Weathering the Storm

How 2014’s GSE Valedictorian Overcame Sandy and Tremendous Odds

July 21, 2014
Cheryl Lee, GSE Class of 2014

When 2014 Graduate School of Education (GSE) valedictorian Cheryl Ann Lee addressed fellow graduates at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, she cited Robert Frost’s famous poem, “The Road Not Taken.” It’s a work that’s endured due to its message that sometimes, the path less traveled reaps greater rewards. Cheryl, a single mother from Staten Island who weathered the destruction of Superstorm Sandy and spent years raising her children while working myriad part-time jobs, has certainly taken that theme to heart.

Still, “I didn’t want it to be a speech about what I’d been through,” the Special Education graduate explains. “I didn’t want that ‘woe-is-me’ effect. I wanted it to celebrate me, but also celebrate everybody else that day, because there’s nothing [worse] than someone who goes, ‘Oh, look at me, I went through this.’ But it goes to show you, ‘Yeah, look at me, I went through this! You could do it too.’” 

What makes Lee’s accomplishment more astounding is that she earned her Touro degree in only three semesters. And the fast study admits that her quick ascent from new enrollee to student representative stirred plenty of interest. “Because my stay at Touro was only one year, there was certain faculty from other campuses that I didn’t get the privilege of working with directly,” she explains. So I had to then meet with [GSE] Dean [Dr.] Lamar Miller and [GSE Associate Dean and Program Chair] Dr. Ron Lehrer, because they were like, ‘We wanna see who this Cheryl Ann Lee is and what she’s about.’”

What they encountered was a woman who’d first pursued her undergraduate studies in Cultural Studies (she has a passion for English Literature) at SUNY Empire just before turning 40. They came across someone who’d already raised three teenagers and worked most of her adult life in elder care, in addition to cleaning homes. And they crossed paths with a New Yorker who lost everything in Sandy just as she was commencing studies at Touro, yet who persevered and towered over that adversity en route to her Masters. What they realized was, here’s an individual who knows there’s no time like the present and who wanted to begin helping others without delay. Or as Lee puts it, she’s someone who looked in the mirror a few years back and asked herself, “It’s crunch time, what am I going to do?” 

Fast forward to the present and past all those obstacles, and Lee’s now helping kids with unique challenges as a special-ed teacher at Staten Island’s District 75 high school. District 75 is a NYC-wide program that offers intimate instruction for cognitive and sensory delays, in addition to other disabilities, and Lee works primarily with autistic children. The job has immediately instilled her with a sense of purpose, but also reinforced that everyone needs the kind of advocacy and support she’s benefitted from. “That’s somebody’s child, that’s somebody’s sibling,” she says. “Granted, they have these disabilities, but they still deserve an education, that social time, and they should be cared for.”

Reflecting on her decades of work with both aging and younger populations, not to mention her own adolescent kids, she remarks, “It was really like the circle of life. It also grounded me as a person. For whatever it was I was going through, it made me realize in the big picture I really don’t have problems. My kids are healthy. I have the ability to go out and work. This will work. This will happen.”