Barry McNamara  |   Published January 29, 2020

‘A Whole Box for Me to Explore’

SARS outbreak prompted professor Jialin Li to pursue a career in sociology.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – One of Monmouth College’s newest faculty members might not have found her academic discipline were it not for SARS.

First reported in Asia in early 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness that had a major outbreak in southern China when Jialin Li was a schoolgirl in Shanghai.

JIALIN LI: ?I enjoy really exploring with the students and sharing my background,? said Li. ?It r... JIALIN LI: “I enjoy really exploring with the students and sharing my background,” said Li. “It really satisfies my interest to help the students see the world from a different perspective.”“We had a severe outbreak in 2003,” recalled Li. “I was so scared of this invisible virus. I rode my bike to school every day, and I remember holding my breath. I didn’t want to be sick. I didn’t want to die.”

Li said the current coronavirus that is centered in the Chinese city of Wuhan “reminds me and a lot of people in China of our experience with SARS in 2003. With the rising omnipresence of social media, the uncertainties that I have been experiencing these days are a lot stronger.”

During the SARS outbreak, Li watched a television talk show about the outbreak that featured a doctor, government officials and a sociologist.

“The sociologist … explained why we were so scared of the virus,” said Li. “I had never heard of sociology and neither had my parents. But the sociologist explained there was a social dimension to the social consequence of the medical problem, and that it was multi-layered.”

A light bulb went on for Li.

“I learned that there was an invisible social structure shaping how I felt about myself,” she said. “It opened a whole box for me to explore.”

Finding her niche

As Li’s knowledge of sociology has grown in the past two decades, her areas of interest have become more clearly defined. One is environmental sociology, which was a major part of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Others are the politics of motherhood, urban space and globalization as it relates to sociology.

Li taught environmental sociology at her previous stop at the College of New Jersey. In her first semester at Monmouth last fall, she taught criminology, as well as a Global Perspectives course. She’s teaching “Methods of Social Research” and “Social Problems” this spring.

“I enjoy really exploring with the students and sharing my background,” said Li. “It really satisfies my interest to help the students see the world from a different perspective.”

Along the way, Li enjoys seeing a different perspective and learning about her local community, as well. Last semester, she took students on a tour of the Hill Correctional Center in Galesburg and took part in faculty colleague Ken Cramer’s class trip to Smithfield Foods in Monmouth.

“I really appreciate the way that Monmouth College pays attention to the individual and treats them with respect,” she said.

Before Li and her husband came to the United States in 2010, she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in sociology from East China Normal University. Her husband is a communication professor at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Advice for students

A decade ago, Li made the bold move to come to America. Once the coronavirus is contained and travel conditions are deemed safe, Li encourages Monmouth students to visit China, telling them it might be easier than they think.

“I tell my students, ‘Don’t be scared to go to China,’” she said. “Learning English is one of the three main subjects that Chinese students are taught in elementary school, along with literature and mathematics. So most people in China speak at least some English. The language barrier is not what you’d think.”

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