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Mar 12, 2021 · 1 min read

Feng Li's headshot 

Introduction

Dr. Feng Li is an Associate Professor of Economics at Texas State University. She is also a Faculty Research Fellow at the LBJ Institute for STEM Education and Research. Dr. Li received her PhD in Economics and Specialist in Education from Florida State University. Her research focus is on the economics of education, labor economics and health economics. Aside from her academic career, she is also a passionate Christian and a Sunday school teacher.

Q&A

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I am Associate Professor of Economics, and I teach a lot. I teach the first economic course of undergraduate students, and I also teach MBA students. In my research, I do a lot of educational policy research, and I serve as one of the board of directors of a national organization called Association for Education Finance and Policy. I also do a lot of funded grant research with the National Science Foundation. Outside of work, I volunteer at my local church and teach Sunday schools because I love my kids.

Q: That is a very diverse set of activities! Would you like to first share more of your teaching experiences?

A:So it's called the principles of microeconomics, and it is probably my students’ first economics course. I’m super interested in the teaching side, but I also like to mentor students about their future career and what they’re passionate about. Teaching Intro to Microeconomics is very exciting because you get to work with so many young minds. Whenever someone wants to change majors, I always tell them the story of a student of mine. Many years ago when I was a grad student at Florida State University, I was teaching my own section of principles of microeconomics, and I met a really bright Korean American student, who was super interested in economics. After that class, she would always drop by my office hour and chat with me. Since we are both female and Asian, she felt very close to me. She was not an economics major back then but she later switched to economics. Several years later I got contacted by one of my former professors, and he said, “Li, do you know what happened to that student of yours? After she switched her major to economics, she really loved it. She graduated with a 4.0 GPA, and she ended up working for Google.”

I like to tell my students that story because sometimes I feel like, out of the thousands of students I teach, if I can really make a difference in just one student's life, that will be enough. We all need mentors along the way, someone who's a few years ahead of you, who can give you some insight that will help you navigate. Sometimes we don't know for sure if our major is the thing that we want to do. Sometimes we don't know what kind of jobs will be available to us. So I always try to work with young minds because you can do a whole lot with young minds as you're guiding them along that path.

Q: That is a very encouraging story. I just wonder how you convince your students to transfer to Economics?

A: Actually I don't intentionally do so. What I’m doing is modeling the behavior. I am modeling my passion for Economics. We economists work with valuable data sets every day, and we try to find the opportunity costs. College students trying to navigate majors have so many options, but which do you pick? I think Asian parents encourage students to more profitable careers, but what we lose from that process is encouraging students to develop freedom and courage themselves. College is a place to explore your talents and interests, and figure out who you are.

Q: Following that thread, can you share more of how you decide to become an economics major?

A: Before I switched to economics, I was in a major called International Developmental Education. There, once you get your PhD, you go to developing countries and help them design an educational system that will work for minority or underprivileged students. However, life always throws you curveballs, and I didn't end up doing that thanks to a class taught by a life-changing professor to me. That professor was a Stanford graduate, a sociologist, and also a passionate economist. When I was an undergrad, I actually didn’t like economics. For example, the supply demand curve. Why are you shifting this curve and not that curve? It just does not make any sense to me back then. Only after I was around 23-year-old did I start seeing the beauty of economics and find it super-fascinating, and I started to take a lot of economics classes. Unfortunately, when I was about to defend my dissertation prospect, that professor passed away because of cancer. After that difficult period of time, I ended up giving up my dream of becoming an education specialist and switched over to economics.

So that was a really long winding road and coming back to economics, but I think it benefited a lot for me. So I would actually encourage whoever is reading this, to really think about one thing -- if you made some long winding road and you feel like this is a diversion from whatever your goal is, or somehow you feel that you are doing something that on the surface is not consistent with your ultimate goal, it's okay. It is okay to fail, and it's okay to fail many times, because sometimes those experiences enrich your future. So back to my story, after I went through all that trouble and circled back to economics, guess what, I actually became one of the research stars in my cohort. It is not because I was better, but because my previous major gave me insight for new and different questions. I am interested in a lot of education policy issues that they didn’t get exposed to. When I was in my undergrad, I was able to see how teachers received their training, so when I started to work as an economist, I can approach those education policy research from different perspectives. Instead of just focusing on students, I also ask questions about teachers. Are we keeping teachers in the classrooms? Can we encourage them to become a teacher? How can we attract them into teaching? What do they have to give up, such as those industry jobs, if they decide to be a teacher? Had I started out being a straight up economics student, I would not be able to ask those questions.

