Haoran Tong: Amherst’s Resident Polymath
Described by his thesis advisor as a “dodecahedron,” Haoran Tong is universally-known for his boundless intellectual energy, many creative pursuits, and the mentorship he provides to so many in the community.
There is surely no member of the class of 2023 who has spent as much time in Amherst as Haoran Tong. He arrived from Beijing, China, in the late summer of 2019, and, as a result of pandemic travel restrictions, remained on campus from the spring semester of 2020 until the summer of 2022 — and even then, he only left for an internship in Boston. Tong has not left Massachusetts, or seen his parents, in more than three years.
Amazingly, he insists that what might appear to others to be a pandemic horror story is anything but. Instead, his time at Amherst is a testament to Tong’s belief that home is a verb, not a noun.
After the virus emerged and the campus closed, rather than despairing, he actively worked to make the deserted campus his home, throwing himself into the (then mostly virtual) life of the college. Throughout his four years, Tong has held at least 10 campus jobs, completed nearly four majors, written two theses, won four undergraduate awards, and served as a sought-after mentor to dozens of younger students.
The engine behind it all has been Tong’s unceasing curiosity about seemingly every person, department, and idea on offer at Amherst. He is always asking questions (even of those employed to ask questions of him), and he awaits answers with a broad smile and excited eyes.
One professor described Tong as a “polymath.” He has taken at least five classes every semester he was allowed to do so. He will graduate as an economics and law jurisprudence, and social though (LJST) major, though he could have also completed English and physics majors. In 2017 Tong was the Youth Poet Laureate of China; this year, he wrote an economics honors thesis about the impacts of algorithmic pricing on consumer welfare.
Despite an imposing workload, Tong has continued to create while at Amherst. Though he had previously worked in traditional Chinese meters, at the college he began to write poetry in English, often incorporating the topics he thought about in classes — yes, even his economics classes. At President Michael Elliott’s inauguration in October of 2022, Tong was invited to read an original poem, “Our Story Keeps Writing Itself.”
Perhaps one can make sense of Tong’s engagement with so many subjects, departments, and people on campus through his self-described commitment to “living poetically,” which for him entails finding beauty in the everyday and tracing the connections between “seemingly unconnected” ideas. It also probably helps that he only sleeps four to five hours a night, from 2 to 6:30 am.
“Amherst was a shock to me,” Tong said, remembering his first days on campus. He arrived in Amherst, with its rolling hills and cow farms, from Beijing, a metropolis nearly three times as populous as New York City. Nevertheless, he describes his first semester as a “high point” of his college career. He delivered a TED talk on poetry and social media. He got into Choral Society, despite having only learned to read clef notation five days before his flight across the Pacific.
When the pandemic hit and the college emptied out, Tong found another new passion. He began to take photographs of the deserted campus and submit them to the communications department, transmitting glimpses of the Pioneer Valley to a college community scattered across the world.
Tong said that his photography in those months helped connect to a campus that became “both foreign and oddly homelike.” The photograph also epitomized his approach to Amherst more generally. “Nobody else was submitting pictures to Instagram,” he remembered thinking, “so I might as well just do it.”
Again and again throughout the last four years, from designing and teaching informal courses on Chinese poetry, to serving on at least five college committees, to serving as a coach for the Model United Nations team, Tong has lived this philosophy — I might as well just do it. With few students on campus in 2021, he volunteered to serve as a tour guide. That year, he also worked as an event planner for the Office of Student Affairs, and a Community Advisor in James Hall.
Tong concedes that this sense of duty might have been borne, to a certain extent, out of his desire to seek “distraction from realizing the fact that I’ve been stuck on campus forever,” but all of those who know him emphasize his deep and genuine desire to help others.
David Ko, director of the Center for International Student Engagement, spoke to the supportive role that Tong has played in the international student community. He fondly remembers Tong, who served for three years as an international-student orientation leader, spending hours on international-student move-in day ferrying red carts loaded down with luggage between the Alumni House and the First-Year Quad. By the end of the day, Tong was soaked in sweat and out of breath, but he was also smiling ear to ear, still excited to help the next student who arrived.
More generally, Tong is a cherished mentor for younger students attempting to make a home at Amherst. Ko said that Tong even has his own online scheduling service, which students use to set up (free, Tong emphasizes) meetings about classes, internships, or other issues related to campus life. In an attempt to save pre-pandemic institutional knowledge, Tong also wrote a 50-page guidebook for international student orientation, covering issues from navigating Logan airport to utilizing the various academic supports available on campus.
Ke went so far as to describe Tong as the “pride” of the international community at Amherst. “International students often think they are international students first, and then Amherst students,” he said. “What Haoran taught us is that, ‘no, we are Amherst students first. We can enjoy all these resources — plus we are international students.’”
In a more general sense, to describe Tong by any one of the identities or skills he brings to the campus community — as an international student, or a mentor, or a poet, or a talented scholar — is to miss so much.
Tong’s LJST thesis advisor, Professor David Delaney, had a quote to this end carefully prepared ahead of our interview. “Haoran has more sides than a dodecahedron,” he said, proudly. (A dodecahedron has 12 sides.)
