Chancellor Li calls for alumni buy-in to help students succeed and build community


Sara Meadows                                             

“Our job is to make sure that we are not just a one-time partner, but a lifelong partner.” Photo courtesy of UNO News Center

Chancellor Joanne Li believes that every challenge offers an opportunity. That’s why in her first year as chancellor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, she rose to the challenge of navigating the campus through a global pandemic.

Li is the first woman of color to serve as UNO chancellor and the first Asian-American in history to hold an executive leadership role for the University of Nebraska system. Li brings 15 years of leadership experience in higher education.

The pandemic has affected many educators including Li, but she continued her commitment to improving in student outcomes, growing enrollment and programs, enhancing diversity, and building community partnership. When Li assumed her chancellor role on July 1, 2021, a COVID-19 spike began in the Omaha metro.

“During the pandemic, my blood sugar went up, my cholesterol went up,” Li says. “It’s just a very stressful situation but you try to do the best you can.”

The pandemic forced the University to hold classes virtually or as a hybrid, which created extra work and stress for faculty and staff to adapt. But the central question for Li: “Is learning really happening?”

“I remember being interviewed quite a few times over the past two years,” Li says, “and people ask, what is really keeping you awake at night? And I will tell you the burnout ratio of faculty and students. Going forward, you must rekindle that commitment, and it’s really my students that matter, so we’re going to do everything we can.”

After a year as chancellor, Li says what surprises her the most about UNO is the number of good stories to tell and the opportunities for the University to advance its mission.

“UNO has a lot of great people, our students are adorable,” Li says. “They are absolutely hardworking students.”

Li also highlighted the progress UNO has made in research conducted on campus. 2021 was the record year for research at UNO, resulting in $26 million and so far in 2022, research dollars have exceeded $35 million.

Li says UNO has two overarching goals: student performance and workforce development. Student performance breaks down into four small pillars.

· Complete your degree.

· Optimize the time it takes to complete your degree.

· Make retention a priority from freshman year to earning your degree.

· Recruit strategically to bring more jobs to the state.

“You come to college to finish your degree; you don’t drop out,” Li says.

That’s why it’s so important for all academic advisers to help students stay on track and meet the University’s retention goals.

Li knows firsthand the difficulties first-generation college students face and the critical role mentors play in their path to success. Growing up in Hong Kong, she took advantage of opportunities in the U.S. as an international student. She earned her Bachelor of Science in finance and economics and her Ph.D. in finance and corporate governance from Florida State University.

Li says the University must also ensure students have opportunities to build character.

“Our goal is relation, not transaction,” Li says. “Our job is to make sure that we are not just a one-time partner, but a lifelong partner.”

Li says UNO must be the leader in workforce development because regardless of what students pursue as a course of study, they need to be gainfully employed.

“It doesn’t just happen because the chancellor said so,” Li says. “It happens because everyone believes in it, and we are committed to it. It is my job to let the outside community know that this is an urban university that is so committed to success.”

Li’s advice for the School of Communication and other departments is to enhance community engagement by strategic planning, being mindful about advising and remaining focused.

“We ask the School of Communication to help us to promote the vision of UNO,” Li says.

Whether it is a service-learning project or an internship, the School of Communication plays an influential role in promoting UNO’s vision.

Li says alumni engagement is especially important because the success of the University is defined by the success of its alumni.

“When we have a diverse alumni network,” Li says, “we have the power to actually influence a wide spectrum of communities.”

She says UNO’s goal is to lift everyone, not just one segment of the population. The best way to engage with alumni is to create a real partnership, bring them back to campus, utilize their talents and ask for their mentorship.

“Having them here is great but having them really connect with us and engage with our student body is even greater,” Li says.

Moving forward, Li says the University must be very mindful, intentional and deliberate to bring our alumni back to campus. The efforts to encourage alumni participation in UNO activities and events is important as an urban university.

School of Communication alumni can help UNO by sharing success stories, encouraging businesses to hire students, and most importantly, mentoring students.

“Seeking partnership with UNO even after you graduate is especially important, to build the future of not only UNO,” Li says, “but the future of the community.”