Cole Lee is like many other college students. He has friends, classes and loses many hours of sleep studying.
Six foot tall with short black hair and glasses, Lee looks like a professional in a white button-down shirt, jeans and nice brown shoes. Based on his attire, it might not surprise anyone to learn that Lee wants to be a lawyer. This semester, he has a demanding 18-credit course load and dedicates extra time to prepare for the Law School Admission Test this fall.
Yet Lee’s aspirations extend beyond a law career. Like many other undergraduates, he wants to usher change in our society. A complicated childhood led to this realization.
“I wanted to make a difference,” Lee explained.
When he was 6, Lee’s mother left his family for her career as a professor, he explained. One day she boarded a flight to South Korea and never came back.
“My own mom didn’t want me,” Lee said, getting choked up.
He wanted to make her proud but could not because she left, he said. Thus, Lee decided he would dedicate his time and energy to the people around him.
Today his father is remarried, and Lee says he considers his step-mom as his biological parent. Lee added that she is more a part of his family than his biological mother ever was.
His parents were immigrants from South Korea who opened a dry cleaning shop. Lee explained that even though his family’s shop was not lucrative, money was not a major issue to him.
“Growing up, I didn’t have the latest toys,” Lee explained. “Those were things that I only got to enjoy at a friend’s house.”
Being raised on Staten Island was significant for Lee and his family.
“We never worried about money,” he said. “As much as we knew we weren’t very well off, we also didn’t have to worry about having a warm bed to sleep in.”
The absence of money in his youth brought Lee and his two younger siblings closer together.
“We’re very close and very tight knit,” he explained. “We’ve gone through so much together.”
Now as a college student, he takes on two of the most demanding student leadership positions: being a resident assistant and Undergraduate Student Government president.
“The job of the president can be very strenuous,” said Thomas Kirnbauer, the administrative director of USG. “It’s probably the toughest student leader position because there is such a high level of expectation.”
Adding to that, the job of RA is no easy task. “We put a lot on our RAs,” Jennifer Boakye, the Residence Hall Director of Keller College, where Lee is a resident assistant, said.
Both positions require a lot of commitment. Officially, members of the USG executive board are required to work at least 15 hours a week for USG. But Lee often works longer than that.
“You’ll see him in this office, or doing USG-related matters for well over the 15 hours a week that he’s supposed to be here,” Kirnbauer said.
And while there is no official requirement for how many hours a RA works per week since their schedules fluctuate, Lee said, an RA’s work averages 20 hours per week.
However, these commitments do not hinder Lee’s performance in either role. Instead, the positions he holds allow him to prosper in both.
“If he starts a job, no circumstance or obstacle can impede on his momentum,” Krisly Zamor, the current executive vice president of USG, said.
Kirnbauer, who has been involved in USG for six years, said Lee is different from past USG presidents.
“I’ve seen five or six USG presidents,” he said. “Cole by far seems to be the most focused on advocating for students.”
From the beginning of his presidency, Lee has worked to improve student programs on sexual assault, gender equality and toxic drinking. He has also worked hard to reduce the stigma behind mental health and to provide innovative resources for every student on campus, such as a 24-hour library.
“A lot of students come in with their concerns, and he puts his heart and soul into helping them out,” Taylor Bouraad, the current USG treasurer, said.
However, the work Lee does as USG president is taxing on him.
“It’s exhausting,” he said. “But really fulfilling.”
He says he forgets about that exhaustion when he remembers the positive work he is doing for the student body.
“When I see people coming up and thanking me, with just genuine appreciation in their eyes, all that tiredness goes away,” he said.
Between meetings, Lee spends only a few minutes in his office to collect his thoughts. The white walls are sparsely decorated with a few pictures of New York City and framed pictures of last year’s USG-sponsored events.
At first glance it looks empty, with only a small blue couch and black coffee table, yet collected on the floor and hanging from the window sill are many multicolored balloons left over from his birthday celebration last month. Lee said he has not cleaned them up because they remind him to relax and have fun amid his many responsibilities.
When he is working in his office, his desk is tidy, but the bottom of his two computer screens are littered with sticky notes from his friends and reminders from himself. On one screen, Lee has a web browser and email open, and in the other, Spotify is open with everything from Drake and Rihanna to Walk the Moon and Future queued to play.
Yet Lee hardly has time to listen to any of his music because he instinctively leaves extra time to go to his obligations.
“He’s always the first to meetings,” Boakye said. “He always comes about 10 minutes early.”
For a meeting with Dean of Students Timothy Ecklund, Lee was the first to arrive. He used the extra time to send emails and to talk with the dean’s office staff. Waiting for other attendees to arrive, Lee casually talked with Ecklund about the dean’s spring break — he was at a meeting in Indianapolis, then traveled to Nashville and finally trekked to Des Moines, to watch the Seawolves in their first NCAA tournament appearance ever.
Once the meeting started, Lee instantly switched from the casual conversation to serious talk about restrictions on resident assistants for next year with Dean Ecklund.
“Cole has a way of putting his words together,” Boakye said. She said that Lee’s attention to detail when he speaks makes his words compelling.
His words flow eloquently and professionally, and when Lee argues, he does so without attacking anyone. Even in a casual interview, Lee takes time to consider his answer to every question he is asked.
Outside of USG, Lee is an integral part of the Keller College RA staff. As a part of Boakye’s staff, Lee has received outstanding RA reviews from both her and his residents.
“His residents adore him,” Boakye explained.
Zamor said Lee is committed to his residents.
“I know that as an RA, Cole has stayed up all night with residents that are going through tough times the night before he had an exam the next day,” she said.
She said Lee adjusts his schedule to spend time with residents who experience difficulties adjusting to college life. When one of Lee’s residents is stressed about work or an exam, Boakye said that Lee will have bought that resident food by the end of the week.
“Cole’s ability to be genuinely caring allows him to make time with his residents,” Boakye said.
Why does Cole Lee work so hard for the students of Stony Brook?
“I’m not doing it for my own benefit,” he said.
Lee said part of why he puts so much effort into his work as an RA and USG president comes from his past.
Lee lives by a quote: “Everyone you meet is going through a battle that you know nothing about. So be kind.”
He explained that he approaches every situation the same way because he never knows the struggles of someone else.
Hardship is nothing new for Lee. During his freshman year, financial hardship struck his family.
“In the midst of his ambitious course towards increasing his involvement on campus, Cole and his family were unfortunately impacted by financial burdens,” Zamor said.
Lee explained that his family’s car was towed and that his family was almost bankrupt and evicted from their home.
“I’ve gone through a lot,” Lee said simply.
Lee said his father and step-mother advised him to have fewer obligations. He said they wanted him to enjoy his last undergraduate year. But he didn’t agree. In fact, Lee was just re-elected as USG president for a second term. For him, personal time with friends would not bring him the same happiness he feels as USG president.
“I know there is nothing I would rather do,” Lee explained. “There is nothing that would be more fulfilling.”