Mountain Brook High School graduate Sophia Li was recently selected by a committee appointed by President Biden to receive a 2023 United States Presidential Scholars Award. The award was given to only two students in Alabama and 161 distinguished seniors from a pool of 3.7 million graduating high school students across the country. The selection criteria were based on many factors, namely, academic achievement, leadership and impact on the local community. Here, Sophia offers her thoughts and gratitude on being selected for this prestigious award.

What was your reaction to winning?

I was very surprised, but there was also a wave of gratitude that rushed through me. I remember being in my English class and packing up because the bell was about to ring. But when I grabbed my phone, I saw a notification from the Department of Education congratulating me. My instant reaction was to instantly jump out of my chair in shock and cover my mouth. I think my classmates probably thought I was crazy, but they were very happy for me after learning the reason behind that abrupt action.

What are your plans after high school?

I plan to go to Yale University where I will explore my interests through the university’s liberal arts education. Because I want to make the most of my academics, I intend to double major in Ethics, Politics and Economics (an interdisciplinary major only offered at Yale) and another subject I am interested in. Outside academics, I hope to continue my public speaking organization ( by helping students in New Haven schools learn skills needed for life outside school.

What activities were you involved in high school, and what do you hope to become involved in college?

In high school, I was heavily involved in my speech and debate team, as well as the Justice Club and Heritage Panel. To me, my greatest achievement was being able to impact the community around me by creating free resources and conferences around public speaking, financial readiness and more that reached thousands of students worldwide. At Yale, I plan to join Dwight Hall, which is one of the only volunteering hubs that is entirely run by students. There, I will be able to help underserved communities in New Haven and do it with students from diverse backgrounds.

How do you want to give back to the community who has supported you?

This community has given me the love and support I needed to implement my projects successfully and thrive. I hope to continue the work I have done in order to give this community the attention it deserves. Despite going up north for college, I plan to volunteer locally when I return and expand my organization to make an everlasting impact. Above all, I hope to be a role model for youths in the area and someone who they can come to.

What advice would you like to give to other young professionals such as yourself?

Don’t underestimate your potential, fail forward and give gratitude. My road to becoming the person I am today isn’t really conventional. My parents, having nothing, immigrated here from China in order to give their future family the life they never got to have. I couldn’t have asked for a better family growing up because they let me have control over what I do as long as I am “happy with my life.” Being independent allowed me to attempt many endeavors and subsequently fail, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to try in the first place without my parent’s decision to immigrate or the opportunities presented by my community.