Vincent Li lived a quiet life in the city of Dalian, China, with his parents. In Years 11 and 12, his days revolved around studying: waking up at 6am, getting home at 5pm, then studying more into the night.
“I didn't have much of a social life,” Vincent admits.
Aside from being busy studying, he explains that he had a hard time making friends as a young queer teenager.
“Going through all that, coming to terms with sexual orientations and everything, was a bit difficult during that time,” he says.
That would change for Vincent when he came to the Australian National University to do a Bachelor of Arts.
The decision to study at ANU arose from its excellence in linguistics. Vincent wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after Year 12, but he was passionate about that field – particularly socio-linguistics. At that time, Vincent was struck by how there were different English accents, just as there were different Chinese accents – and the reasons for these variations.
“I thought it was a fascinating concept to think about how people don't just speak a different accent in different geographic regions,” he says. “People speak a different accent when they're from different socio-economic classes or they're from a different social group.”
In researching universities across the world that excelled in linguistics, Vincent discovered ANU.
“ANU has some of the best linguists literally in the world and people who are absolutely experts in the area,” he enthused. “Like, one of the lecturers literally discovered an entire new language. I thought that was really cool.”
Vincent describes his family as working class, adding that more people these days can afford to study overseas – not just those in the upper-middle class and up. That doesn’t mean, he continued, that it’s easy. His parents downsized their apartment to help send Vincent to ANU.
“They were like, ‘We're sending you overseas for you to have a good life over there and that you receive a good education. We think that's really important’,” Vincent remembers. “‘It's just a tiny bit smaller so it doesn't make too much of a difference in our life’, they said.”
In Canberra, he has worked casual jobs to take some of the pressure off his family. But alongside studying and working, Vincent still found time to engage in student activism. This was sparked by his experiences coming out as queer, which he did a few weeks after Australia legalized same-sex marriage.
After the bill was passed, he said: “a lot of chatter's going around, a lot of celebrations going on, and it really inspired me to see how people around me are very accepting and very inclusive. So it made me feel safe to come out to a couple friends.”
“I was very excited to start this new chapter in my life, and at the same time I wanted to be able to do work and combat discrimination and intolerance in our society.”
Vincent made history in 2020 when he was elected Queer Officer of the ANU Students’ Association – the first international student to attain the role.
“As a person of colour, as a new migrant, and as someone who's queer – these are all my identities so they are all very important to me,” Vincent says. “There are many other members of the community who are QTIPOC; the intersection of BIPOC and queer. The conversation about this community has very much been neglected by the larger queer movement, so I thought that it's important to have that conversation and encourage more discussion and more action in this area.”
One of his proudest achievements during his year in office was drafting an inclusive language guide with his deputy officers, which was presented to the teaching and learning development community at ANU.
“There is still ongoing work to write that into an official policy to be able to send it to the Academic Quality Assurance Committee,” Vincent says. “But I just think it's great that the University is embracing some of this.”
He singled out Dr Lucy Neave, the Associate Dean of Student Experience in the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), who initiated contact with him.
“CASS as a College actually reached out to me in the first place asking me about things like this,” he says. “As a CASS student, I'm quite happy that I'm in this college that is promoting inclusion to make the classroom more inclusive.”
Vincent’s passion for activism also found expression in his study of sociology, which he took up as a major together with linguistics. Through an internship with Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen, he undertook a mini-research project looking at student advocacy in Australia and the intersectionality of BIPOC and queer student activism.
“It is extremely important to have that conversation for people having intersectional identities, because it really makes student advocacy on campus and advocacy in general elsewhere more effective as a movement, so no one's left behind. That was one of the major things I found.”
As a result of that internship and the work he’s done through ANUSA, Vincent was appointed to the ACT Government’s LGBTIQ+ Ministerial Advisory Council in late 2021. One of his goals is to have the Council engage more closely with Canberra’s student population.
“Collectively they are a pretty big chunk of the Canberra population,” he says. “So I think it's important that for 2022 we have a renewed focus on that, and that's what I've been advocating for.”
Vincent will be graduating with his Bachelor of Arts in February, an event he describes as “surreal”.
“All four years of work just came down to this one moment and you're like, ‘I guess I'm done now!’,” he says.
Graduation was when he was going to come out to his parents, but they can’t make it to Australia right now.
“I would like to come out to my parents in a setting where we're able to spend time together for the next month or so to help each other digest information,” Vincent explains. “I haven't just had the chance to spend a whole month with them since I moved to Australia.”
He’s spoken to his parents, who he’s very close to, about his activism work, but couched it in vague terms, like how he’s advocating for the rights of “minority students”.
“It will probably be such a big relief to be able to talk about my work with them more openly,” Vincent says. “But even now, based on what I’ve been able to tell them, they’re still very happy about what I'm up to right now.”
“They know enough to know that I'm doing well here, and I'm happy with that as well.”
Written by Evana Ho