A pioneering Asian-American sorority long known for supporting higher education has endowed a new graduate fellowship at UC Berkeley.
Sigma Omicron Pi Sorority (ΣΟΠ) was founded in 1930 by ten young Chinese-American women at San Francisco Normal School, the teacher’s college that would become San Francisco State. At the time, Greek sororities and fraternities routinely excluded ethnic minorities, and ΣΟΠ, whose initials stand for “Students of Pedagogy,” was the first Asian sorority at that campus, where it was an active social, educational and philanthropic organization until World War II.
After the war, ΣΟΠ was revived at UC Berkeley. Here, the sorority found a welcoming home, says Wendy Yee (B.A. History of Art ’69). Rare among elite universities, Berkeley was co-ed from the start, and admissions were based on achievement — no unwritten rules excluded ethnic minorities. “My great grandfather’s youngest son, who was born in 1900, graduated from Berkeley’s College of Engineering,” she says.
Wendy’s mother Jean Lym Yee, class of ’39, was an early member of ΣΟΠ, where she made lifelong friends and met her husband, Don M. Yee (UCSF B.Pharm. ’42), who was smitten at a sorority party. “She opened the front door, she had a plate of cookies, and he thought she had beautiful eyebrows,” Wendy laughs. He was tall, good looking and a great foxtrot dancer, recalls Jean with a chuckle. “He liked to dip.”
Now 96 years old, Jean Lym Yee was active for many years with her fellow ΣΟΠ alumnae fundraising and awarding scholarships in the Asian community. In Fall 2012, with matching funds from the Graduate Division, they transferred their scholarship fund to UC Berkeley. “We have assigned to the very capable and, we believe, ultimately fair hands of the Graduate Division…our organization’s long, 83-year tradition of valuing higher education,” says Wendy Yee, who spearheaded the endowment.
The Sigma Omicron Pi Sorority, Inc., Fund for Graduate Fellowships will be used to support high-achieving female graduate students, with a preference for Asian students. It will make its first awards in Fall 2013. The sorority hopes that many other alumni will be inspired to establish their own graduate fellowships at UC Berkeley.