Seung Lee, M.D., was in high school when he learned that he was an undocumented citizen. When it seemed like he wouldn't be able to realize his dream of becoming a neurosurgeon because of his undocumented status, the government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program opened a door for him. He was able to get a driver's license and work legally in the U.S. Today, Dr. Lee is a resident in Neurologic Surgery at Mayo Clinic in Florida, and a recipient of the American Epilepsy Society's 2021 Young Investigator Award. His research on healing human memory has been published in Epilepsia.
Read his story below.
During college, the total amount I could allot for groceries each week was $19.38. I remember the exact layout of the grocery store and buying the same discounted eggs, milk, pasta and tomato sauce. At home, I would quickly devour two boiled eggs to feel fuller than I actually was. This was my usual routine, and the winter holidays of 2011 are an especially vivid memory.
Becoming a doctor is almost impossible with your undocumented status.
"You won't starve if you start working in Korea," my mother pleaded before hanging up the phone.
Her words continued to echo deafeningly that quiet night in my small room. With my roommates away celebrating the holidays with their families, the loneliness amplified the pain in my stomach. I wished from the bottom of my soul that it was all a nightmare, until I was so fatigued and drained of hope that I eventually fell asleep.
I explored various fields during college, including music, marketing and finance. However, none of them filled my hungry stomach with delight as science did. I replaced my burdens with a scientific curiosity that my professors helped foster, along with cherishing moments that I shared with friends and family.
My journey inevitably led to more questions about the human brain, and how we store our memory — the most valuable possessions I own. Memories of friends who always brought me food and helped me with rent. Pinching pennies with my friends to afford a few snacks to share. Commiserating together when we lost those who were closest to us.
I wanted to understand the mechanisms behind my treasured recollections. With more time spent on research, I wanted to discover new ways to preserve this, especially for those patients who are combatting neurological diseases that threaten to strip away what is most valuable to all of us.
My wishes from those nights were gradually answered, with a government program: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. The program did not offer a pathway to citizenship, or access to financial aid or other government-funded programs, but it allowed us "Dreamers" to work legally and obtain a driver's license.
With this, I was able to continue my research in neuroscience while financially supporting myself to apply for further education. Only a handful of medical schools were aware of "Dreamers" at the time, and most schools were not open to having students with uncertain paths to citizenship. I was incredibly lucky to have been accepted.
Attending graduate school as a "Dreamer" still does not give access to government-funded scholarships, grants or financial aid. Much of the time in school was spent on searching and applying for scholarships that did not require a green card.
I paid portions of my initial tuition through personal donations via online fundraising platforms. I eventually published my story in local newspapers and found a co-signer for a private bank loan. Most importantly, our compassionate medical school allies set up fundraisers for DACA students and worked tirelessly with our compassionate school administration to find additional funding.
What ultimately brought me to Mayo Clinic was seeing Dr. Sanjeet Grewal's honest and compassionate care to his patients, along with his dedication to neuroscience and education. I'm very excited to continue learning from him as I progress in my training here, and I hope to follow in his footsteps. I'd be happy to be half the neurosurgeon he is.
Some of the highlights of my time at Mayo have been learning both inside and outside the operating room with Dr. Bill Clifton last year, and seeing what it takes to be the best. Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, Dr. Kaisorn Chaichana, Dr. Selby Chen, Dr. Hugo Guerrero Cazares and all the faculty are invested in making our training program one of the best in the world. It's inspiring to see how even other department faculty are invested in our education, especially the departments of Otorlaryngology ― Head and Neck Surgery, Neurology and Plastic Surgery.
Now that I am able to follow my passion in neurosurgery and the laboratory setting, I've never since felt the same growling pain that I did when I found out that I was undocumented. Instead, my stomach now feels full, knowing that now it's my turn to fill the needs of other hungry "Dreamers." It is a very frightening idea that a person's immense potential to contribute key scientific discoveries could be repressed by the absence of a piece of paper.
Through this article, I hope to reach out to others pursuing medicine or neuroscience to continue doing what you love and surround yourself with good people. Reach out to me if you need any help. I am here to help in any way I can.