Commencement profile of graduating student Rebekah Lee

Rebekah Lee is a crafter of stories, beginning with her own.

At Ohio Northern University, she forged an exciting chapter. She majored in writing and multimedia studies, started a baking extract company, and danced on the court (and in the snow), all while commuting to school and completing her degree in just three years.

Her next chapter begins when she graduates this month. With plans to grow her fledgling business, land a writing position, and continue her education, Lee is pursuing the same path she forged at Northern—a creative life that’s grounded in reality.

“The biggest thing ONU has given me is confidence in myself,” she says. “I’ve grown a lot and learned a lot about myself, including that I can do anything if I put in the work.”

As a little girl, Lee would beg her grandparents for “just one more story, please!” “I loved stories so much that I wanted to be able to continue seeking them out throughout my life, writing them down, and sharing them with others,” she says.

To achieve her dream of becoming a professional writer, Lee enrolled at ONU where she knew she’d receive one-on-one mentoring and hands-on opportunities to hone her craft. And, living in Wapakoneta, Ohio, she could also save money by commuting to college, because Lee possesses both a creative spirit and a practical mindset. “I’ve always asked myself: ‘What can I achieve?’ ‘How can I afford to achieve what I want to achieve?’ and if I can’t afford it, ‘What can I do to make it affordable?’” Grappling with these questions prompted Lee to load up on College Credit Plus (CCP) classes in high school in order to graduate from college in three years instead of four.

Commuting to campus didn’t stop Lee from availing herself of all ONU had to offer. Her major opened her eyes to the myriad avenues for storytelling in the digital age. Through her courses and work as a writer and editor for the Northern Review, she discovered a passion for creative non-fiction. “I love to experiment with different forms and styles (of storytelling),” she says.

Lee joined the dance team, performing at halftime shows at Northern basketball games. She participated in the ONU Choreographer’s Showcase in 2021, which led to the memorable experience of dancing on the tundra in a skirt and leotards on a numbingly cold winter day. Lee explained that it was during the height of the pandemic and they had to produce a video since they couldn’t dance for an in-person audience. “I’ll truly never forget dancing in the snow at Northern!” she laughed.

Lee also embarked on an entrepreneurial adventure with her boyfriend, Korbin Steinbrunner. A shared sweet tooth and hours spent baking cookies together sparked the idea for a baking extract company called Brunlee Extracts. “We discovered it was really easy to make our own extracts at home,” said Lee. “There is minimal labor or investment involved, the extracts just need time to cure.”

They experimented with using bases other than the traditional vodka or glycerin for their extracts and came up with two signature flavors: Bourbon Vanilla Extract and Spiced Rum Vanilla Extract. A weird fact about imitation vanilla that always grosses people out, says Lee, is that it includes a chemical compound called castoreum that comes from the anal glands of beavers! In contrast, the extracts that she and Steinbrunner concoct do not contain castoreum, and instead are made with gourmet ingredients like bourbon, spiced rum and high-quality vanilla beans, to produce a richly flavored product. “Using our extracts will pull out different flavor notes in your baked goods,” she says. “For example, our bourbon vanilla extract pairs really well with chocolate and our spiced rum vanilla extract brings out the spice notes in products like pumpkin cookies.”

A Northwest Ohio favorite—Sara’s Sweets in Lima—now exclusively uses only Brunlee Extracts in its baked goods and sells the extracts in their store. Lee and Steinbrunner also market their products at local farmers markets and on social media.

As Lee looks toward graduation day and the closing of her Northern chapter, she is grateful for the many people who have encouraged her to follow her dreams. She admits that starting a new chapter in her life is both scary and exhilarating. “It’s stepping into the unknown,” she says. Yet if her ONU experience has shown her anything, she adds, it’s that “there is always a lot of potential in the bend of the road.”