Courtesy of Karen Li

The first thing I noticed about Karen Li ’23 was her Gloria Steinem-styled glasses and warm smile. She shared with me her coming-of-age story — Li was born in Chinatown in New York City and now lives in Brooklyn. Her favorite quarantine hobbies include watching Netflix and kickboxing workouts. But when Li is not finishing Grey’s Anatomy episodes or kickboxing in her room, she is lending a hand to the communities she cares about most. 

Li identifies as a first-generation low-income — or FGLI — and Asian-American student. As Yale classes have moved largely online for the 2020-21 academic year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Li chose to take a gap year. This fall, she has been working as an intern for the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, or APALRC, a college access mentor for Breakthrough New York and serves as the co-president of the Yale FGLI Advocacy Movement, or YFAM. 

“That’s what I see myself doing in the long term, helping the Asian-American community however I can in the future, especially the low-income ones, because I personally identify as low-income,” Li said in an interview with the News. “So I really want to work towards uplifting my community.” 

Li is focused on social justice-oriented work, which led her to intern at the APALRC — a civil and legal rights organization that provides “linguistically accessible and culturally appropriate legal services to low-income Asian immigrants in Metro-DC,” per their website. She works with the APALRC helpline and attends staff meetings, which she says are “really fascinating.”

But what Li is most excited about is the chance to help high school students through a program she herself has benefitted from over the last decade — Breakthrough New York.

According to their website, Breakthrough New York gives high-achieving students from low-income backgrounds educational support “from middle school through college and into their careers.” Li entered the program as a sixth grader — a time where she fondly remembers summer programs and tutoring. This support continued throughout her time in high school as she was applying to colleges and even now as she studies at Yale. 

Li is not only a member in Breakthrough’s College & Career Program, but she serves as a mentor to 10 high school seniors enrolled in Breakthrough’s High School Program. 

As a mentor, Li works with students on their college applications and helps teach college-prep workshops on topics such as time management and financial aid. Li said that she felt “blessed” to be a person her mentees could trust when they reached out for help. 

“One time, I stayed up until 2 a.m. helping somebody with their Questbridge application,” Li, who is a Questbridge Scholar, said. “A lot of these students are first-generation and a lot of them have working parents who can’t always help them with their applications, so I really want to be that mentor that bridges the gap between what they want and what they need.” 

Li works with her students on applications to a variety of colleges and universities. She called it a “humbling experience” to be able to work with her students and “come full circle” from completing the college applications process herself. 

Other Yale students applauded her efforts. 

“It means a lot to me … I know throughout the college application process I didn’t really have anyone,” Clayton Land ’22, Li’s friend, told the News. “No one really knew how to guide me through the application process and it was kind of just me using the internet to Google things like that, so I absolutely love that Karen is doing that and being able to give back to people.” 

Land, who also identifies as FGLI, met Li through the Yale College Council and said they have been “friends ever since.” 

Land and Li were both members of the YCC Senate their first year. By their sophomore year, Land and Li were on the YCC Executive Board, where Land recalled Li telling jokes during a YCC retreat last year. Land characterized Li as a “very vivacious [and] hilarious” person who is “fantastic to work with … [because she] lightens up the room” in team settings. 

“We were moving in such a fast and high-stressed environment, not just in terms of Yale but like in terms of YCC, classes and pressure-filled environments,” Sarah Pitafi ’22 said of Li. “It felt like she was always really opening her heart out for everyone around us. She was able to keep us afloat.” 

Pitafi also knows Li from YCC and YFAM. She described Li as having a “deep energy to care for people,” and called her a member of her Yale family.  

Another student, Kinsale Hueston ’23, expressed similar sentiments. 

“I like that Karen and I can talk about anything,” Hueston told the News. “Karen motivates me to be a better student, a better worker and a better person.” 

In our interview, Li recalled a conversation between her and Hueston that occurred just a day prior. Li said that communicating with friends like Hueston during the pandemic had also been keeping her in good spirits. 

Pitafi said the same of her own friendship with Li. 

“What is it like to be friends with Karen?” Pitafi said. “I mean, she’s always going to put in much more than her all to make sure your head is above water. She is warm-hearted, giving and caring.” 

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu