For International Student Thea Li ’23, the World is Full of Opportunity

a Chinese woman stands in a stairwell with a photo exhibit

In 2018, computer science major and music minor Thea Li ’23 moved to Memphis from Xi’an, China, without knowing anyone in the U.S. But Li, who was determined to make the most of every available opportunity at Rhodes, now considers Memphis her second home—and, as a Memphis Center Arts fellow, has mounted an exhibition portraying her adopted city as seen through the lens of her camera.

Li first took an interest in Rhodes for the small student-to-professor ratio. She had always imagined her college experience would include close relationships with classmates and professors, and she found that tight-knit community at Rhodes. Additionally, the campus beauty caught her eye, and she still finds photographic inspiration in Rhodes’ timeless Collegiate Gothic architecture.

Though Li always enjoyed photography, she hadn’t had formal training. In 2020, after seeing a flyer for the Turley Memphis Center Arts Fellowship, she reached out to Associate Professor of Media Studies Dr. David Mason to discuss the opportunity. They decided that the fellowship was the perfect chance to learn more about both professional photography and the City of Memphis.

Once she was awarded the fellowship, Li chose to focus on documenting public transportation. “Public transportation is one of the things people tend to overlook,” she says. “It feels important to highlight the things we don’t always see.” She also loves capturing movement and liveliness, so the topic was a natural choice.

Beginning the project in 2020 posed various challenges due to COVID-19. Fewer people utilized public transportation, and Li found making connections more difficult due to masking and social distancing. Additionally, she received the Mertie Buckman International Fellowship to study abroad in Korea—a country of particular interest to her due to its vibrant entertainment scene—but had to complete her courses online due to pandemic travel restrictions.

Despite COVID-related setbacks, Li continued her fellowships throughout the pandemic. She branched out from her initial transportation focus, and as a musician, screenwriter, and theater lover, her photography naturally gravitated towards those interests. She frequently photographed the Rhodes Theater Guild and Rhodes’ music department productions, while also participating in many artistic endeavors herself.

Although Li is a STEM major, her artistic side has also flourished during her time at Rhodes. She began her college career as a skilled pianist, and was intrigued by the harp classes offered by the music department. “I had the transferable skills from playing piano to help me succeed, but I never expected to get to college and start playing the harp,” Li says. She now both plays the harp and sings in multiple orchestras and ensembles, and recently performed in a Rhodes showcase of scenes from Broadway and the opera.

Li also explored her love of theater—specifically comedy—throughout college. In China during COVID and a COVID-related gap year, she attended improv and sketch workshops at China’s Now Theater and was offered the role of media planner. She continued that job remotely while at Rhodes, and also became an online sketch coach. 

After years of exploration and involvement at Rhodes, Li’s hard work has culminated with the photographic exhibition of her Turley fellowship experience and an incredible post-graduation job offer: she will return to China as the director of Now Theater’s Training Center, and finds special significance in this opportunity. “Improv and sketch comedy has been in the U.S. for ages, but it’s still in its infancy in China. I’m honored to help lead China’s next generation of comedians.”

Reflecting on her time at Rhodes, Li says being an international student motivated her high level of involvement with fellowships, organizations, and the campus community. “I came here just like any other student, but I’m only here for my college lifetime. The limited time makes it feel more valuable, and I wanted to do as much as possible,” she says.

Though she will return to China after graduating in May, Memphis will remain near and dear to Li. “Memphis is the place I’ve stayed the longest outside of my country and it has become a part of my personality that I could never leave behind,” Li says. “There will always be some part of me growing and living in Memphis.” 

By Hannah-Elsie Meit ’25