Presidential Scholarship Recipient to Join School of Interior Architecture & Design

IMG_7843 (1024x683)

Presidential Scholarship recipient Ya Ling Li. Photo by Jennifer Blot.

Ya Ling Li’s story is one of persistence and optimism. When she arrived in San Francisco from China in 2007, she was a shy middle school student who did not know English and, within months, was on the verge of failing several classes.

Today, the 18-year-old high school senior has a resume that rivals someone twice her age—and she was recently named the first youth to receive a four-year Presidential Scholarship to Academy of Art University. Li’s artistic goals, combined with her history of altruism and giving back to her community, made her application stand out.


By all accounts, life hasn’t always been easy for Li, who emigrated from Kaiping, China. Her father left the family in 2005 to find a home in San Francisco. Two years later, she joined him and two years after that, her mother and sister followed. She has never had an opportunity to be a carefree teenager—she is responsible for cooking and cleaning in the evenings when her mother is at work at a dim sum restaurant, and most of her amenities, including the braces on her top and bottom teeth, she paid for herself. She has also used the money she’s saved from her part-time job stocking books at the library to pay for extras for her 8-year-old sister, including piano lessons and a keyboard.  

Li, who has a bright smile and gregarious personality, seems to love art, design and children in equal measures. And though she speaks ethereally of the magic of art, she is also grounded, admitting that all of her successes can be attributed to hard work. Last summer, she created a website and taught her “Star and Moon” free art classes to 4–9 year olds at the library, and juggled a part-time job, a trigonometry class at City College and a course in advertising essentials through the Academy’s Pre-College Art Experience.  



Artwork by Ya Ling Li. Courtesy of Ya Ling Li.

Li said she’s dreamed of attending Academy of Art University since her freshman year in high school, but knew her family would be unable to afford tuition. Thanks to her Presidential Scholarship, she will join the Academy’s School of Interior Architecture & Design in the fall and hopes to work as an interior designer, creating beautiful surroundings for seniors and low-income families.

“A good home can make people feel so happy,” she said.   

In her current home, an in-law in San Francisco’s Richmond District, Li shares a room with her sister and comes up with creative ways to recycle and reuse materials for picture frames and decorations.  

“Art is the center of my life because it is an expression that allows me to look at the world differently,” she said.

One of Li’s champions is Ami Wong, who has been her mentor at CYC for the past three years.

“Ya Ling is special because she has defied the greatest odds to chase her dreams. Her family is her motivation for a better future. The creativity and positive atmosphere she brings into the program is beyond amazing,” Wong said.