Over decades of work as an educator and activist, Li Schoolland ’88 has appeared before young professionals in fledgling democracies around the globe to underscore the importance of cherishing—and fighting to preserve—freedom and to offer a path forward in crafting a free market future.
She counts among her former students the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, along with countless policymakers, advocates and leaders of non-governmental organizations across Eastern Europe, China, the Middle East and elsewhere. Last year, she was on the road for 200 days—traveling to 24 countries.
Schoolland, speaking from her Waipahu home on a recent day, says she’s driven by two passions in life.
“One is God,” she says. “One is liberty.”
And even amid the pandemic, with traveling out of the question, she’s continued her work. In September, she was preparing to speak to virtual classrooms in Africa, China and Europe via Zoom, a medium that she admits took some getting used to but that she’s proud to have since mastered.
Schoolland accomplishes her work thanks to loose affiliations with a number of international organizations and strong relationships with an army of economists worldwide. She says she doesn’t ask for speaking fees—and kindly requests that they all do the same.
In return, she says, she gets to see the positive impact of her work.
“Coming from a Communist country inspired me to help,” she said.
Schoolland grew up in China, the daughter of a surgeon and a professor, and says she saw the cruel injustices of authoritarian Communist rule firsthand. When she moved to the United States in the 1980s, she vowed to do whatever she could to promote liberal economics and do some good in the world.
After completing a Master’s degree in Japanese literature at the University of Minnesota, Schoolland made her way to the islands to enroll in Chaminade’s Master’s degree in Japanese Business Studies. She describes the program, which was offered through a corporate partnership, as “intense” and immersive.
“The experience was very valuable,” she said. “Six days of classes and a lot of homework.”
As part of the degree, she was able to complete a three-month internship in Japan. She was interested in retail so sought an internship at a department store. During her time there, she helped the merchandising department develop a new brand that launched in the store.
After graduation, Schoolland remained in retail, working with Duty Free and then starting her own business as an art dealer. She also worked with a Japanese development company into the early 1990s.
The crash of the Japanese economy in 1991, though, changed the course of her life.
The business she worked for had to liquidate and Schoolland found herself with a new purpose: as the caregiver to elderly relatives. She went back into the workplace seven years later, as a teacher. By then, she wasn’t interested in the hectic, round-the-clock world of development or retail. She wanted a position that would allow her to spend time, especially the holidays, with her family.
Schoolland found a teaching position at Punahou, where her daughter was attending school.
And during breaks, she and her daughter would try to squeeze in as much travel as they could.
At every destination, Schoolland would wear her teaching hat, sharing what she knew with others.
That wanderlust grew into a mission: Schoolland and her husband, also an economist, started coordinating educational camps and conferences for young professionals. Oftentimes, the events were in partnership with local universities. The topics: Free market economics and democracy.
Schoolland’s work has taken her across Eastern Europe, from Lithuania to Latvia to Estonia to Poland.
About 10 years ago, she was delighted to finally set up an event in China. She partnered with Northeastern University there and developed a summer school program with about 100 students. Last year, more than 200 students attended to hear well-known economists from around the world.
The speakers, she said, “sacrifice and they don’t get paid” to attend the events.
So far this year, Schoolland has had to cancel more than seven trips internationally. That hasn’t discouraged her. If anything, it has redoubled her resolve to promote market economics, democracy and entrepreneurship. She said she can’t wait to get back on the road (and in the air) when she’s able to.