WASHINGTON—Simon Lee, who believes strongly in education and family, merged those values grandly Friday when he and his three eldest children all graduated from George Washington University.
Lee, the founder and chief executive officer of the $170 million Internet technology provider STG Inc., and his two oldest children, Julie and Philip, received master of science degrees from GWU's engineering school. His middle daughter, Michelle, earned a bachelor's degree in business administration.
The celebrations mark the first time in the Washington school's 181-year history that four immediate family members earned degrees in the same year, university officials said. It's unclear how many other families nationwide may have pulled off the same feat.
Simon Lee, 56, of Falls Church, Va., said the family's achievement fulfilled a goal that most Korean parents had.
"Korean parents try to plant their dreams through their children because they were not able to succeed at them," said Lee, the son of South Korean farmers who died before he was 15.
He earned an undergraduate degree in South Korea and took graduate classes at GWU in 1980 but had to drop out to support his young family.
"I want my children to finish their curriculum at least up to a master's degree."
He began his Fairfax, Va.-based company in 1986 with one employee. It's now a major IT provider to the federal government.
Two years ago, he returned to school and asked Julie—who had been taking business classes at GWU—and Philip Lee to join him in pursuing engineering master's degrees.
"I don't need any more education to get promoted, and I don't need any education to get paid better," said Simon Lee, whose first job when he came to the United States in 1979 was keeping the books at a seafood restaurant in northern Virginia. "Why did I come back to school? Learning never ends."
Lee said he also wanted to spend time with a younger generation, jokingly drawing comparisons between himself and Rodney Dangerfield's character in the 1986 movie "Back to School," a comedy about a middle-aged man who joins his son at college.
Speaking in an engineering school dean's suite that was named for his wife, Anna, and him after they made a contribution to the university, Lee said the family's combined GWU bills approached $500,000.
Michelle Lee started her undergraduate career at Boston's Northeastern University, but transferred after her sophomore year partly because she wanted to be with her family.
"It's just kind of funny how it worked out with the rest of my family," the 22-year-old said.
Since there's no national database of college graduates, it's impossible to know whether other families have matched the Lees' feat.
"I think that's fairly uncommon," said Shelley Rodgers, the director of government relations and communications for the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers in Washington.
More parents may be graduating with their children because higher education institutions have become more flexible, offering more online, night and weekend courses, Rodgers said.
Being able to take classes on Saturdays at GWU's satellite campus in Ashburn, Va., allowed Simon Lee and his two oldest children to complete their degrees while working during the week.
Simon, Julie, 28, and Philip Lee, 23, were even in some of the same classes and collaborated on homework and group assignments.
Simon Lee said he and his children were careful not to hand in homework with the same answers. "Even though three of us worked together, we had to have our own answers," he said.
So who did the best in the class?
"Depends on who you talk to," he said.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): FOURGRADS
Need to map