MOUNT OLIVE -- A student sitting beside Brandon Lee whispered he hoped to win the money.
"I looked over and I said, 'I know they ain't going to call my name,'" Lee said.
He never thought Dr. David Hines, vice president of academic affairs for the University of Mount Olive, would announce his name during the university's fall commencement ceremony Saturday, Dec. 17.
Hines did -- two seconds later -- and the fellow student watched Lee walk to the stage.
A native of Mount Olive, Lee received the distinguished Dr. Thomas R. Morris Award for academic excellence and a $3,000 check amid the 280-student graduation in Kornegay Arena.
"It was kind of a surreal moment," Lee said. "I had no idea I was going to win this award. No one made any kind of mention of it."
The moment became reality when he saw his family snapping photos with their cell phones from the stands. Lee smiled back at his family, shook Hines' hand and turned for a university photo of him holding the award.
The award requires a minimum 3.7 cumulative grade point average and exhibited leadership in extracurricular activities. The recipient must have been a full-time student and is selected by a committee of faculty members and Student Government Association representatives.
It is named in honor of retired Goldsboro optometrist Dr. Thomas R. Morris, a native of Nahunta and a longtime benefactor of the school.
Lee graduated with bachelor's degrees in business administration and accounting, and he held a grade point average of 3.7 in business and a 4.0 in the accounting program.
He was also involved in volunteer opportunities during his time at the university.
But the 21-year-old said firefighting -- not numbers -- has been in his blood since birth.
Lee's father, Kendall Lee, was a member of the Dudley Volunteer Fire Department where 5-year-old Lee ran around wearing his father's fire helmet.
"I've done it a time or two," he said. "All I knew I wanted to do was be a firefighter."
He said his father served as chief for five years, and he said his mother, Pam Lee, spent the majority of her time at the fire station, helping her husband.
Lee eventually turned 18, and he put on his own fire helmet as a volunteer firefighter in Dudley.
As a student at Southern Wayne High School, Lee obtained an Eagle Scout award, built a shelter at the Nelson Street Park, assisted as a baseball coach for Mount Olive Middle School and gained college credit at Wayne Community College in the Advanced Placement United States history course.
He graduated from high school in 2012.
Firefighting still lingered in his heart, but Lee began to think about furthering his education. He debated on whether to attend the around-the-corner University of Mount Olive or the hours-away North Carolina State University.
"I'm kind of a homebodied person, so I didn't want to go off to live in the big city," he said. "I decided I was going to stay right here at home."
The college credits from the community college pushed Lee a semester ahead of other freshman. He enrolled in agriculture business, but a future in marketing farm crops did not interest Lee. He then turned his attention to business management courses.
He quickly fell in love with numbers.
Outside of his classes and studies, Lee worked for Roberts Machine & Supply Co. in the stockroom.
Lee devoted his minimal spare time to the community as a volunteer income tax assistance and a house builder for Habitat for Humanity. He received the Handy Mart business scholarship, the president's award for educational excellence and the Future Farmers of America degree.
Among all of the awards and honors, Lee clearly remembers one that changed his life -- and someone else's.
As a sophomore in high school, Lee met freshman Abigail Keen who needed a liver transplant.
He sat in bed one night and thought about what he could do for her. He called local businesses the next day, and he was able to organize a fundraiser at the North Carolina Pickle Festival.
Lee sold raffle tickets for $1 each, and the community helped raise $1,500 in one day for Abigail.
"It was something I was proud to say I did," he said. "I had several family members and friends that helped me out. And I know her and her family were very grateful for it."
He said he has not seen Abigail since high school, but he said he heard she received the liver transplant two years after the fundraiser.
Lee still volunteers at the fire department and currently works at Strickland Insurance Brokers in Goldsboro as an associate accountant. He said he enjoys the company and wants to continue working with numbers.
One of his accounting professors encouraged him to spend the $3,000 wisely -- for the Certified Public Accountant Examination. Lee said he plans to take the exam sometime during the beginning of next year.
"My parents always instilled in me to do the best you can," he said. "That instilled me to give back to others and help people as much as I can."
"My whole life growing up, being in school and everything, I tried to give it 100 percent all the time. Anything less than that I wasn't satisfied."