As a scholar, he completed an array of diverse projects. He wrote an award-winning paper on the history of bubble tea. He examined the legal implications of global markets for surrogate pregnancies. He applied Confucian generational ethics to population theory. He TA’d four economics classes, and, to bolster the offerings in the Chinese department, designed and taught three (not-for-credit) courses.
He also collaborated with professors on a number of projects. As a Schupf Fellow, he helped Ilan Stavans — profesor of European studies, Spanish, and Latinx and Latin American studies — put together an anthology on the particularly American strain of the English language. He shared and interpreted Chinese texts for Professor of LJST Adam Sitze’s project on rights-based international law. He assisted Assistant Professor of Economics Mesay Gebresilasse with an analysis of Rwanda’s unique system of performance contracts for public officials.
Tong’s multidimensionality certainly extended to his theses. Both approached a similar topic — antitrust regulation — but from different perspectives, and both theses were, within themselves, interdisciplinary.
The economics thesis considered the implications of algorithmic pricing, where companies like Amazon use individuals’ data to provide each shopper with a unique price, on consumer welfare. He said he intended it to be “a clear guideline for the U.S. enforcement agencies” regarding under which circumstances algorithmic pricing would have either pro- or anti-consumer effects.
Tong’s LJST thesis approached this same issue, but from a totally different angle. Delaney, who worked closely with him on the thesis, described it as a complex but tightly argued treatment of the topic that transcends the form of a simple legal analysis or doctrinal history. In it, Tong traces the various conceptions of the antitrust regulation problem that have predominated in different periods of American history, applying an almost literary approach to the law. For Tong, this is a history of different metaphors — at one point, for example, monopolistic firms were imagined as octopuses, slowly encircling smaller companies and the levers of power.
Delaney said that the thesis ultimately makes a broader, philosophical point. Though the concept of rhetoric (persuasive argumentation) is often seen as “a contaminant” to reason (logically-driven deduction), Tong argues that “rhetoric is indispensable to reason.” Focusing specifically on metaphor, he draws on the work of some cognitive linguists to argue that thinking and reason themselves are inherently metaphorical, that humans can only understand new things by applying models of the world based on things they have learned before.
It’s hard not to see a connection between this position — that metaphor is the basis of reason — and Tong’s more general commitment to living poetically. It is not that one side of him writes verse and the other writes theses; for Tong, rhetoric and reason are not opposites.
It is worth noting how excited those who know Tong were to speak to me about him. All were happy to set aside the time in a busy part of the year, and all seemed genuinely grateful to have the time to reflect on his time and impact on the college.
Arianne Abela, director of the Choral Society, found the time to speak to me from maternity leave, singing Tong’s praises while her one-month old cooed in the background. She remembered when she first met Tong, at his audition during his first semester on campus. He warned her that he had no experience singing, then proceeded to deliver “one of the best auditions I’ve ever heard.” He had learned to read clef notation in just a matter of days. She said that Tong could easily have made a great music major if he wanted, noting that he has “perfect pitch.”
Nevertheless, what she really wanted to talk about was Tong’s positivity. During the pandemic, singing in a room with others became dangerous and the choir was forced to move online. Nevertheless, Tong found ways to continue singing and to encourage those around him. “He was just, you know, a beacon of hope for everybody during that really dark time,” she said. Tong eventually became president of the Choral Society after delivering a stirring speech about music as a universal language.
Throughout our interview, Delaney kept searching for new ways to describe how highly he regards Tong. “I’ve been teaching here for over 28 years,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of theses. This was easily the most enjoyable.” He went on to describe Tong as “the closest I’ve had to a graduate student.” Attempting to explain how Tong has devoted himself to so many classes, jobs, and student organizations, Delaney responded, “That’s just the kind of brain he has.”
Delaney made a point, though, of ending our conversation by talking about Tong the person, not Tong the brain. Earlier, he had said that Tong “just strikes me as a very decent human being.” Just as I moved to stop the recorder and end the interview, he emphasized it again: “His brilliance is not his most distinctive characteristic,” he said.
Ko struck a similar note. Though he raved about Tong’s intelligence and what he described as an almost photographic memory, Ko ultimately emphasized that what he will remember about him is his smile and his energy — the way he almost never seems to be running from place to place, those days he spent during orientation helping newly-arrived students in the hot sun.
All of those I interviewed seemed amazed that Tong remained not just sane but seemingly quite happy during the many months he spent on a nearly empty campus, what Delaney described as “Haoran’s space station.” As I’ve thought and written about Tong, that metaphor keeps coming back to me — Tong orbiting alone, far from his hometown, with only his camera, his poems, his boundless energy keeping him going. Soon, however, he will come back down to Earth. After more than three years apart, Tong’s parents will attend Commencement.
Delaney doesn’t usually attend graduation, but he will make an exception this year. He wants to see Tong walk across the stage, he wants to meet his parents. Ko cannot attend graduation, but he still hopes he can meet Tong’s parents.
Soon after I interviewed him, I followed Tong on Instagram. Over the next couple weeks, he posted a few photos on his Instagram story. It was what I expected, pictures he took of buildings on campus and photos of blossoming trees, the sort of photos that had so often made their way to the college Instagram. Then, on May 25, a new post: A table from above, set for four. The caption, “First meal with parents for almost 4 years.”
Correction, May 28, 2023: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the director of the Center for International Student Engagement. His name is David Ko.