At 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, Ivan Li (W,C '19) went straight from his Math 240 office hours at David Rittenhouse Laboratory (DRL) to his Street interview. Although our first interview location was unexpectedly occupied, Ivan quickly redirected us to a stairway that leads to the upper floor. Amidst the convoluted, maze–like hallways in DRL, Ivan can easily navigate his way out. “I like DRL so much more than Huntsman,” he says while scaling the steps. 

Ivan Li has never considered himself a genius; however, as the highest ranking teaching assistant (TA) in Penn’s recent history and on track to graduating this spring with a dual degree and triple major, Ivan’s academic impact on campus would strongly suggest otherwise. 

From providing his students with recitation recordings and extra lectures on Friday afternoons to crafting neatly organized book notes and Khan Academy–style videos for every topic he covers, Ivan has built a body of exceedingly comprehensive education resources for his classes. What he does has almost reached the level of a for–profit education institute, yet everything Ivan makes can be accessed on his website, free and open to all. For the past two semesters, Ivan has been rated with a 3.90 out of 4.00 by his Math 114 students and 3.95 out of 4.00 by his Math 240 students, thus becoming the highest rated TA at Penn with two teaching awards.

[Hear Ivan talk about how he finds deeper meaning in his work]

Freshmen often find themselves having a rough start taking Math 114 in their first semester at Penn. The difficulties of the course are often compounded by the emotional unrest that comes naturally with being an incoming freshman, especially when you are suddenly surrounded by top students from high schools all over the world. Coming to Penn from a public high school in South Dakota, Ivan was initially timid when comparing himself with others. He recalled, “Coming to Penn, I had very low confidence because I went to a high school in the middle of nowhere.”

He took Math 114 his freshman fall and failed one of the midterms. He eventually managed to excel in the final and ended up with a good semester. It was through his academic performance that Ivan gained his confidence. At the end of freshman year, he applied to be a TA for Math 114, the class he once struggled with. By merging his technological expertise and past experience of being in Math 114, he connects to each of his students and dedicates more time and effort than others. 

Ivan told Street that calculus professors at Penn are often post–doctorates who place a greater emphasis on research rather than teaching. The professors are not bad, he says, it’s just that they are not interested in teaching math. This increases the importance of having a good TA, and Ivan has definitely become a rock star among his students.

Ivan recently gained attention for his dedicated work as a Math TA last fall. After the first midterm of Math 114, he realized that the professor that he was assisting would cover the last two sessions of the course only two days before the final. As he knew for sure that those topics would still be tested, he began hosting a two–hour lecture every Friday afternoon for his students, on top of the 8 courses he was taking at that time. Jiazhou Li (E ‘21), who was in Ivan’s Fall 2017 Math 114 recitation, says, “[Ivan] is definitely the Math God. His review sessions are incredibly important. If Ivan had not been my TA, my grade would probably not have been as good as it was.”

In addition to his TA career, Ivan has taken on an academically rigorous schedule. Currently a senior at Penn, Ivan studies Mathematics and Economics in the College and Statistics in Wharton, one of the 0.5 percent of students pursuing triple majors. A day in Ivan’s life can be seen as monotonous, but only a few could handle his workload. His day starts at 6:15 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m. DRL has become a second home to him, as he spends a large chunk of time working there every day, between teaching classes and taking classes. The Undergraduate Physics and Astronomy Lounge is his go–to place to finish off homework and hang out with friends. Around 5:00 p.m., he takes the Penn Bus down to The Fresh Grocer, and goes home to cook and eat dinner. 

Despite having a dual degree with Wharton, the industry of finance hasn’t made much of an appeal to Ivan. Ivan interned at Capital One during his sophomore year summer, but concluded his internship with a realization that he wanted to go to graduate school. “The work was so boring. I hate office politics. I don’t want to work in the private sector anymore. And I felt like I was making no difference,” Ivan said. Since then, the seed to becoming a professor has planted in Ivan’s mind. He is now thinking about pursuing a PhD degree right after Penn, potentially in the field of Economics. 

“It might be something that runs in the family. It’s just something about teaching that's a lot more fun than other things,” Ivan said, “By far, the thing I enjoyed the most on campus was being a TA, hands down.”