Taoyi Li flicked the tip of his fishing pole toward the surface of the Rogue River at TouVelle State Park. In a moment of quiet, he stood, focused.
The 18-year-old has only a few weeks left to cast his line into an Oregon river. Before long, he’ll be pulled into a new world of textbooks, class schedules and orientations — the landmarks of the next step in his journey, four years at Yale University.
“When I took my first step onto campus, I was like, this is it,” he said.
Li has traveled his fair share of miles already to get to this spot on the banks of the Rogue and in the halls of North Medford High School, which he’ll leave for the last time in June. His journey began in Huludao, China, a city in the Liaoning Province.
Huludao is a fishing city, Li said, and his biological father used to take him out on his boat. That’s where his love of fishing began.
But his dedication to academics, for which he is most known in the Medford School District, was inspired mostly by his mother, Yaping Liu.
Li describes one instance he remembers, in the days when he and his mother shared a small, single-room dwelling, of waking up at 4 in the morning to light shining from one corner. Liu was awake — studying the material she needed to review to tutor middle school students, supplementing her income as an elementary school teacher.
“She wasn’t going to wing it,” Li said. “Seeing her work ethic really inspired me to work as hard as I can.”
Li, who turned down an acceptance and a full-ride scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in favor of Yale, will be the first member of his family to attend college.
The list of his academic and athletic achievements, as well as his leadership roles, belie the language and cultural barriers he has faced. The teen who regularly speaks on behalf of his school at Medford School Board work sessions arrived in the Rogue Valley with his mother at age 10 not knowing how to speak English. His small family, he said, was “definitely not wealthy at all.”
He pushed himself through his English classes so he could make friends and make the most of the education ahead of him. Eventually he would take college-level English classes before graduating high school.
Li’s academic counselor at North Medford, Cesar Flores, calls him unique. In his freshman year, Taoyi came to him with specific plans for what he wanted to accomplish (he had started looking at colleges in seventh grade).
“The interesting thing about Taoyi is he’ll accomplish something and it’ll be like, onto the next, quickly,” Flores said. “He’s spent a lot of time in this office.”
One goal he set for himself was earning a Questbridge scholarship, which covers all expenses to partner colleges along with early admission. In addition to their academic potential, students are selected for having overcome socioeconomic barriers in their journey.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to find students that when you inform them they’ll actually follow through with it,” Flores said. “Sometimes when you think of a national scholarship, you’re thinking, ‘Why me?’ But the eagerness in Taoyi — it’s like, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Liu, his mother, said her son “will do whatever it takes to make things happen, just like the meaning of his name: ‘standing straight in the turbulent waves.’ ”
It’s a mindset that pushed him through a slew of advanced placement classes and tests to earn an AP Scholar with Distinction award; it’s how he completed multiple classes at Southern Oregon University and Rogue Community College and will graduate with honors from North Medford High.
His involvement hasn’t been limited to the classroom. Li has participated in wrestling and tennis at the varsity level, volunteered at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center and takes a lead role in North Medford’s Sparrow Club, which sponsors a child with costly medical needs.
He said he took AP Calculus 2 accelerated because it was “just something to do.”
Li is receiving financial aid from Yale — he turned down his prized Questbridge Scholarship at MIT because he said he wanted an environment that was “challenging but not uptight.”
“Where you go to college doesn’t matter,” he said. “I mean, it does to a certain extent. But it’s what you do at college that matters.”
In an odd twist, the student who planned out his college path years in advance doesn’t have just one job he imagines himself doing — the effect of being interested in almost everything. He lists possibilities, including being a doctor, a hedge fund manager or starting his own biotech company.
Li’s not worried about how things will go for him in college, however. As with the AP classes, the scholarship applications and the research opportunities, the challenges don’t faze him.
“Initially I’ll feel nervous for like, maybe five minutes,” he said. “Then I get over it.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.