Many students on the campus of Ole Miss come from an enriching background that fuels their goals and ambitions in each classroom. Public policy leadership and integrated marketing communications major Kelly Li is a first-generation college student from Hattiesburg, Miss.
Her parents immigrated from China to the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s. They entered America with the typical American dream as the U.S. presented them with many opportunities: come here, work hard, set a trend for their children and eventually collect the fruits of their labor.
“There is a lot of misconception of China being smart and being technologically advanced but that doesn’t account for the rural era,” Li said.
About 850 million people, or approximately one-ninth of the world’s population, are located in rural China. Like Li said, it’s easy to overlook this fact. But why? From a world view, China is rightfully seen as a superpower. Not all strong nations are created equal, though. China’s reputation is bolstered by its booming industry and exponential growth, but the nation is built on the back of traditional workers.
Li sees her parents as motivation because of their tenacity and ambition. They entered the U.S. speaking broken English and struggled. Things slowly but consistently changed for the family. Now, they are entrepreneurs, owning and operating a successful restaurant and a bar in a college town.
Their business is solely run by the two of them and has very close-knit family values. Talk about a mom-and-pop shop. Excruciatingly long days at work saw her mother working in front of a burning stove top and serving customers. Despite this, Li’s mother still managed to cook three meals, three times a day. As a family, they valued fellowship and always ate together. Dinner table banter served as a genuine distraction from the realities they faced. No matter what, this family of four could always count on each other for a laugh and a break from the work that came to define them.
The family business was a significant part of Li’s childhood, which she described as rather unconventional. Li and her brother were raised in the restaurant business. That unexpectedly nurturing environment shaped and molded Li to her purpose and built her work ethic.
“I believe that everyone has a story and struggle. My parents don’t realize how amazing they are. My mom raised me with the mentality of growing and doing more.” Li said
Li disagrees with the sentiment that students are encouraged to leave Mississippi instead of staying to help. During her time in Hattiesburg, she attended public schools and noticed firsthand how unfair the school system was. She saw the work that needed to be done.
The brain-drain phenomena she detests has ravaged Mississippi in the past decade, with nearly 50% of Mississippi college graduates choosing to leave within three years of graduation.
Undoubtedly, the grass is greener. The world of opportunities is by no means bound within the Mississippi borders.
But, who will be the ones to nurture the ground from which they grew?
Even though all problems cannot be solved at the same time, steps can be taken to work towards seeing change and promoting a better life for future generations.
“It takes steps today to get closer to a solution in the future,” Li said.
For many students, the struggles they have endured are the root of their inspiration. Whether it is from their parents, hometown disadvantages, old friendships or other experiences, it fuels their drive to become change. For some, the authenticity in their story fuels their desire to be what others need.
“You didn’t come from where the students around you came from,” Li said.
And for many students, that is their fuel to make changes that some are too scared to even hope for.
Bre’Anna Coleman is a sophomore political science major from Drew, Miss.