It took a string of high-level math courses in graduate school before Joanne Li really felt academically challenged.

That was the moment the Hong Kong native knew she had something special, although numerous professors tried to convince her of that for years. Today, Li is regarded as a top scholar in international finance and corporate governance. Still, she says, it might just be what isn’t on her resume that best prepared her to be the new dean of Wright State University’s Raj Soin College of Business.

“I love the students here at Wright State University and I think they are going through a journey very similar to my own. I feel like there are times when they want to give up, when it might feel impossible to them,” Li says. “But every day I walk around campus and seeing them I am so touched and humbled how they really want it, and if they want it badly then all they have to do is come and get it. It will be theirs.”

In short, Li understands what it feels like to thirst for a better future and to work hard to quench that thirst. Moreover, she knows she is the beneficiary of excellent mentoring and a good educational system. Now she wants to pay it forward not only to the country she calls home, but also to her students. As dean, she can help the business school thrive in the Dayton community as well as throughout the world.

Hopping Out of the Well

There’s an old Chinese saying that likens people who lived in one place for their entire life to a frog trapped in a well. People like this – who never travel or explore other areas of life – end up only seeing the sky that is visible from the bottom of the well. As the daughter of Chinese refugees to Hong Kong, Li had heard this saying her entire life, and at age 19 she actually began to feel as if she was living it.

Her parents had offered to help her pursue higher education in Canada, but Li turned them down. Her mind changed, however, after she and her sister traveled to Europe. She realized the world was much bigger and that she wanted to move beyond her job as an executive assistant at a large law firm.

With her parents' offer off the table, she turned to a friend living in Florida who agreed to host her while she attended community college. Li quickly blossomed in her classes and, through the prompting of a professor, looked into Florida State University, which she subsequently attended on scholarship. Upon receiving her undergraduate degree in finance, Li was offered a chance to go for her Ph.D without going through the master’s program.

“It’s just like now, we look at our students and recognize their intellectual ability and what they can do,” Li says, comparing what she received from her professors with what the business college seeks to do with its students.

Champion for Higher Education

Numbers and finance may be Li’s first love, but advocating for higher education as a whole is a close second. Li has traveled to other countries to speak to alumni who benefited from an education at Wright State. She often listens to stories told through tears of how their degree has changed their life and helped them contribute to their community.

These stories – coupled with her own – reinforce the passion she has to counteract arguments that higher education is a wasted investment.

“How can we tell young kids that you shouldn’t go to college or get an advanced degree?” Li says. “Although we can measure the cost of a particular program, we cannot measure the social good that these graduates can do for this society. As a business dean, I want to remind people that if you want to remain the number one economy in the world, we need to keep education first. There is no doubt about it.”

This summer, the business school will launch an initiative aimed at exposing high school students to higher education. For one week, students will come on campus to be a part of a team that will work to solve a business problem through its different avenues such as marketing, information systems and finance. Each team will be judged and the winner receive a scholarship.

“Going forward, you are going to see that we will become more aggressive in educating our younger minds and planting a seed,” Li says.

A Partner with Business

Exposing students to higher education and business concepts is one of Li’s strategies. The other is engaging local business.

“I feel there is a sense of urgency right now that while the business school is growing we need to engage more with the business community,” Li says. “I truly believe that we have a faculty and a college that is ready and poised to compete with other universities in the area.”

Li wants the business school to become a participant in the local economy. She wants to reach out to businesses and ask what their challenges are, and bring those into the classroom so that students can create solutions. This type of partnership will not only help local businesses, but provide a framework in which professors can adequately prepare students for today’s markets.

Li hopes to expand Wright State’s footprint beyond Dayton by creating partnerships in other countries – including Turkey, China and India – where economies are rapidly growing. In her first nine months as dean, Li has already traveled to many foreign countries to create relationships and explore new opportunities for the business school.

All the while Li has managed to stay close to Dayton through the help of social media. Facebook might not be her forte, but she has seen the power of using it to stay connected with students while on the road. It’s all part of her plan to help students go beyond their well – even if it means posting a photo of herself half asleep in an airport at 5 a.m.

“I want them to be inspired to go around the world just like me,” Li says. “I want them to see it through my eyes. Nothing is better than setting an example. If you work hard, so will your students.”