Phoenix College ESL Alumna Accepted to Harvard

Monday, June 13, 2022
Kay Li, Phoenix College ESL Alumna, will attend Harvard University

Kay Li, Phoenix College ESL Alumna, has been accepted into graduate school at Harvard University.

Yishu “Kay” Li’s educational journey has taken her from China to Arizona over the past five years and she is about to add another pin to the map – Massachusetts. Li, who studied within Phoenix College's English as a second language curriculum, has been accepted into graduate studies at Harvard University – and on scholarship.

Li graduated from Barrett, the Honors College at ASU – with a double major in Japanese language and painting – and will pursue a master of education degree in human development and education at Harvard. Her focus will be on adult student language education and art education.

Exploring and bridging cultural differences from an artistic perspective comes naturally for Li. She attended art school in her native China while also studying piano and playing professionally for twelve years. Of her interest in merging art and language education for herself and her future students, Li says, “While the teaching skills are different, there is an intersection for applying both types of knowledge.”

In 2017, Li moved with her mother to the United States to join her father, who was already working here. Before she could continue her art studies, she first had to overcome the language barrier. She enrolled in ESL classes at PC. “At first, I was depressed and stressed,” Li admitted, “but studying day and night helped me skip several ESL classes.”

This experience led her to become a student success specialist in the Phoenix College ESL program, and assist in Reading, and First-Year Composition classes, as well.  The position allowed her to work closely with instructors Dr. Joseph Kimbuende, and Christy Skeen. “The students absolutely loved having Kay in the classroom,” recalls Skeen.  “As a former Phoenix College ESL student, Kay was a valuable resource to my students, both inside and outside of the classroom.  She not only answered questions about language and grammar, but she also helped students to navigate essential college resources like advisement and financial aid.”

Li earned her associate’s degree from PC in two years before transferring to ASU with a 4.0 GPA. When asked how she found life at ASU, she replied “Hard - I was taking honors classes with just two years of English! I thought everybody was smarter than I was.”

Her advice to other ESL students? “Talk to other non-native speakers, absorb American culture, talk to your professors, and don’t be shy. There are no dumb questions!”

At ASU, Li soon found many Maricopa Colleges transfer students like herself. “We were all proud of being Maricopa students, Li recalls, “Everyone wanted to know where each other transferred from!” For her honors thesis project at Barrett, she focused on another of her passions – Japanese pop culture. “It was my first time realizing that I could tightly connect my interests to my academic research studies,” Li said.

“I learned of my acceptance to Harvard by accident,” Li remembers. “I thought I was opening an email from another school where I also applied, but then I saw the confetti and that it was from Harvard!”  Li was also welcomed to fellow Ivy League institution, Columbia University, in New York.

Li leaves for Cambridge, Massachusetts at the start of this summer to get a head start on what her Harvard program calls “foundational courses” like Research Methodology, Environmental Studies, Government and Policy. Her goals upon graduating from Harvard? Possibly continuing on to pursue a doctorate. Li says she may return to the community colleges to teach and design curriculum while also working with international students. “I came from the community colleges and that is where my passion is,” she said.

(Information for this article came from a recent PC interview and a previous May 2020 PC story and May 2022 ASU story.)