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‘Unparalleled wit and unyielding reliability’: Remembering James Li ’27

A smiling teenager in a gray sweatshirt looks at the camera through tinted glasses lenses, with a red track and trees in the background
James Li ’27 on the field outside of Princeton High School.
Courtesy of Shira Kutin

James Li ’27, a member of Yeh College, passed on Feb. 16 after being struck by the Princeton Dinky shuttle at the Faculty Road crossing. He is remembered by friends for his wit and care and was a devoted student of languages and philosophy. 

Li was born on Jan. 10, 2005, and moved to Princeton from Oakland, California in 2017. He subsequently attended Princeton Middle School — then John Witherspoon Middle School — and Princeton High School (PHS), where he graduated in 2023. A semifinalist for the National Merit Scholarship, Li also was a member of the fencing team, Classic Films Club, and Physics Club. 


A talented linguist, Li “had formal training in Japanese, Spanish and Italian, and was self-taught in Welsh, Romanian, German, and Russian,” according to an email sent on Saturday by the Yeh College Office. He participated in the North American Computational Linguistics Open Competition.

Shinji Sato, director of the Japanese Language Studies Program and lecturer in East Asian Studies, who taught Li in the JPN 101–102 Elementary Japanese sequence, described Li as a shy and kind student who excelled in his classes. 

“[James was] very quiet. When he speaks, even in English, or Japanese, it’s a very soft voice. You don’t forget his smile. Sometimes, he doesn’t speak, but he has a big, nice, charming smile,” Sato recalled. “He was a very, very good student from day one because learning Japanese is not easy, but he’s very, very, very good at it.” 

A teenager in a green t-shirt, glasses, and a pink bucket hat with ears and a smiling face holds his hand up to make a peace sign
Courtesy of Shira Kutin

George Kopf ’27 remembers Li as quiet, and someone who “never really talked about himself that much” in person. But, he had a quick, vibrant wit when communicating virtually. 

Li and his friends often used Discord to communicate throughout high school and beyond. Connor Stewart, who first met Li in high school, said that “in our server, [Li] was a part of almost every conversation.”


“There’s a set of emojis in the server that were custom to the server, and we had an ongoing joke that he would communicate exclusively through emojis that were just [our friend] Andy’s face,” he remembered.

Stewart recounted that the night after Li passed, “a bunch of us in the server were on a call, and we were just looking through his past messages … And he just always knew what to say.”

Another of Li’s friends, Luca Balescu, also remembers Li for his humor, describing him as someone who was “extraordinarily funny” and “always had a good, very intellectual zinger to throw in any conversation.”

Zach Deng, another PHS graduate and friend on the Discord, echoed that there were times when Li “would just drop some amazing one liner. A lot of people on the server agree there’s nothing that can replace his quotes, because they were … really good.”

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Noura Shoukfeh ’25, one of Li’s Community Action (CA) leaders during his Orientation, echoed Sato’s description of Li’s smile and described him as an active participant in the CA experience.

“He had this very beautiful smile that lit up the room,” Shoukfeh told the Daily Princetonian. “He was always just so willing to engage at every opportunity we had in CA. It can be a nerve-wracking time for first-year students. Whenever [my co-leader and I] would ask, ‘Ok, we are gonna go do this. Are you ready?,’ James was always the first one to get up to get prepared. Just the sort of initiative that made everyone else comfortable.”

A friend of Li since middle school, Ethan Lee wrote to the ‘Prince’ about Li’s dependable nature and willingness to be there for his friends, saying that he “would always show up to club meetings and friend group events. He was consistently there. Almost without me realizing it, he became a rock in my life.”

A curious and avid learner, friends remembered Li’s particular interest in philosophy, especially the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stewart also reflected that Li often liked to send screenshots of texts, noting that “He’d always be reading something in that vein.”

Li’s friend Shira Kutin emphasized his curiosity and love of learning from their time in high school. “He always just seemed interested in learning things,” she said. “In our physics class, half the time I feel like nobody knew what was going on — except for James.”

“There were times where all of us were just sitting there in the class because we had to be; he seemed like he wanted to be there,” she added.

In addition to his intellectual hobbies, Li also had a love for video games. “He liked to play video games and read a lot. He oftentimes enjoyed playing more single player strategy games or games with a good story, but he would occasionally play some co-op games with me,” his friend Andy Yao wrote to the ‘Prince.’

Lee reflected that Li had a way of imprinting some of his own passions on his friends. “A lot of things that he loved have become things I love. From his unique music taste and excellent choice in sci-fi books, to his love of frogs and Eurovision, he rubbed off on me more than I realize. It was kind of an unconscious process, but he had that sort of effect on people. He had a capacity for being very profound,” Lee wrote. 

“When he opened up to people, they got the chance to see someone with unparalleled wit and unyielding reliability.”

A teenager with glasses and a gray sweatshirt stands in a hallway with brown tiled walls
Courtesy of Shira Kutin

Balescu told the ‘Prince’ that one of his favorite recollections of Li is from a set of activities their friends did at the end of their junior year, which they referred to as their “Olympics.”  

Balescu recounted that he was the videographer, but when it came his turn to participate in a relay race, he “handed the camera to James [and] told him ‘just try to film the race as best you can.’”

“As the race was happening, he ran back and forth across the field with such determination and dedication that he managed to get everywhere he had to be. The only issue, of course, was that there were also several minutes of footage of him panting and running with a camera pointed at the ground,” Balescu recounted while laughing at the memory.

Another friend, Ngan Le, most strongly remembered Li’s caring nature. “He loved his friends and family — and I truly hope he knows how much people care and love him too,” Le wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “I deeply respect him. James was irrefutably a kind soul gone too early. Sincerely, I hope he rests in peace knowing that his legacy lives in our memories. We miss you, James.”

Li is survived by his parents, Yiyun and Dapeng Li.

Christopher Bao is an assistant News editor for the ‘Prince.’

Allan Shen is a senior News writer for the ‘Prince.’

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