Commencement 2017: Providence resident proves doubters wrong

Native American to earn bachelor’s degree from URI in May

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Heebe-Tee-Tse Lee

KINGSTON, R.I. – APRIL 21, 2017 — Born and raised on the Shinnecock Indian reservation in Southampton, N.Y, Heebe-Tee-Tse Lee wasn’t exposed to the value of education until he was 10 years old when he left the reservation with his mother.

She wanted to earn a college degree in New York City and bring new skills back to the reservation to help improve the native lifestyle.

Lee, a member of the Shinnecock and Narragansett tribes, the original people of New England and the Northeast, felt very sheltered living on the reservation. Many of the elder natives didn’t view formal education as necessary. His mom was part of the divide in this way of thinking, but she earned a bachelor’s degree at New York University and a master’s degree at Columbia University.

In New York, Lee quickly assimilated into the urban lifestyle, attending public elementary and high schools, but found himself struggling to make good grades. “Some of my teachers didn’t think that I took school seriously,” he said. He was determined to prove them wrong.

Lee came to Rhode Island shortly after graduating from high school. He then enrolled in URI.

But just as he was about to begin University life, his mother became sick. An only child and the sole caregiver, Lee faced a dilemma, leave URI and care for his mother or stay in school and struggle to find time for his mother.

Instead, he cut back on classes to care for her until she died. When she passed, he knew there was only one thing to do – get that degree.

So he immersed himself in his fine art and art history courses, taking classes at the Providence and Kingston campuses. He also worked part-time in the Providence campus’ Academic and Student Affairs Office.

Lee said that his education brought him to a “complete understanding of who I was and of my native culture.”

He wants his journey to be an inspiration to other Native Americans to show them that they can pursue an education and still stay connected to their heritage. He continues to be active in the American Indian Community House, counseling young natives on the value of education and bringing new skills to them, just as his mother did.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in art history in May, Lee will take another big step–a graduate degree in library science, at URI.