Knowing a little English, twins Sae-Ryoung (Nancy) and Jae-Ryong (Julie) Lee traveled thousands of miles from their home and parents in South Korea to attend Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha.
Nancy Lee said they had studied English while living in their hometown of Daejeon, in central South Korea, but were not fluent speakers.
“I knew basic expressions,” Julie Lee said.
Nevertheless, the sisters’ diligent efforts throughout their high school years culminated in not only mastering the English language, but also attaining the highest ranks in their class.
At Catholic Memorial’s commencement ceremony May 22, three-and-a-half years after their first day in the United States, Nancy Lee gave the valedictorian speech; Julie Lee presented the salutatorian address.
The Lees, 19, garnered the top spots among the 205 graduates because of their talents, intelligence and hard work, noted John Burke, Catholic Memorial English department chairperson and International Baccalaureate coordinator.
“They are creative and dedicated students and they work incredibly hard. You don’t see sibling rivalry; they are the other’s biggest supporters,” Burke said. “What especially strikes me is how kind they are, how generous and humble.”
“Nancy and Julie are hard workers, and that lifts up the other students, too; they work harder,” said Fr. Paul Hartmann, president of Catholic Memorial High School.
The sisters attended the first semester of high school in South Korea.
“It was different because we were at school from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Julie Lee said.
Their parents had attended graduate school in Boston when they were young adults, Nancy Lee said, “and because they studied in the United States, they wanted us to experience it.”
Their older brother and sister also had come to the United States as students, attending Seattle high schools and West Coast colleges.
“Our brother helped us study English,” Nancy Lee said. “Our brother and sister gave us survival tips for the United States.”
While attending Catholic Memorial, they lived in Brookfield with a friend of their aunt. Thanks to Skype, the teens kept in touch frequently with their father, a researcher, and their mother, an elementary school principal. The sisters returned to South Korea each summer.
Julie Lee said they felt comfortable at Catholic Memorial.
“It is very welcoming,” she said. “Lots of students would ask us to hang out with them.”
Family and new friends eased the transition to an unfamiliar country, and the sisters are thankful to have shared the experience together.
“We have the closest relationship in the world,” Nancy Lee said. “We’re a positive influence on each other.”
Although noting they are competitive, the two also encourage each other, Julie Lee added.
Sisters caught school spirit
“The Lee sisters were a constant presence at school events, even watching sports they weren’t familiar with, like football,” Fr. Hartmann said. “They wanted to experience everything.”
For example, Julie and Nancy Lee had never played tennis before coming to the U.S., but they wanted to participate on a sports team and gave it a try.
“We played on the JV team for two years,” Julie Lee said.
Fr. Hartmann and Burke noted the sisters’ contributions to the school’s musical program. Julie Lee is a pianist; Nancy Lee is a violinist. The sisters founded an ensemble three years ago, directed by Peter Lange, the high school’s music director.
Nancy Lee said one of her favorite high school memories is the sisters’ participation in Catholic Memorial’s Star Search event.
“We composed a song and played it together. We won second place,” she said.
Both sisters are passionate about music and cited playing their instruments as favorite ways to spend their free time, in addition to going to movies or taking a break at coffee shops.
The sisters also devoted their spare time to helping others in the community. They tutored elementary students and taught Korean to Korean Americans.
The Lees also participated in the International Outreach organization at Catholic Memorial, raising funds for the needy in Haiti and Uganda.
“I was really motivated to do more charity work because of Catholic Memorial,” Julie Lee said.
The two attended a Korean, nondenominational Christian church in Oak Creek and said their faith has been an important part of their teen years.
Julie Lee cited Catholic Memorial’s senior retreat in April as one of her most memorable experiences of the past three years.
“Students shared a lot and you could see how deep and important their faith was to them,” she said.
The sisters were especially touched by the reconciliation activity.
“It gave everyone a chance to share feelings and say sorry,” Nancy Lee said.
Drawn to IB program
Fr. Hartmann said Catholic Memorial has several students from South Korea and other countries.
“It’s part of our mission to serve globally. We’re poised to serve international students well with our International Baccalaureate academic program,” he said.
Nancy Lee described the International Baccalaureate program as challenging.
“It helped us prepare for college,” she said.
“It changed my study habits. I used to memorize,” Julie Lee added. “The IB program helped me understand the concepts.”
The Lees took many of the same courses while attending Catholic Memorial, but were often in different classes.
“If we had questions, we could ask each other,” Julie noted. “And if I wasn’t doing homework and I saw my sister studying hard, I would get motivated to study.”
Both cited literature classes as their favorite courses.
“Mr. Burke showed us how to approach literature in interesting ways. He extracted life lessons from the literature,” Julie Lee said.
The sisters believe that being organized was important to their high school success.
“My mom helped us learn to manage our time by making to-do lists,” Nancy Lee said.
The Lees plan to return to South Korea in mid-June. Their brother and sister also will be home; it will be the first time in five years the entire family has been together.
In August, Julie Lee will enter the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is considering a major in education or social sciences.
Nancy Lee will attend Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., and plans to study biology and physiology.
“I also am interested in architecture,” she said.
Although the two will be separated by almost 800 miles, they look forward to their college years.
“I’m excited to meet new people,” Nancy Lee said. “Being apart is an opportunity to be more independent.”
“We’ve been together for so long, being separate will be a new experience,” Julie Lee added.