Student Spotlight

Yifan Li MPA ’22: Building Bridges

By Oğulcan Varlı MIA ’22
Posted Mar 31 2022
Yifan Li MPA ’22
Photo by Ian DiSalvo

Yifan Li MPA ’22 was 10 years old when his home city of Beijing welcomed the world to its door.

“In 2008, we had the Beijing Olympics. And before that I lived in Beijing and the air pollution was pretty bad. But it was hugely improved for the Olympics.”

The change made Li curious about environmental policy. What has the government done to improve the air quality? Why did it make such a difference? Why didn’t they do this all the time?

“It was pretty bad in 2006, then because of the Olympics they just moved all the industry north of Beijing to the surrounding cities,” Li said, describing how intrigued he was. “It was interesting to see how it worked—I wanted to go and help Beijing solve air pollution.”

Li came to the United States for college, enrolling as an undergraduate at Cornell University in upstate New York, where he studied environmental science at first. But as his interests evolved, Li felt increasingly passionate about politics. He soon realized he wanted to study not the science behind pollution, but the policy.

“In my freshman year, I took a Chinese politics class and I found that I was so passionate, so interested in it,” Li said. “I realized that a lot of air pollution and environmental problems in China were not only a science problem, meaning that science alone cannot solve them. Especially in China, it's more of a policy or politics problem.

“At that time, I felt like ‘Well, I really want to know more, study more about that,’ so I transferred to study government and history as my undergrad major.”

Now Li is a second-year student at SIPA, where he concentrates in Energy and Environment. He praises the faculty and his fellow students, and says the MPA program is an even better fit for his goals than he expected.

“I noticed when I came to SIPA that it is even more of a fit for me than I expected,” Li said. For one thing, he says, “There are a lot of faculty and professors who study or research about China, or issues related to China.”

Indeed, Li currently works as a research assistant for Professor David Sandalow, who founded and directs the U.S.-China Program of SIPA’s Center on Global Energy Policy. Sandalow is also the codirector of the Energy and Environment concentration.

For those studying China, Li says, the community is about more than just classes and research.

“SIPA and Columbia have a very big Chinese students’ group,” Li observes. “Last month, for example, we celebrated the Chinese New Year with homemade hot pot. That resource is very important for me, and I think can be pivotal for others as well.”

At SIPA, Li also engages in extracurricular activities like the Greater China Initiative, which promotes discussion among students of China-related issues, and serves as a university senator for SIPASA, the student government.

Li also enjoys living in New York City, noting that the Big Apple is very different from the college town where he lived for four years. “New York City is so dynamic and has so much going on. There are so many opportunities, so many things to do.”

With graduation this May approaching, Li is now considering the next steps in his career, including his first long-term professional position. In the same way his interests evolved from science to policy, he says his time at SIPA has prompted further evolution.

“Right now I am taking a lot of classes in International Security Policy. In my first year I took Dean [Thomas] Christensen’s class, called China's Foreign Relations. After that class I found myself so passionate about China's international relations, specifically cross-strait relations. And after that, I was just very interested in ISP classes, which I didn’t expect before I came here. Actually I took three more, including Conduct of War right now.”

Even though Li enjoys the life he has here and the experience of studying in the United States, he plans to go back to his roots and work specifically in the environmental sector in China. He wants to gain experience in private industry, he says, and test his skills before working eventually in the public sector.

Li also believes, strongly, that students who gain a global perspective by studying abroad can make a big difference when they go back to their home countries. Indeed, it’s why he came to SIPA in the first place.

“It could be a very big advantage, because we can serve as a bridge,” he says.