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Double major defied the odds to achieve her dreams

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

When Yishu Li graduated from art school in China, she had been playing piano as a professionally trained musician for 12 years. She had chosen to attend the technical secondary school (the equivalent of high school in the United States) so that she could focus on music. But she wasn't sure she wanted to continue studying piano, and she began to question whether she was on the right path.  

Li was a big fan of Japanese pop culture and had begun learning the Japanese language in elementary school, when she also taught herself how to draw. These two passions would end up becoming her focus several years later at ASU.

Now, Li is graduating as a Barrett, The Honors College student with bachelor’s degrees in Asian languages (Japanese) and art (painting) from the School of International Letters and Cultures and the School of Art, respectively. 

“Part of what makes Yishu so special is the range and diversity of her interests — she has studied everything from Japanese literature, to business, to studio art, and has been dedicated to all these pursuits,” said Judit Kroo, assistant professor of modern Japanese linguistics, who served on the committee for Li’s honors thesis project. “Accompanying this diversity of interests is Yishu’s extraordinary work ethic and determination. During her time at ASU, she has taken a truly astonishing number of classes and has excelled in them across the board.” 

But when Li first came to the United States in 2017, she couldn’t dive right into her studies the way she wanted to. She had to take English as a second language (ESL) classes to improve her English-language competency before enrolling in college-level courses.  

I was extremely depressed and stressed,” Li said. “Studying day and night helped me skip several required ESL classes.” 

She earned her associate degree in two years from Phoenix College, then transferred to ASU in 2019 with a 4.0 GPA. Originally, she was majoring in Japanese while also being a part of the honors college. She later added a minor in studio art, to connect back with one of her childhood interests. 

Another of those passions – Japanese pop culture -- was highlighted in her honors thesis project, which examined the fujoshi subcultural community. Fujoshi refers to female fans of yaoi, a genre of media that depicts romantic and sexual storylines between men. For her project, Li interviewed eight Chinese women about their relationship to this community and analyzed how it has been shaped by China's online environment. 

It was my first time realizing that I could tightly connect my interests to my academic research studies," Li said.  

She also realized that she still wasn’t quite where she wanted to be. She liked what she was learning at ASU, but she also felt like she wasn’t doing enough to fulfill all her academic passions. 

In 2020, the pandemic led everyone to study at home, and I started thinking about my future more frequently than at any time (before),” Li said. “I was not satisfied with what I had got so far, and I wanted to dream big.” 

She began taking introductory oil painting classes via Zoom and eventually switched her art minor to a major in her senior year, working hard to complete the additional classes she would need in order to graduate with concurrent degrees. In her final semester of study, she received the Excellence in Senior Exhibitions Award from the School of Art. Her academic success was also lauded by her professors in the Japanese program. 

“Throughout her time in our section, Yishu distinguished herself tremendously with her spectacular academic record, enthusiastic participation in Japanese and (School of International Letters and Cultures) events, and strong sense of social responsibility and engagement,” said William Hedberg, associate professor of Japanese. 

And Li wasn’t done surprising herself with what she was able to accomplish. As she ramped up and then wrapped up her studies at ASU, she challenged herself to apply to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, which she described as “a nearly impossible school for me to attend.”  

To her delight, she achieved the “nearly impossible”: She was accepted to Harvard and offered scholarships. This fall, she will begin work on a master’s degree in the human development and education program, which will allow her to focus on language education and art education for adult students. She will also be able to take some courses through other departments at Harvard and from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 

“I believe these interdisciplinary subjects will inspire me in my future career in social-emotional development and curriculum design for adults in a school setting,” Li said. 

These next steps for her studies and future career represent yet another full-circle moment in Li’s life, because the job she held while working on her bachelor’s degrees was as a student success specialist at Phoenix College, where her U.S. academic journey began. 

In that role, she helped ensure an inclusive environment for all students regardless of their background with learning English. She also advised students to help them solve issues related to learning, financial aid, work/life balance and other aspects of college. The skills she gained in that job will guide her through her next steps as she moves thousands of miles away once more to pursue her education. 

“I believe this experience profoundly relates to my interests in language learning and teaching and makes me eager to learn more about adult student development,” Li said. 

kkoerth@asu.edu