So my message to our readers is to not be afraid, and don’t worry too much if you make a mistake as a young person. Congratulate yourself on making mistakes because that's actually a great enriching experience. I think God has a plan for all of us, a great vision for each unique individual. Sometimes I have to listen to God's words and ask myself what God is trying to tell me. Sometimes I do get frustrated. For example, when my professor passed away during my PhD, I asked God, “ why'd you kick my professor away when I was a poor grad student? I was trying to struggle through the program, and I’ve made it so far. Why did you take him away?” I still remember my professor's funeral. I was crying. I was crying for him and also crying for myself, because it was so devastating. Because I was in a different country, and I had no idea what my future held, and now my professor was gone. And he was not just a professor, but also your friend and your great mentor. He had a natural passion for taking care of people, and he always brought pots of curry to feed students with. He had so much influence on me, and now as I became a professor, I think I inherited some of his teaching philosophy. I'm telling this story to encourage all of the readers out there -- don't get discouraged. My professor’s death was such a huge stumbling block in my career and it was so disheartening at that time. Now when I look back on it, it was still difficult, but somehow I made a pass through that, not because I was able to but because of my faith in the Lord, and I have a God with me. (Of course also with my friends and my husband, who was my boyfriend back then.) I just want to give a positive message to the readers that every setback can actually be a good thing.

Q: It sounds like life is a learning journey, and that it’s normal to make mistakes.

A:Yes. I wanted to make sure that I’m not just telling a sad story, but because when young people are my age, you look back at the low points in your life and appreciate the people who made a difference. People need friends who support them, and friends who are out of their areas of expertise to open you to more experiences.

I had one former student. He was an honors student and he was super self-motivated. After he graduated, he went to Southern Methodist University to get his master masters in economics. He was in his first semester of econometrics class, which is a very difficult math class, and he was not doing well. In that first semester, he would call me and asked, “Do you think I can do this?” I said, “yes, you can do this. Okay? For anybody you can do this. You're one of our best students. You can definitely do this.” But guess what? When he was taking his second sequence to that econometrics class, he did really well -- he did a stellar job, he entered into a competition, and his program actually introduced him to some local people and a local company. I also have some students who struggle in school, but even so, I’ll spotlight talents of theirs and support them. So sometimes we have to have that kind of person in our life and just tell us that, you can do this, and encourage us along this navigation process.

Q: Do you have any recommendations on how young people can find their support or their mentor?

A: The church is a wonderful place to start searching for a mentor because that’s where you won’t be judged. Career counselors, high school teachers, and professors are also good options because they have networks in many industries. I think students sometimes overlook that, but they’ve taught hundreds and thousands of students prior to you, and they’re very familiar with the system because they have helped so many students to navigate that system. Also, talk to as many staff members as possible on your campus. People often ignore that we actually have wonderful staff members. From my experience, my university is a Hispanic serving institution. We have a lot of Hispanic and Latino staff members who are very good resources. Sometimes students have trouble putting food on their table, but they didn't know that we have a Bobcat pantry program. We also have the wardrobe program, where you can borrow some clothing like a suit and tie for an interview. There are lots of resources available, but you have to find the right people. Find someone who deeply cares about your success, who is willing to take the time and energy for you, and that person will be your mentor.

Start networking when you’re in college. If you start when you begin looking for a job, that is already too late. It’s difficult to start during the freshmen and sophomore year, because you’re still learning to navigate the system. But in your junior or senior year, start talking to your professors, and also your parents. They may have good connections, and even if they don’t know the right kind of people, their friends might.

You can also build your professional network by talking to the local community. I encourage everyone to volunteer at their church, local food pantries, or whatever else you are passionate about. You can do this in high school and college, and people will see your work ethic overtime. Earning a little income is also nice, but the more important thing is to know supervisory people who can provide references later on.

Possible mentors can also be amongst your peers. Students a couple of years ahead of you can offer tips about which courses to take, what professors to avoid, and other valuable information. This is important to think about in your planning if you need a stellar GPA in the future, like for law or medical school. Like I said earlier, don’t be afraid if you make a few mistakes along the way, but this can help you avoid some towards your ultimate goal.

volunteer



So I just gave you a whole bunch of different places. I really think looking for a mentor is important in our modern days, and you can start that even in high school. However, you will have to try a few times before you find your mentor. Out of the whole list of people available, maybe only one is really invested in you, but that will be enough. You don’t need to have a mentor in every area, but rather find which one is passionate about your success. For example, I had one undergraduate who got an A in my class, but got A+s in her other courses. In that case, the other professors saw her potential and helped her get to where she wanted to be.

