Perseverance and a passion for helping others are the defining traits of Pellissippi State Community College’s 2014 Distinguished Alumni Award winner. Rhonda Lee, who graduated in Paralegal Studies with the Class of 2004, is a mother, grandmother, cancer survivor and attorney.
Lee was 42 when she began classes at Pellissippi State after a career in real estate and home building.
“I decided to follow my passion in my 40s,” said Lee, now a practicing attorney in Knoxville, “and I faced criticism and hardship as an older, working woman with children. But that was my passion. It’s what I wanted to do.”
After graduating from Pellissippi State, Lee attended the University of Tennessee Knoxville and UT Chattanooga, completing her bachelor’s degree in legal studies in 2006. She capped off nearly a decade of studies when she earned her Juris Doctor from Nashville School of Law in 2012—and she put nearly 130,000 miles on her vehicle in the process.
Lee now owns her own law firm, where she specializes in criminal defense but also practices family and general law. Her particular interest is in serving marginalized and indigent clients.
“I have a passion to make a difference in people’s lives. Our constitutional rights are the greatest rights we have, and being in law is a way of making sure that people’s liberties are protected. I see that every day.
“There can be a lot of injustice in the justice system, because people don’t always have representation. I work to make sure that no one is overlooked, that they always have adequate representation.”
Lee understands falling through the cracks. While she was working full time in Knoxville and commuting to Nashville for law school, she was diagnosed with cancer. She didn’t have health insurance at the time, and she struggled to find treatment.
“So I figured I would just go to school until I died,” Lee said. “But I thought that if I was going to die, I would go out doing what I had always dreamed of.
“My goal was to get through one more set of classes, and that got me up every day. That got me across the stage at graduation and through the bar exam. Now I have my own law firm, and it’s a dream come true.”
Lee’s work as an attorney is not the only way she finds to help people. She also supports the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Cancer Support Community of East Tennessee, East Tennessee Legal Aid and the Tennessee Cancer Coalition.
She has drafted legislation in several states, not just Tennessee, that will change the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse, making it easier for victims to pursue justice. Lee balances all of this with time supporting her children and grandchildren and serving as a caretaker for her aging parents.
And she continues to take on more. She plans to return to Pellissippi State as an adjunct faculty member teaching law classes in the fall.
“I love Pellissippi State, and I’m really excited to go back and teach there, because if it wasn’t for that foundation—for getting a hands-on, personal touch while I was a student there—I wouldn’t be where I am today. I want to be that person for other students.
“Pellissippi State makes it possible for anyone, at any stage of life, to get an education. If you want to succeed, they help you get there.”
Pellissippi State’s Distinguished Alumni Award is given to an individual in recognition of significant professional achievement, service to the community, and support of the College and the Pellissippi State Foundation.
For more information about Pellissippi State, including its programs and giving opportunities, visit www.pstcc.edu or call (865) 694-6400.