Bruna Lee ’13 Shares Her Story as Steppingstone Gala’s Keynote Speaker

If Bruna Lee ’13 was nervous to address 400 people at The Charles Hotel in Cambridge this fall, no one in the crowded room could tell. The Rivers junior immediately captivated her audience at the 14th Annual Steppingstone Pep Rally Gala as she reflected on a personal journey full of hard work, perseverance, and support from others that led to the success she continues to achieve inside and outside the classroom.

“I had a very extensive support system,” Lee told her audience. “I knew I could make it if I had those people by my side.”

On November 2, Lee delivered the keynote address at the Steppingstone Gala, which raises money to allow The Steppingstone Foundation to provide a free academic program that prepares dedicated students for success at independent schools in the Boston area and eventually college. Steppingstone serves more than 1,300 students from grade five through senior year of college, including six Steppingstone Scholars at Rivers.

Born in Brazil, Lee moved to Boston when she was 11 years old. Neither Lee nor her parents, who both grew up in Communist China, spoke any English when they arrived in the U.S., and they faced the challenge of adjusting to a new environment and a new language.

“Although I had my parents and other family here to support me, the transition wasn’t an easy one,” said Lee, as she addressed her audience at the Gala. “There was a language barrier, a scarce knowledge of American culture, and a longing for the life I had left behind.”

Lee and her parents spent their first months in the U.S. living in a one-bedroom apartment near Chinatown while she attended sixth grade at a bilingual school in East Boston. During the summer before eighth grade, she was nominated to become a Steppingstone Scholar by one of her teachers at Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. Lee has since become a leader among her peers and a prominent member of both the Steppingstone and Rivers communities.

The Gala is Steppingstone’s largest fundraiser and celebrates all of the organization’s partners – the placement schools that prepare Steppingstone Scholars for college. This year’s event was an unprecedented success, with 400 guests and 18 heads of school in attendance, and a final fundraising total of more than $750,000.

Director of Admissions Gillian Lloyd attended the Gala and says Lee’s modest description of her success was a highlight of the event.

“Bruna’s speaking was so impressive,” said Lloyd, who is Lee’s advisor at Rivers. “She had control of the room and was in such command of the audience. She was articulate and warm, and set forth a truly positive tone for Steppingstone as an organization.”

Being a Steppingstone Scholar meant commuting from Charlestown to Dorcester for two-hour after-school sessions three days a week and all morning on Saturdays. In addition to her homework from Steppingstone, Lee still had to stay on track with regular classes and homework. She was stressed and sometimes overwhelmed, but with help from her mentors in the program, Steppingstone classmates, and her own personal motivation, she consistently excelled.

“Steppingstone had given me such a great opportunity,” said Lee. “I knew I had to take advantage of it and keep going.”

Three years later, Lee still shares a strong connection with Steppingstone, remains close with many of the friends she made through the foundation, volunteers frequently, and participates in Steppingstone’s weekend study halls.

At Rivers, her perseverance has become increasingly apparent. Head of Upper School Patti Carbery says Lee’s selection as the Gala’s keynote speaker was a fitting tribute to her work ethic, character, and academic ability.

“She is truly an impressive young woman who has graced our classrooms and co-curricular programs with her many gifts,” said Carbery.

Lee is also the junior editor of Rivers’ literary magazine, The Current, co-president of the Gay-Straight Alliance, a Red Key tour guide, a member of the track team, and part of the stage crew for an upcoming theater production.

Academically, she is interested in writing and has an obvious passion for foreign languages. Already fluent in English and Portuguese, Lee studies Spanish and Latin at Rivers and speaks Cantonese at home with her parents. She says her interest in languages may lead to a career in international relations or education.

With a daily one-and-a-half hour commute to and from school, Lee leaves her house in Quincy at 6:30 a.m. every morning to take the T into Boston, catch a bus to Weston, and arrive at Rivers by 8:00 a.m. But those who have spent any time with her know that a long commute won’t stand in her way.

“Bruna’s hard work and tenacity exemplify what it means to be a Steppingstone Scholar,” said founder of The Steppingstone Foundation, Michael Danziger. “She embraces opportunities and continually succeeds in the face of challenges. Steppingstone is extremely proud of her accomplishments and anticipates many more ahead.”

Lee never hesitates to attribute her success to her mentors and supporters. In fact, she claims reaching out for support from others has been one of the most important steps in achieving her goals.

“If you’re stressed or have too much going on, don’t try to do everything by yourself,” Lee said, as a word of advice to others. “Wherever you are, it’s important to find a support system whether it’s a teacher, advisor, or someone else who can help.”

Lee has formed close relationships with many of her teachers and advisors at Rivers and enlisted their help during difficult transitions. She also understands the importance of encouraging others.

“She is an outgoing, enthusiastic member of my advisory and is constantly so supportive of her peers,” Lloyd said of her advisee. “We are so lucky to have her as a member of this community. Her diligence, effort, and strength of spirit are a great example for others.”

Click here to read Lee's keynote address from the Steppingstone Gala.