Also, While it’s good to plan, it’s important to know that even if you didn’t get to where you wanted to be, don’t be discouraged. It’s life experience. God trains us to become better people, and gives us the perseverance to get through troubled times. As you’re building your network, you’re also building friendship and getting support. That’s especially important in high school and college, because these are formative years and you’re trying to find out who you are. We in the Chinese American community need to be cognizant of pressure being put on young people on getting it right the first time. Having a mentor, having friends, and having faith to support you is important in dealing with these kinds of mental health problems. Organizations like CCE can provide that kind of moral support network system. I hope you can see that from my story, you will be able to achieve your goals and be happy not just because you have money, but because you made a difference in someone else’s life.

Q: There was some media coverage on your research of how to train and retain high quality teachers throughout the country. Could you share more about that?

I had worked for one year at Shaanxi Normal University with many student teachers, and was thinking of becoming a development specialist to work with low income kids and improve their educational opportunities. Actually this research agenda initially came as a compromise between me and my economics advisor, the first person I worked with at the Florida Department of Education 15-20 years ago. I had given my professor a list of ten potential dissertation topics, but he rejected all of them except my last topic, teacher shortage and training. However, I realized later on that I had always been interested in that topic and the work was actually very interesting.

Traditionally a lot of teachers are trained through the college of education, but we were studying a specific program called the Robert Noyce Scholarship. This program was funded by the National Science Foundation, and wanted to recruit STEM majors to become K-12 teachers. The first part of the research question was to look at the national landscape and see how many math and science majors had become teachers in the past 15-20 years. The second part asked if the millions of dollars given to this program had made a difference in putting these teachers in high-need school districts, typically low-income schools or those with many African-American or Latino students. I was very excited because we’re working with many different universities, like the University of West Florida and University of Arlington, and with the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Sometimes ideas take a while to get materialized, so this was around five to six years ago. We also had to apply four times before we got the funding for the project, so do not be afraid about applying for a scholarship and being rejected. We will all be discouraged, so put the rejection letter away, let it sit, and then go back to it in a week and see how you can improve yourself when you apply again. Grant applications like these are not easy, even though it might look that way when you get them.

Even if you don’t get the job or the scholarship, take the opportunity to establish your network. Follow up and ask if they have any suggestions about how to improve and a general idea of what their ideal person looked like. An important skill for young people is to be able to communicate like this in a professional way. Don’t burn your bridges, because they might have a job in the future that you will be a good fit for. Make sure the established link is strong, learn, and build up that relationship. You could add them on LinkedIn; sometimes people share opportunities there, and then you’ll be in the know. It’s important to be able to wait. Don’t be discouraged, because you learn from failure. Always take opportunities that come at you, and you will succeed in the future for sure.

It is important to have an open mind and a growth mindset, and I think that can also come from the faith. You can turn to prayer for improvement and opportunity. For example, you can say “God, I know this job you didn't give it to me, but tell me what I could do to improve.” Or sometimes you can even just say I can't do this. Please give me another opportunity. Because a lot of times God can do miracle work that humans cannot. We have our limitations. Mentors help, but ultimately, I believe our faith sustains us in our dark times.

Tips for High School Students

If you’re interested but don’t know if economics is for you, I would recommend reading the Freakonomics series (they also have a podcast), Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan, Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Poor Economics by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee.

Also keep in mind that economics is a very broad subject, and is really about how people make decisions in their daily life. It's not just stock markets -- that's finance. There are lots of research questions economists are asking, and there are a lot of social sciences. Economics is a lot like physics to a STEM major: very theoretical and a necessary class to take. Finance is very similar to engineering because engineering is very much an applied field, and finance is that. That being said, there are still lots of economists that are hired by Amazon and all these tech firms because we have a lot of very strong abilities to work with data, and our abilities to understand people’s purchasing behavior and decision-making process.

Also look at what economists do. You can check out my website and see if what I am researching are the kinds of questions you are interested in researching as well, because these are the difficult, challenging questions economists ask and spend a lifetime answering. If so, you will be a good candidate for an Econ major.

If anyone is an Econ major or have any other questions, feel free to email me, and I’d be happy to chat.

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