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Professor honored for insights on new kinds of immigrant communities


May 20, 2011

Growing up during China’s Cultural Revolution, ASU professor Wei Li wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to attend a university much less pursue a professorial career. The daughter of college-educated parents whose own intellectual curiosity was indomitable, Li was sent from Beijing to a remote village to do farm work after graduating from high school.

When the “Down to the Countryside Movement” ended and university entrance exams were restored in 1977, she returned home with first-hand knowledge of the plight of farmers and a desire to attend an agricultural university, to pursue work that might improve peasants’ economic situation. 

“But my father didn’t want me to leave again,” recounts Li. “I was an only child. I’d already been away three years; my mother was no longer alive. All the agricultural universities were in rural areas outside Beijing. He asked me to consider other possibilities close to home.”

So she enrolled in Beijing Normal College. While many of her cohorts flocked to majors in math, physics, and chemistry, Li chose geography with a specialization in agricultural development, thinking it might be a next-best path to a career of service.

“The farming village I worked in was in a dry mountainous area, and a team of geographers from the university my mom had attended came to help find ground water and determine where to dig a new village well,” explains Li. “They made an impression on me, and I was part of the team that dug the new well. The project’s impact on the community was undeniable.”

She went on to complete a master’s degree in geography at Peking University, combining her interests in economic development with a growing fascination with world geography – specifically the semi-arid region of North America. She then taught at her alma mater for three years before accepting an appointment in the United States, as a visiting scholar exploring agricultural geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for the 1988-89 academic year.

“I had every intention of returning to China that summer,” says Li. “My father had suffered a stroke and I was making arrangements to fly home and resume my teaching position, when the June Fourth events in Tiananmen Square changed the trajectory of my life completely.”

Aside from fears about the political climate at home, Li says she felt a strong urge to change her intellectual focus to international relations.

“I had an urgent sense that I should be doing something to help bridge U.S. and Chinese cultures and promote mutual understanding between the two countries. I even went so far as gaining admission to an international relations doctoral program at American University in Washington. But they had no financial support, so when I was offered a place in the doctoral program in geography at the University of Southern California in 1991 – including an assistantship – I took it, returning to my original field, but this time with an emphasis in ethnic geography.”

Indeed, promoting cultural understanding is the connective tissue of Li’s body of groundbreaking research on ethnic and immigrant communities in the United States over the last 15 years. She’s studied the rise of Asian American “ethnoburbs” and “ethnobanks” on the West Coast, the experience of African American and Vietnamese Americans in post-Katrina New Orleans, Hispanic entrepreneurs in the South, Indian and Chinese immigrants in high-tech industries, and immigration and financial institutions in the United States and Canada.

Li, who joined ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2001 after serving as an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, currently holds a 70/30 appointment split between Asian Pacific American studies in the School of Social Transformation and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. She recently won national awards that speak to her impact in both of these fields. 

In mid-April, Li was honored as the Distinguished Scholar for 2012 by the Association of American Geographers’ Ethnic Geography Specialty Group. On May 21, the Association for Asian American Studies presented her with its prize for the best social sciences book published in 2009, for “Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America.”

In between these two honors, she received confirmation that she’d earned promotion to full professor at ASU.

"Wei Li has built a national and international reputation for her timely research on new immigrant groups, not only in the U.S. but in Canada and around the Pacific," observes Janice Monk, professor of geography at the University of Arizona and a senior fellow and former president of the Association of American Geographers. "The value of her work has been recognized in multiple ways, including by an appointment to a key U.S. Census advisory committee. Into the bargain, Wei is an energetic and fun colleague, who finds time to keep up her Chinese calligraphy, write poems, and share great photos of her extensive travels. She has displayed an amazing spirit since the days of her youth when she was among the generation of young people 'sent down' to the countryside."

“It’s always great to be recognized by peers and to know your work can have an impact,” Li says. “But the work itself has always been my reward. I love being a university professor, especially at a university where research and teaching are highly valued.”

She speaks eagerly about her newest research project, for which she’s received a fellowship from ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research for 2011-2012. With professor Claudia Sadowski-Smith from the Department of English, Li will be exploring the experiences of migrants to ASU from BRIC countries.

“While immigration from Brazil, Russia, India and China has increased in the 1990s, rising economies back home can induce reverse migration and lure back ex-pats or their children,” she notes. “We want to address the lack of comparative studies on U.S. migration by looking at patterns in BRIC migration and its impact on existing theories of movement, diaspora, ethnicity, and transnationalism.”

She says the “stick-to-it-iveness” and passion required by research is something she never tires of. “You may start with a small case study, and nothing too unusual may emerge, or you may realize there’s a phenomenon beyond what you were looking for, prompting you to do more collaboration and searching for underlying dynamics or suggestions for policy interventions that could benefit society as a whole. It’s exhilarating work. And I can also see the impact of research on students.”

Li continually brings her own research and the work of other researchers into the classroom. “I feel gratified when I see students evolve,” she emphasizes. “I’m adamant about presenting a balanced view and I teach from all sides of a debate if there are several angles. I try not to let students know my own beliefs. I want to teach them how to think – possibly shake up their worldview – so they can reach their own educated conclusions.”