Daniela Lee ’22, a Cornell senior known for her inquisitiveness and passion for knowledge, died on Apr. 19, 2022 at the age of 20. Family and friends mourned the loss of a faithful friend, loving daughter and devoted Christian.
Upon seeing Lee, people first noticed her flowers: Worn in her hair and on long flowery dresses almost every day around campus. Daffodils were her favorite, and a significant part of who she was, as her close friend, Mannayah Louis ’24 and Lee’s younger sister, Maria Lee ’24 remembered.
“Someone who just realized that Dani was my sister told me, ‘I remember seeing her and seeing her crown of flowers and her long flower dress, and I thought, wow she’s so happy. She must be a very happy person.’ And that’s so true because she was,” Maria Lee said.
Lee’s love for flowers was not only a reflection of her love for nature but the nature of her heart.
“She would send me the pictures of the tiniest flowers that no one noticed,” Lee’s mother, Claudia Lee ’97 said. “She once called me saying, ‘Mom, look at this tiny purple one. It’s probably a weed, but it’s so beautiful and it’s under a bench. Nobody except me will probably ever admire it.’ That was her heart.”
To those close to her and strangers alike, Lee was known for radiating positive energy towards everyone she met. Friends and family remembered her care for others and selflessness.
Many friends found her to be especially comforting when they needed support. For María Raskulinec ’22, a close friend and fellow member of Cru, an interdenominational Christian student organization on campus, this was through conversations over coffee.
Raskulinec described Lee as being empathetic and encouraging during these conversations, even when those long conversations needed to be cut short.
“We shared a lot in our experiences at Cornell and the things that we struggled with,” Raskulinec said. “There was one time we met up for coffee and I was so rushed that I could only meet for a few minutes. But she was so understanding. Even that [short] conversation was what I needed at that moment. I hope she feels the same way about me.”
Valerie Hu ’24, another friend from Cru, met Lee during her first year at Cornell. Hu said that Lee was kind to everyone, regardless of how well she knew them.
“Sometimes when I walk past people on campus I’ll nod or wave, but the fact that she always had a huge smile and every time I ran into her or saw her made such an impact,” Hu said. “She had this way of making people feel seen and important.”
Lee was also very close with her family. She deeply loved her parents and siblings. Every morning she sent a “good morning” text to her parents, and video chatted with her family in Arizona every night before she went to bed to tell them about her day.
“My love for Dani was immeasurable. She was my heart and she was a Daddy’s girl since birth. I truly looked forward to talking to her everyday and her happiness meant the world to me. I was always so proud of her. She brought unsurpassed honor to our family — something supernatural and Godly and beyond our earthly understanding,” Lee’s father, Anthony Lee ’94, J.D. ’97 said.
Many friends also admired her fun-loving personality, and Lee was known to love singing karaoke, dancing, acting and baking.
Lee’s unwavering positivity showed in her own on-campus traditions. Louis said that each time she crossed a bridge, she would do a twirl because it felt “more magical and special.” She even encouraged Maria Lee to do it with her, who only agreed to do it if they did it together.
Louis similarly remembered Lee’s love for fantasy, specifically for fairies. The two had planned to write their own book about fairies using a notebook they had bought together in the Ithaca Commons.
“It was this beautifully intricate journal. It was completely blank and it’s still blank, because we never got around to writing those stories together,” Louis said. “We had a million of them.”
Writing was one of Lee’s biggest passions, and one that had been with her since a young age. At just 14 years old, Lee became a published children’s book author with her first book series, “Son of the Sea Wolf.” These books are now a part of Cornell’s Rare Manuscript collection.
Lee’s love for writing never left her, and though she was shy in sharing her work, friends described her as an avid storyteller. Louis recalled Lee writing fantastical stories about ordinary events in her life, including a day trip that they took to the Ithaca Commons.
“I’ve never met anyone who could find a way to find the beauty in life like [she did],” Louis said.
As much as she loved writing, Lee also loved reading, especially works from the Victorian era such as “Pride and Prejudice.” She hoped to make this period of literature among many others more available to children, and dreamed of opening a school in the town of Ambleside in England with her mother, as well curating a rare books library.
“She was very passionate about reading, especially classical literature, and she really wanted others to be inspired by that too because she thought it was so valuable,” Maria Lee said.
Lee’s passion for reading also provided part of the focus of the Native American Advocacy Foundation, an organization that she and her older sister Brisa Lee ’22 started. As a proud descendant of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and Tarahumara, Lee was also an advocate for literacy among the Native American community.
“The foundation ended up focusing on literature, and that’s largely because of her interest in making that access to good, wholesome literature available to every child,” Claudia Lee said.
Both her mother and younger sister described Lee’s drive to get children excited about literature. She would go to elementary schools where she would speak about the “Son and the Seawolf” to hundreds of children. She even went to White Mountain Apache reservation schools in Arizona with Maria Lee to host writing workshops and teach the children how to write.
“When I first stepped into the classroom, the kids didn’t necessarily have confidence in their ability to write, and we just told them…you’re capable of doing it,” Maria said of the experience. “She was able to show them that they can do it. It was amazing to see how she was able to inspire so many people to believe in themselves.”
Lee not only inspired children to write, but as a member of Cru and Christ Chapel Church in Ithaca, also encouraged her peers and even family members to go deeper into their Christian faith.
“She was a very strong believer. Maybe one of the most intense believers that I’ve ever known,” Maria Lee said. “Everything she did was influenced by her faith. She had such a deep and close relationship with God and she inspired me to go deeper into my faith. It inspired so many other people too, to have as pure of a heart as she did.”
After spending time in Cru together, Raskulinec felt a similar way. She recalled being inspired by Lee’s diligence in taking time for prayer and worship.
“Her diligence in prayer and spending time with God and making him a priority in her life is also so evident,” she said. “I think that’s one of the things I will certainly thank God for and always remember about her because it really impacted me and in my walk with God too.”
Lee’s father and mother echoed the sentiment, stating that Lee inspired her younger siblings by reading her Bible every single day and memorizing large portions of it, including the Genealogy of Jesus, which she could recite effortlessly.
“Her faith was unmatched and miraculous. I only wish I had more time with her on earth, to hold her and never let her go,” Anthony Lee said. “But I know that she is serving our Lord and doing wonderful things with Him in Heaven.”
Claudia Lee said that she would like Lee to be honored as a fierce, gentle warrior and as a “pure vessel of Jesus’ light and love.”
“In her short life she lived honorably, loved intensely and eternally will be intensely loved. More than anything she wanted to share the gospel, and if one student at Cornell accepted Jesus because of her life, I know she is rejoicing with the angels,” she said.
In May, Brisa Lee wrote a statement to Christ Chapel Church for Lee’s memorial service, which echoed her mother’s sentiments in writing:
“She was a gift that God gave us all. A memory of her light that we will all have in our hearts forever. A lesson to always be kind to everyone no matter if they are very social and easy to talk to or quieter and more introverted because you never know what kind of person they really are.”
Lee, who was majoring in Communications in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, pursued a myriad of hobbies and academic interests. Whether Lee was identifying every mushroom at Cornell, picking up the lyre harp or learning about the Vikings, Lee loved to learn new skills and was very inquisitive. She even planned to minor in Viking Studies as well as Education studies. This December, she will receive a posthumously awarded degree with a Bachelor of Science in Communication with both Viking Studies and Education minors.
As an homage to her fascination with Vikings, Lee’s friends organized a “Viking send-off” for her memorial. Louis recalled writing letters in boats and setting them on fire in Beebe Lake. Christine Shi ’22, another close friend of Lee’s who helped organize the memorial, said that the memorial included a “fairy garden tea party” as well, in honor of her love for the magical creatures and their world.
Both Louis and her mother agreed that Lee’s inner personality matched those of the Vikings she studied and admired.
“When you look at her and you talk to her, she has this very quiet demeanor, but on the inside she was definitely a Viking. She just had a very fierce heart,” Louis said. “[She was] very passionate and excited when you really got to know her, and she’d let you into the wonderful world that she had inside her you could just see all of the vibrancy and colors that she saw.”
Students in need of professional mental health support can call Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 607-255-5155 and employees can call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. Whenever these services are closed, calls are answered by Cornell Health’s on-call mental health provider. The Ithaca-based Crisis line is also available at 607-272-1616. A wide range of supportive resources is also available at caringcommunity.cornell.edu.