Kevin Lee’s Forbidden Phrases: ‘I can’t’ and ‘I don’t know’

Former couch-surfing homeless teen charts path as SMU Law Student

Kevin Lee’s journey has taken him from homelessness after a snowstorm while a teenager in Pittsburgh to studying at SMU’s Dedman School of Law.

“Growing up, I had everything that a child could want,” Lee, now 27, said. “When I was 16, my mom and I lost our home to a flood.”

 Health officials deemed their home uninhabitable, so Lee and his mom couch-surfed after the blizzard before moving to stay with a friend in Georgia.

Then when trying to register for his senior year of high school in 2012, Lee discovered not enough of his credits would transfer for him to graduate on time.

“Big shock to us, so they said the only way that you will be able to graduate on time is if you go back to Pittsburgh,” Lee said. “My mom did the unimaginable and gave up the home that we had just so that I could go back to Pittsburgh and graduate.”

His mother, Tamara Williams, said there were two phrases she didn’t allow: “I can’t” and “I don’t know.”

I just want to be a person that people can look at and say you know what, ‘I can do that too,’ or ‘I can do even better than that.’

Kevin Lee

“There’s always a way to find out something,” Williams said. “I just kept on telling him, ‘Never give up.’”

He was able to register for school after they found an apartment in Pittsburgh. He then graduated valedictorian of his class.

While applying to colleges, Lee and his mom watched The Great Debaters, based on the story of a professor at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, who started a debate team there.

“That was the only movie we had, and so we watched it probably 10 times, and on the seventh time, I said, ‘You know what? I’d like to be on the debate team,’ he said. “My mom said, ‘Hey, well you have that cellphone in your hand, research Wiley College.”

Lee ended up attending Paul Quinn College in Dallas with a scholarship and serving as class president there.

“I was able to visit SMU during my time at Paul Quinn College, and I was actually a speaker at an event here, and so just being able to spend time on the campus, I said that is a place that I want to go for law school,” he said.

After he graduates from SMU’s law school, he hopes to advocate for others and become a judge, he said. “I just want to be a person that people can look at and say you know what, ‘I can do that too,’ or ‘I can do even better than that.’”

Rachel Snyder

Rachel Snyder, deputy editor at People Newspapers, joined the staff in 2019, returning to her native Dallas-Fort Worth after starting her career at community newspapers in Oklahoma. One of her stories won first place in its category in the Oklahoma Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest in 2018. She’s a fan of puns and community journalism, not necessarily in that order. You can reach her at

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