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Columbia Dental Student Remembered by Hundreds at Memorial Service

By Emily Frost | May 13, 2014 11:45am
 Jiwon Lee, 29, was remembered at a memorial service at Columbia University's Medical Campus.
Jiwon Lee, 29, was remembered at a memorial service at Columbia University's Medical Campus.
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Matthew Lee

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — A Columbia University dental student who took her own life after struggling with depression was remembered for her charisma and humor at a memorial service Monday night at the college's Medical Campus.

Jiwon Lee, 29, went missing from her Upper West Side apartment on April 1 after leaving behind a suicide note, authorities said. Her body was discovered in the Hudson River near West 86th Street more than a month later.

On Monday, classmates, friends, professors and family members described Lee as a leader, serving as national president of the American Student Dental Association, as well as a storyteller who dabbled in standup comedy during her time at dental school.

She was expected to graduate this month, the university confirmed. 

Lee's family had raised more than $87,000 in an online campaign to pay for the private detective to search for her. The remaining money, the amount of which has not been disclosed, will be donated to a scholarship fund at the school in Lee's name, they announced on the site.

Images of a smiling Lee flashed on a screen Monday night as hundreds gathered to say goodbye. 

Lee "would always take your side... she knew what it was that would make you feel better," said her brother, Matt Lee, who described her sister as "genuine" and "so funny and so cool."

Her family emigrated from South Korea when Jiwon was just 3 years old, said Matt, who is five years younger than her. Through the years, when their mother would make long trips back to Korea to visit family members, Jiwon would step up to take care of Matt, feeding and looking after him, he said.

She was also generous with her friends, Matt Lee said. She loved to cook and was known for hosting themed food nights at her apartment, serving Mediterranean dishes or Thai food, he said. 

Her friend Kimerli Leal described her as full of "sparkle and light," a nurturer who would look after others and loved her patients. 

Jiwon Lee was a captivating speaker who loved to tell stories and "always blew everyone away," Leal added. 

She moved to New York City in 2006 after graduating from the University of Michigan, joining the Teach for America program a year later, her brother said. She "was fearless" in dealing with difficult middle school students at a Bronx school, he noted.

She also "did a great job hiding" her depression, her brother said. She was seeking help, but "getting out of bed was a struggle," he said, adding that "the pain I feel now is only a fraction of what she experienced."

Though she wasn't able to fully see her family's love when she was alive, "she's now able to see it was always there for her," Matt Lee said, adding that his sister is now "in peace."

"She's happy she was able to make a difference," he said.