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Emory senior Annie Li selected as a Marshall Scholar for study in U.K.

Annie Li, a senior history and sociology double major in Emory College, has been selected for the Marshall Scholarship. The competitive award covers up to three years of graduate study in the U.K.

Annie Li, a senior majoring in history and sociology in Emory College of Arts of Sciences, has been selected for the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which was announced Dec. 13.

Li is among 41 American students selected for the highly competitive award, which covers up to three years of graduate study at any U.K. university with funding from the British government. She is Emory’s eighteenth Marshall Scholar, and the first since 2017.

“This honor is a reflection of the curiosity and dedication that Annie Li has displayed throughout her time at Emory,” says Emory President Gregory L. Fenves. “She has sought knowledge at every turn, taking a truly dynamic approach to her academic experience by fusing her faith and study of theology with a focus on racial and social justice to address challenges that shape our past, present and future.”

A New Jersey native, Li will pursue a master’s of philosophy with a focus on Christian ethics at the University of Oxford, researching the theological motivations behind transnational social movements. The work expands on her honors thesis, which examines the motivations of Chinese-American activists from San Francisco’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown (PCC) who participated in the Civil Rights Movement in the South and the Asian American Movement in the West.

Li changed her plan for a creative writing major as a sophomore, when Emory historian Carol Anderson’s course on the Civil Rights Movement directed Li’s interest to the tension between theology and racial justice.

Her time at Emory has been a deep dive into that relationship, building her understanding with formal study that included graduate classes at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, conversations around campus and in the community, and projects that united them.

“I began to see just how differently theology has been used, from the KKK justifying violence and oppression versus the Black church finding ways to liberate people,” Li says. “As a person of faith, there is a compelling intellectual question of how such different perspectives exist, using the same text and same religious tradition.”

By her second year on campus, Li was building on that question as a fellow with the Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship (IDEAS) program, which fosters cross-disciplinary conversations among undergraduates.

She also worked as a teaching and research assistant in the Department of Sociology, helping senior lecturer Tracy Scott with her study examining undergraduate career culture. Scott, whose dissertation focused on the sociology of religion, encouraged Li to pursue her questions in a wide range of departments and at Candler, where she took a religion and ethics course with Robert M. Franklin Jr., Laney Professor in Moral Leadership.

“Annie has a strong basis for her beliefs, ethically, and is asking questions not only to learn more deeply but asking questions of what she is learning,” Scott says. “That has allowed her to deepen her knowledge while realizing she can have a dynamic faith and not a static faith. She wants to turn those notions of morality and justice into action.”

Blending curiosity with community action

Li’s focus on community has been central to her study. On campus, she launched “Emory In Via: A Journal of Christian Thought,” Emory’s only undergraduate religious dialogue journal. Through IDEAS, she designed and curated a website that collected pandemic experiences from the Emory community, work that resulted in her being named an Imagining America Joy of Giving Something fellow last fall.

She used the fellowship to fund an oral history project, asking people across different religious traditions how they used their faith and spirituality in their community engagement. She completed the project after working as an intern with Fair Fight Action (a national voting rights organization) during the 2020 election.

That same summer brought the racial unrest from George Floyd’s murder and a rise in anti-Asian hate and xenophobia from the ongoing pandemic. Li drew on all those experiences and her research to propose a community speaker series about the civil rights struggles of Asian Americans in the South.

Her idea was among five selected by Asian Americans Advancing Justice last summer. The project has since become an initiative with Emory’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Activists club.

“I saw a moral urgency to be an ally and confront these questions about justice and equity,” Li says. “Within the Christian tradition, the language of love encompasses loving both your neighbors and your enemies self-sacrificially. Those are really radical ideas, so I wanted to have conversations about what that looks like in public life.”

Li stands apart not only for her openness about her belief and similar clarity about her struggles, says Chris Suh, assistant professor of history, who is supervising her honors thesis. She also has an ability to ask productive questions to use her faith as a vehicle for connection and community.

“She embodies what we like to see: connecting the liberal arts experience with making a difference in everyday society,” Suh says. “It’s a refreshingly old-school approach to leadership, one that could have an impact about the role of policy and faith by thinking deeply about how we engage.”

Li aspires to become a professor and plans to pursue a PhD after her study in Britain. Though she doesn’t plan to be in the ministry, she does want to work with churches and nonprofits in community-based efforts as part of her career.

“My time at Emory has been a process of discerning the intellectual questions that excited me and seeking opportunities to serve others, which was an ambiguous and uncertain process at times,” Li says.

“Despite that, I am thankful for my mentors and peers who have supported and challenged my growth,” she adds. “I hope I can be a resource to help other people forge their own path.”