Woodbury High senior’s love of math started early. Now he’s a U.S. Presidential Scholar.

Minkai Li was once so engrossed in reading a math textbook that he didn’t realize he was walking towards a flight of stairs, and he fell.

“I was around 5 years old, and we were at some restaurant – the name has long ago left my memory,” he said. “I just skimmed my knees, thankfully.”

The Woodbury teen’s love of mathematics started even earlier than that. His parents, Xiao Huang and Fuming Li, tell the story about the time when he was 2, and a family friend came to visit. “He started counting, for whatever reason, and I wouldn’t let him stop,” said Li, a senior at Woodbury High School. “If he stopped, I would start crying. He went from 200 to 400 straight.”

When he was 4 years old, Li found a calculator and “started squaring numbers on it,” he said. “Like 1 squared, 2 squared, 3 squared… I memorized up to 15 squared. It was more rote memorization than anything else at that time.”

Li learned Thursday that he had been selected as a U.S. Presidential Scholar. He is one of 161 high school seniors this year to receive the award, which recognizes academic or artistic accomplishments. The program honors one boy and one girl from each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and students living abroad. Fifteen students also are chosen at large; 20 more are chosen for artistic achievements, and another 20 are chosen for distinction in career and technical education.

Li, 18, has a “mindset that sets him apart from other excellent students. He’s on another level, really,” said Woodbury High School English teacher Carl Andersen, who recommended Li for the nomination. “He’s just very curious. His motivation is not just getting a good grade. He’s motivated by learning. He genuinely wants to learn more about the world.”

Li was a student in Andersen’s AP language and composition class last year, and he “enhanced the entire classroom experience for everybody just by participating earnestly in everything we did,” Andersen said. “He’s super kind, modest, soft-spoken. He cares about other people. He would come in and engage me in conversations about class, wanting to do better, wanting to improve his writing, but also just to gain a better grasp of the world – how rhetoric shapes the world.”

Li, who scored a perfect 36 on the ACT and is a National Merit scholarship winner, will attend Harvard University this fall. He plans to major in applied math with focuses in economics and computer science.

This past year, Li was dual enrolled at Woodbury High School and at the University of Minnesota through Postsecondary Enrollment Options, which enables high schoolers to take dual-credit classes online or at area colleges at no cost.

Li, who attended the University of Minnesota Talented Youth Mathematics Program from grades 6-10, took two higher-level math courses each semester, including abstract algebra, Fourier analysis and complex analysis, and an introduction to geology class, an introduction to English class and a political science class on the laws of war, he said.

He also participated in numerous activities at Woodbury High, including playing soccer and serving as co-president of the school’s National Honor Society, captain of the speech team, captain of the science bowl and captain of the math team.

He and a friend, Evan Erickson, started a free online math camp for middle school students during the summer of 2020.

Called MNMOC, which stands for Mathematical Online Camp, the camp grew out of the teens’ interest in volunteering at the local middle schools’ MathCounts teams. “That was something we both loved,” Li said. “We had the discussion early on, before COVID, that it would be really cool if we expanded this, but logistically that seemed pretty difficult.”

One upside of COVID, he said, was that “it dramatically expanded online access, and that made our camp feasible. We figured so many other things were getting shut down, we wanted to provide a free resource to middle school kids. For both of us, middle school was a really important time, where we developed our love for mathematics.”

The teens recruit other All State Math Team members to serve as teaching assistants. This summer, MNMOC will offer two two-week sessions for students in grades 6-8; 90 campers are expected to attend.

Li said he tells campers about his own experiences with math during middle school, where he says he wasn’t always the most gifted student in class. “I don’t want to give the impression that I always got math, like, right away,” he said. “I feel like it was more just something I loved, and I spent a lot of time with it, which is how I advanced — more so than just innate ability.”

His advice to campers: “More than anything, just try to enjoy it. If you really do love it, you’re going to put enough time into it, where you probably will see some semblance of competitive success.”

In his college application essay, Li wrote about how his diverse interests, including math, extemporaneous speaking and board games, share a common thread of using creative strategies to find solutions to problems.

“Problem solving has been a constant in my life all the way since 5, mainly in math, but also in speech and the random problems life throws at you,” he said Thursday. “I just think problems are interesting. I’m not necessary talking about real-world problems, like, how am I going to pay my taxes, but I just like to approach a lot things as like a challenge – a fun challenge – and see what’s a creative solution I can come up with.”

During a recent extemporaneous speaking competition, Li said he had to present a speech discussing Russia’s strategic aim in southeast Asia.

“It’s kind of like a challenge: How can I create the best way to answer this question? How can I present my information so that it’s understandable for anyone listening to this speech? How can I introduce it in an interesting way so that people stay engaged with the speech?” he said. “They are all like little challenges that keep me engaged.”

Dedeepya Guthikonda, a senior at Edina High School, was also named a Presidential Scholar on Thursday.

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