Lena (Xinyi) Li : 'Go to office hours and talk to professors. They're cool and interesting people!'

Lena Li

German Studies & Government

Born in Chongqing, China, grew up in Rockville, MD

What was your most profound turning point while at Cornell?

While I was studying abroad in Berlin, Professor Patrizia McBride, chair of the German studies department and also academic director of my exchange program, recommended that I check out the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin. The Gorki theater was (and still is) putting on a lot of experimental productions that revolve around nationalism, “European” identities, migration and refuge. Mixing traditional theater forms with documentary, video and literary adaptations, the productions brought to life what I had been witnessing on the streets in Berlin and Europe, as well as scenes (and witnesses and survivors) from the past that I had only read about in books. The Europe of trains full of “undesirables,” of check points, of people being reduced to nationalities and sorted into the categories "legal" and "illegal," of borders that make no sense — that Europe didn’t vanish in 1945, or during the reforms after 1968 and 1989. What I saw on stage made me more attuned to what was happening on the streets and transformed the way I experienced my daily life because it connected my experiences to world events in the past and present. I discovered through this experience the important role that art and literature play in shaping individual and collective perceptions of history, society and culture.

What Cornell memory do you treasure the most?

Working for the Center for Transformative Action over the summer, where I sorted through and archived materials documenting more than 40 years of student and community activism at Cornell and in Ithaca.

How did any of your beliefs or interests change during your time at Cornell?

I came to Cornell intending to study economics and French because I had a romantic notion of French culture and thought majoring in economics would help me build a financially secure and comfortable life. But in my first semester of freshman year, I took a seminar on friendship with Prof. Elke Siegel, who is now my advisor for the German major and my honors thesis. This class, which I took on a whim, awakened in me the desire to study German literature and thought, which gradually led me to realize the way ideologies and conventions (such as romanticism or neo-liberalism) shaped my former life-aspirations. This kind of invisible power stunned and intrigued me, and motivated me to pursue a second major in government.

If you were to offer advice to an incoming first year student, what would you say?

Take classes that sound interesting and/or with professors that upperclassmen speak highly of, even if they don’t seem to contribute to your major or your career goals. I highly encourage first year students to go to office hours and talk to professors. They’re cool and interesting people. Use the library: you can read anything you are curious about. And the borrow direct and interlibrary loan services allow you to order books from pretty much anywhere in the world. Study abroad. Go to a place you are curious about — it doesn’t have to be an “exotic” place — and make an effort to learn the language and live among local communities.


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 Lena Li