Ziyi Li, a Chinese international graduate student, continues to travel the world in pursuit of a global education.

International Graduate Student Finds Career in Counseling, Global Education

  • Apr 21, 2023
  • Alex Briseño

Ziyi Li, a graduate student from China, realized early in the COVID-19 pandemic that she wanted to pursue a career in education and counseling rather than remain on the financial path she’d initially set out on.  

Now, after traveling to almost one dozen countries, Li continues to work toward assisting people through a combination of mental health and education counseling. That quest brought her to The University of Texas at Austin, where Li is pursuing a master’s degree in counselor education and working as a graduate assistant at Texas Global’s Education Abroad unit.  

Ziyi Li, a graduate assistant at Texas Global, hopes to return to China to work in education.

Before arriving at UT Austin last year, though, Li worked throughout mainland China during the onset of the pandemic, an ordeal whose effects played a role in her decision to come to The Forty Acres.  

“Austin just felt like the right choice for me,” Li said. “The city felt chill and allowed me to have a quiet life for a moment. My life was affected a lot by COVID-19. That was a really difficult experience, and I wanted to gain my inner peace back. Now I feel like I’m doing that.”  

Pivoting Paths  

Born in Chongqing, a city in southwest China, Li didn’t travel far for her undergraduate studies in the capital of China’s Sichuan province, Chengdu.  

But Li’s educational background didn’t start in either education or counseling. She graduated in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in financial management from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics.  

After four years of studying, though, Li realized a career in finance no longer aligned with her passion or her values.  

“In working with business people, I found that there were less and less of them thinking about ways to contribute to society,” Li said. “Rather, most people seemingly entered the field thinking about how they can benefit themselves. I started questioning, ‘Is this what I really want?’ ” 

Li said she understands that as a counselor or educator, she likely won’t earn as much money compared to the finance world, but she firmly believes the fulfillment derived from her work provides a happiness that money cannot.  

Another key factor during Li’s time in undergrad developed after joining AIESEC, a not-for-profit organization run by students and recent college graduates. With chapters around the world, the global platform pushes young people with interests in world issues and management to explore and develop leadership skills through multicultural work.  

For Li, working with AIESEC allowed her to travel and engage with students from around the world.  

“I really enjoyed interacting with so many students,” Li said. “I found my interest and passion in inspiring students, sharing multicultural insight and cultivating leaders. So, I decided to switch my career and enter the field of education.” 

Embracing Global Education  

After earning a bachelor’s in 2019, Li continued to work and volunteer for AIESEC primarily in Beijing. By her count, Li gained experience in nine total countries in addition to China and the United States: Egypt, India, Malaysia, Nepal, Russia, South Korea and Sri Lanka.  

“It’s a privilege,” Li said. “I had the chance to interact with universities and students from the entire Asia-Pacific region.” 

She added, “I also went to schools experiencing extreme poverty. Having that immersive experience in other cultures allowed me to develop a sort of benchmark. That allows me to compare and better understand different cultures and education in those countries. I can view it from a neutral perspective instead of framing it as ‘this country has the best and this country has the worst.’ ” 

Chinese graduate student Ziyi Li spends time in Sri Lankan classrooms.

This experience allowed her to not only understand how each country utilizes its available resources, but how to intertwine region-specific strategies or approaches into classrooms around the world.  

“If I only knew what education looked like in China, then I would think ‘OK, this is what education looks like,’ ” Li said.

She added, “Even if I thought a certain [method of] education being provided wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be able to identify ways to modify it. But with this new perspective, I can compare education in different countries and consider new possibilities.” 

After six years at AIESEC, Li decided to take what ultimately became a gap year. She spent six months preparing materials for graduate school applications and the next six working for an educational agency in China that assists K-12 students’ academic performance. As an advisor and facilitator who designed study plans for students and monitored their progress, Li yet again gained invaluable hands-on experience in the field of education.  

Finding Peace  

Li arrived at UT Austin with the goal of earning a master’s through the counselor education program and regaining her inner peace in the process. Thankfully, she says, that’s exactly what she’s doing.  

“After the pandemic, I was so anxious about everything and nothing. My mind was occupied,” she said. “I couldn’t focus or enjoy moments. I was deeply depressed for six months, but I always believed tomorrow would be better.” 

In Texas, she added, “Life became simple. Part of the reason is that I became a student again. Life as a student is much more certain than work during the pandemic.” 

Li became less concerned with the uncertainties in her life, which gave her the capacity to focus on the work she is currently doing at UT Austin and even explore with friends the many hiking trails the city has to offer.  

In addition to working as a graduate assistant at Texas Global, Li also started an internship as a school counselor at Bowie High School in Austin. The position touches on both academic advising and mental health support, a mesh point Li would like to make a career out of.  

“I’m interested in mental health, but I don’t want it to be the only topic of my job,” Li said. “I’d also like to help people with their overall personal growth, not only just their mental health. For me, education and counseling are very intertwined. Instead of being regarded as separate topics, I regard people as a whole.” 

Li’s ultimate dream is to one day return to China. With her broadened perspective on global education, she also hopes to contribute to a “systematic education upgrade” in China as an “educational influencer.” 

“Not the kind you’re thinking of,” she said, but instead the type of influencer that predates social media and plays an active role in shaping the country’s approach to education. Until then, though, she’s appreciating the latest opportunities to expand her educational horizons during her time on The Forty Acres.