To combat this shortage, Lee reached out to the Korean Student Association. From there, the news spread and more UTD students became volunteers at IntelliChoice.
“Many of these tutors are premed or are going on to get jobs or are applying to more schools,” Lee said. “(Volunteering at Intellichoice) can really help them a lot to get where they want to go. We have students who went on to go to schools like Yale.”
Every year, the organization has a state dinner with the parents of the kids IntelliChoice helps. Selected students, like Ortiz, receive scholarships for their improved performance in school as well as their need levels. This year, President Benson is the guest speaker for the event at the upcoming Davidson-Gundy Alumni Center.
No matter how large his accomplishments, Lee said he always wants to help.
“It always feels good to be helping more kids change their lives for the better,” he said.