Humans of Harker: The power of conversation

Helen Li grows from the receiver of love to the spreader of love


Saloni Shah

“Emotions bring power to your words … In order to convince someone else of what you were saying, you have to fully believe in it and fully feel the emotions in your words to affect other people [and] convince them that what you’re saying is true and has value,” Helen Li (12) said.

Its head swivels from the scrumptious brown nut resting in its palms, black and beady eyes focusing upon her. With the words “absolutely not,” barreling out of her gaping mouth, she takes one step back, then another, swivels on the heel of her right foot and takes off running. While the squirrel may have no clue what just happened, anyone who knows Helen Li (12) does.

Helen may not be able to conquer the gaze of a squirrel, but she’s overcome many more arduous challenges and has left an indelible mark on her community.

Helen’s foray into the depths of high school opportunities began with TEDxHarkerSchool. While she applied on a whim in her freshman year, the organization quickly turned into something that holds great meaning for her as co-curator in her senior year. In particular, TEDx brought to light the importance that dialogue holds in everyday life.

“The power of conversations … is something unexpected, but something unexpectedly powerful. These conversations only come through when you’re actually engaging in a deep conversation with adults about like finalizing a TED talk idea. It’s these opportunities that bring more inspiration to life,” Helen said.

Such powerful conversations also hold true in Helen’s experience in debate. Through captaining over 20 of her fellow congressional debaters, Helen has recognized the importance that each and every word holds.

“Emotions bring power to your words … In order to convince someone else of what you were saying, you have to fully believe in it and fully feel the emotions in your words to affect other people [and] convince them that what you’re saying is true and has value,” Helen said.

Helen’s experiences of preparing for a myriad of debate topics have helped her gain a deeper understanding of the broad issues that society faces.

“It’s so important to achieve greater tolerance between people,” Helen said. “Understanding and appreciating and valuing the power of differences between individuals brings more fun and more value to the environment that we live in.”

While Helen has learned so much from debate, she’s also given back to her peers through her captaincy and poise. Upper school speech and debate teacher Scott Odekirk has watched Helen grow from someone who was yet to assert herself to a mentor and culture-builder that the other students admired.

“When Helen spoke at her best, she exuded that assertiveness of a true leader—the tone of her speaking was very authoritative. The rounds that she did her best in were where she featured a real credibility and sense of mastery,” Odekirk said. “By the end of her time with Harker speech and debate, everybody … looked up to her as an example of someone who could speak with great grace, command and respect. I saw someone who was finding her place and her voice, and I came to know a real person worthy of admiration who set the tone for others about how they should be.”

Just as Helen helped others express themselves, she too found her voice through debate.

“For a long time, I couldn’t really believe what I was saying was true or had reason. It was this lack of confidence that contributed to a lack of competitive success at the start,” Helen said. “When I actually started to believe in my own words and find my place … it not only contributed to more competitive success, but also [helped me] become a more confident person in every circumstance.”

Helen brought this newfound self-assurance and confidence to student council as Associated Student Body (ASB) Secretary. While Helen moved around a lot in her childhood from China to Canada, the community support she felt in her eighth grade encouraged her to join student council and help those who were experiencing similar difficulties.

“I transitioned from the receiver of the love to the spreader of the love. I took up a role of giving more support, more love, more happiness to our community,” Helen said. “It’s a way of giving back but also a way that inspires me personally.”

Helen’s work in student council has revolved around wellness and student happiness as she’s passionate about reaffirming the importance of mental health for the students of her community. Yet, it’s the smallest moments that Helen remembers and holds closest to her heart.

“Most of my vivid memories from student council are either having a really funny conversation with someone while selling at the snack bar or talking to someone at lunch about an initiative they want us to do,” Helen said. “These small moments remind me the most of why it’s such a powerful position in the first place. It’s [also] a lesson to never forget about the small moments and value them over the numbers of how much money we raise.”

Describing his first impression of her as the girl who was “always laughing,” close friend Bryan Zhang (12) cherishes both these small moments and new ways of thinking that Helen brings to his life.

“Helen has a really analytical way of thinking about things. You can see that rational train of thought come through in every conversation that you have with her,” Bryan said. “Sometimes, she’ll walk me through her way of thinking and it’s really enlightening to have a really close friend you can talk to who’ll always give you a new perspective and always help you be more open-minded.”

Helen’s analytical thought further impacts her peers through her role as Women in STEM (WiSTEM) vice president of internal affairs.

“I started programming the summer before my freshman year, and there were two girls in the class. I see my role in WiSTEM as helping build an entirely different community … Even when there are so many efforts dedicated to supporting women in a lot of fields, not only STEM, there is still more help that can be done,” Helen said. “Being a part of the club is something meaningful to me because I know, internally, that I’m contributing to something else beyond myself and something that I personally struggled with.”

Although clearly heavily involved in her school community, Helen’s influence reaches beyond Harker. She also takes part in community service, ranging from tutoring to benefit concerts.

“In freshman and sophomore year, I did mostly tutoring work since I thought it was a really direct way of reaching out to a community and younger kids,” Helen said. “I also explored benefit concerts—it’s something different, where you’re helping out a more general bigger cause indirectly. Every cause I volunteered for was enjoyable for me as well because I do enjoy planning a lot of things … Working in a team to throw an event is a very meaningful action.”

Close friend and ASB Vice President Arusha Patil (12) appreciates the dedication and commitment that Helen has not only for her closest friends, but also for each and every one of her peers.

“Helen’s very natural at creating a team environment based on personal connections, and because of that, she has a very adaptable personality. She has such tight bonds with both underclassmen and upperclassmen. Helen’s the person you go to because … of how dedicated and essential she is to every team she’s a part of. You only need to have one conversation with her to love Helen Li,” Arusha said.