“At the end of the day, Waterloo taught me more than mathematics. It helped me discover what I want to pursue moving forward.”
David Li says he gets by with a little help with his friends.
Calling his already impressive resume ”getting by” is an understatement: at 23 years old, Li is just days away from graduating with his Bachelor of Mathematics degree, with a double major in Mathematical Finance and Combinatorics and Optimization (plus a minor in Speech Communications). He’s lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam, welcomed thousands of new mathies to campus at Orientation, fired up the sidelines as a saxophone player in the Warriors Marching Band, and built a solid career foundation through co-op jobs across different industries, varying from development to finance.
On June 14, Li will add to that list of accomplishments when he addresses the newest graduates from the Faculty of Mathematics as Valedictorian, capping a remarkable five years and the launch of his next adventure. The credit, he insisted, is shared with the close friends he’s made. “Looking back on how we supported each other, I feel really lucky for my friends group,” said Li. “It might just be chance that we found each other. But I want others to know - it’s important to take some time to cherish your friends.”
An opportunity for exploration
Li was only 18 – and unsure exactly what he wanted to pursue as a career – when his father encouraged him to move to Canada from China and accept an offer from the University of Waterloo. Choosing math made sense to him, since it opened the door to test the waters and try different things. “Math is a jack-of-all-trade skill set to have,” explained Li. “It can fit into whatever path or interests I choose.”
Waterloo’s renowned co-operative education program also interested him, and he credits the program with helping him find his unique path forward.
“I always think that co-op is your incredible opportunity to try on different industries. When I first came here, I thought for sure I would be an actuary, but it’s so different now. I got to try being an actuary, I saw it in real-life - how they work, how the finance industry works – and I realized it’s not my cup of tea. Co-op is the fastest way to learn about yourself.”
This self-exploration guided Li during his time at Waterloo, in part because of the range of choices and opportunities that the University affords its students.
“I think one of the most important things to seek is understanding: seek to understand not only other people, but yourself as much as you can. A lot of things aren’t taught in textbooks – they’re practiced in your life.”
Finding the right fit
What started as a required communications class in first year opened the door for Li to an entire framework for understanding language processing and sentiment analysis.
“Speech communications ended up being a huge part of me discovering this interest because it offered a theoretical structure to understand how people persuade others, and how they engage in conversations,” he explained. “I find that really interesting, and combining that with what I’ve learned in data science, and that’s how I ended up here.”
In between his coursework and co-op, Li also completed two undergraduate research assistantships in statistics and computer science. These experiences, combined with his interest in speech communications, have set him on his current path, exploring the intersection between language and computing.
“After my two research terms, I find myself really thinking about natural language processing and the engagement of computers in linguistics, or how computers understand natural language,” he explained.
Saying goodbye to Waterloo
Having defined his passion and path forward, Li’s next stop is graduate school at the University of Southern California. But first, he’ll take the stage at Convocation to deliver his valedictory address. Honoured to be the voice of his fellow graduates, he plans to “work in a couple of sparks.”
As a long-time Orientation volunteer and coordinator, he also leaves with some words of wisdom for the next generation of Waterloo mathies.
“I would encourage everyone to explore, try things, go out of your comfort zone constantly. Waterloo is a great place for that. It’ll cost some of your time. You might fail at some things. But it’s only by trying that do you really know what your limits are,” reflected Li. “People will tell you it’s about getting that big internship, the crazy high marks, founding a startup – but I feel like it’s important to understand yourself, your world, and the problems around you that need to be solved. That’s when you can really concentrate your energy on the things you really want.”