Lorie Lee is many things—mother of three, aspiring teacher, non-traditional student, President’s Prize recipient—and will soon add college graduate to her growing list. But her impressive resume does not even begin to do her journey justice. Behind most successes are stories of perseverance that often go untold. From a difficult childhood to raising children with special needs, Lee persevered. Next week, she will graduate with two bachelor’s degrees—elementary education and special education. This is her story.
Challenging beginnings and potential waiting to be unlocked
Born in Houston, Lee lived in Pasadena and Clear Lake, Texas, as a child. Lee’s mother suffered from substance abuse, and when Lee was 12, she and her older brother were moved to The Methodist Children’s Group Home in Waco. Then, at 14, she went to live with her biological father in Lago Vista, but it didn’t take long for him to realize he could not care for her. Lee was faced with a decision: go back to The Methodist Children’s Home or find her own place to live. Lee ended up staying with the family of a good friend from school.
“It was the best thing that ever happened up to that point in my life,” she said.
Her chaotic home life contributed to a lack of stable access to education; by the time she was in ninth grade, she had been to 13 different schools.
“I had many holes in my education. When I was tested, I was at a fifth-grade reading level and a third-grade math level,” Lee said. “The school placed me in a Resource classroom, but I soon outgrew the need to be in that program. Due to all the trauma, I endured as a child, my brain stopped learning, and I was in survival mode.”
Once Lee was in a stable home, she flourished. By graduation, she had caught up to her peers academically.
“This is why special education has a special place in my heart. The resource teacher, Ms. Baldwin, believed in me and pushed me to rise above. And I did!”
However, after graduating high school, the stigma of her family’s past still affected her confidence academically. It led her to believe that she could not be successful in a college setting.
“It wasn’t until after I was married that my husband convinced me to go back to school, and now I find myself reaching for a dream that I once deemed unreachable,” Lee said. “Reaching for this dream was a true paradigm shift. I had to alter how I saw myself, and I had to change my self-talk. I can do hard things!”
Armed with the knowledge that passionate and caring teachers could ignite a student’s potential, Lee decided to specialize in special education, in part, because of her trying childhood experiences.
At NAU: Family lends strength and confidence
Lee earned an associate’s degree with distinction from Estrella Mountain Community College and a certificate of achievement in strategic social media marketing from Boston University. She chose NAU because her husband received his master’s degree in education leadership here, and she witnessed the support and dedication his professors provided. She knew it would be an excellent fit for her.
Earning her degree in special education will fulfill her desire to accomplish her career goals, but it also gets her toward a personal goal.
“It will further separate me from the poverty I grew up in: not knowing when my next meal would come, where I would sleep or if I would be safe. My three children will never have to experience these worries,” Lee said.
Her husband, Sean, was a significant pillar of support. “He has been there this whole time and has been my biggest and loudest cheerleader during my schooling career.”
Lee attended the NAU-North Valley campus, but vividly remembers a trip up north during her academic tenure. She and a classmate drove to Flagstaff in Fall 2021 to purchase required course books from the bookstore. “While in Flagstaff, there was a torrential downpour of rain. It was beautiful, magical and memorable,” she said.
Facing doubt, gaining confidence and accomplishing goals
“My greatest accomplishment, aside from my academic success, has been my journey of self-discovery and the realization that I am capable of doing difficult things,” Lee said. “I attended college and have found success in my studies while raising three amazing children with numerous special needs and challenges.”
One of her sons suffers from eosinophilic esophagitis (EOE), a chronic illness that requires constant medical attention, and her daughter has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD. Both children also suffer from food allergies. These conditions demand support, guidance and accommodation, and Lee was there for her family while working toward her academic goals.
Caring for her children while progressing through her program gave her confidence and resilience that she’s eager to share. She believes she can relate to and advocate for her future students’ families as they navigate and negotiate their struggles and goals.
“I see myself investing in my local community, assisting my special needs students, and preparing them to join the workforce using skills I impart to them within the four walls of my classroom.”
Some of the most impactful times during Lee’s college career were when she participated in practicum experiences in person rather than online. Her first semester was entirely online due to COVID-19. Overcoming the mental hurdle of thinking she could not succeed academically because of her childhood was particularly challenging and is one of her proudest accomplishments.
Family, fun and hopes for the future
Lee’s plan after graduation is to work as a resource teacher within the Litchfield Elementary School District. Her dream is to teach students with disabilities and continue being a great mom to her kids.
“Without NAU, I would still be dreaming of becoming a teacher. NAU provided a viable path for me to attend school while fulfilling my responsibilities as a wife and mother,” she said.
Lee lives her life intentionally and aims to make choices with betterment in mind. For this reason, she often has no regrets and thinks all her past experiences are essential, for they made her what she is today. One of the strongest influences in her life was experiencing poverty as a child. She knew she didn’t want that life for her children and pushed herself to gain education and security.
In the future, Lee hopes to travel to Europe with her family, start a scholarship for those dealing with traumatic childhoods and see her children eat whatever they want without having an allergic reaction. And, as soon as her son’s immune system can handle being around dogs, her family plans to adopt a boxer.
Cynthia Gerber | NAU Communications
(928) 523-7341 | Cynthia.Gerber@nau.edu