Honorary doctorate follows continuing leadership and support for generations of underserved people
April 06, 2022
For more than four decades, May O. Lee has worked to uplift and empower members of underserved communities in the Sacramento region.
Since arriving in Sacramento in 1975, she has helped guide, advise, mentor, teach, and inspire refugees, immigrants, and others in need. For her service, Sacramento State is bestowing upon Lee an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
Lee will receive the honorary degree during Commencement in May. She also will be recognized on April 6 during a ceremony at Sac State’s Julia Morgan House, along with honorary degree recipient Esteban Villa and Tim Collom, recipient of the President’s Medal for Distinguished Service.
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Among her many contributions to the region, Lee was founding director of Asian Resources Inc. (ARI), a nonprofit group that has helped thousands of people with limited English skills and low incomes get jobs and become independent. Her work inspired creation of Sac State’s Full Circle Project (FCP), which helps support the University’s Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American students.
Lee began her career in Sacramento at the Asian Community Center, which aims to improve quality of life for elders needing convalescent care. She became founding director of ARI in 1981 and served in that capacity until 2006, guiding an effort to serve burgeoning Asian immigrant and refugee communities with job assistance, English classes, health education, and other critical needs.
While involved in those endeavors, Lee pursued her master’s degree in Social Work at Sac State, thanks to a federal grant supporting Asian American community leaders, graduating in 1987.
She was instrumental in coordinating Sacramento’s annual Martin Luther King Expo and Job Fair and march, and successfully fought to have the city rename one of its streets Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. In 2000, she helped launch My Sister’s House, which serves Asian and Pacific Islander and other women and children affected by domestic violence.
“May is the embodiment of the word ‘dynamo,’ yet leads with humility, always focusing on the people and communities for whom she works and advocates, rather than on herself." - Tim Fong, Full Circle Project director
Lee was able to earn her master’s largely because of the grant she received and a Sac State Social Work professor’s encouragement, she said. Now she is “paying it forward,” she said, by sponsoring an annual scholarship for an FCP student.
Timothy Fong, a Sac State Ethnic Studies professor and FCP director who nominated Lee for the honorary degree, described her as humble yet dynamic.
She often works “in the trenches,” he said, as she did recently when helping distribute food to families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lee also has volunteered at vaccine clinics in south Sacramento, and has spoken out against hate and violence directed at Asians. For decades, she has worked with the U.S. Census to ensure inclusion of communities in the region that typically are difficult to count.
“May is the embodiment of the word ‘dynamo,’ yet leads with humility, always focusing on the people and communities for whom she works and advocates, rather than on herself,” Fong said.
Lee has “dedicated her entire life and professional career” to community service, he said.
“May’s life work has been about bringing individuals and communities together to create positive change for the betterment of all.”
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