Ryan Yu: Living Life on His Own Terms

While Ryan Yu has made a lasting impact on The Student, what’s most notable about him is his unwavering commitment to finding his own path.

Ryan Yu: Living Life on His Own Terms
Whether leading The Student or in his academic pursuits, Yu is driven by the question of how to do good in the world. Photo courtesy of Liam Archacki '24.

Bricolage. Spell it. Bricolage.”

It was approaching the eighth hour on the record of my interview with Ryan Yu ’22, an interview that ended up taking place over three separate days and involving very little interviewing, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, the “interview” included everything from a discussion of the reading Yu had required that I complete beforehand, to flat-out refusal from him to elaborate on certain answers, to strings of scattered recollections that lost track of the original questions, to a game of Semantle (the linguist’s frustratingly incomprehensible take on Wordle), and, of course, an impromptu spelling bee.

Such is the experience of being around Yu: You never know quite what to expect.

Beyond this overarching statement, it’s hard to describe Yu in a way that captures the particular way he embodies any word you might think to use. As Becca Picciotto ’22, who served as his co-editor-in-chief on The Student, put it, “All of these cliche words I’m going to use are Ryan-specific — so it’s like, Ryan-level deep thinking, Ryan-level multifacetedness.”

Although I first met Yu during my sophomore fall as a new writer looking to get involved with the paper, it took a while before I saw the different sides of him. For much of that first semester, during which he was still a managing news editor, he was just a dark gray “R” icon that would show up on my Google Docs (and somehow still look intimidating). Over the course of that remote year, I came to admire his impressive ability to read things critically, as I took careful note of his comments and edits on my articles.

The more I’ve learned about Yu during this in-person year, the more I’ve come to marvel at him. A triple major in math, political science, and film and media studies who consistently takes five or six classes a semester (and sleeps at the strangest hours), Yu is profoundly curious and intellectual, relentless in his pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world around him. A decisive leader, Yu approaches difficult decisions with an analytical mind and expresses his opinions with remarkable confidence. At the same time, Yu is incredibly humble and self-effacing.

But again, these words are all inadequate to describe Yu. They do not capture how he manages to command the respect of those around him but also bring them to laughing tears or leave them in utter bewilderment. They do not capture the ways he can incite chaos in others — and the pure (and sometimes maniacal) joy he gets out of doing so. They do not capture the random high-fives he initiates, the probing questions he asks at 3 a.m., or any of the other spontaneous interactions you rarely see coming.

Ultimately, I cannot render a portrait of Yu that will encapsulate the person I’ve had the fortune of getting to know these past two years. But perhaps what stood out the most in our interview is Yu’s insistence on staying true to himself.

From Suburbia to Amherst

This quality of Yu’s predates his time at Amherst — indeed, it is what brought him to Amherst in the first place.

Yu grew up in Richmond Hill, a suburb in Ontario, Canada. When it came to deciding on a path after high school, he was admitted into top Canadian programs for engineering, computer science, business — programs his parents wanted him to attend to secure a stable and comfortable future.

But Yu didn’t share his parents’ vision. He noticed that all around him, many of his peers were considering similar plans, paths that had been laid out for them and that they seemingly had little part in creating. “I went to [a] magnet school for high school, and so a lot of people had very similar and passive ambitions that were, in a lot of ways, just determined by prestige,” said Yu. “I would just be another person who is funneled down this regimented and boring and already-tread path, and what kind of a life is that?”

It wasn’t that he disliked fields like engineering or computer science. Rather, because it was a future that had already been pre-planned for him, it could never be a path he had chosen for himself. “It felt like if I were to go down that path, I would be sort of acceding to the narrative of my life in this neat template of a story,” said Yu. “And I didn’t want that.”

Drawn by the intellectual vigor of a small classroom environment and wanting to experience something outside of the confining and homogenous suburb he’d spent his whole life in, Yu decided to apply to several liberal arts colleges in the U.S. He ended up deciding between Amherst and Pomona College in California. While initially preferring Pomona, “I went to visit Pomona and then I got terribly sick and then I got heatstroke, which I took as a sign from the universe that I shouldn’t go to Pomona,” Yu shared.

Sitting in on a class at Amherst — “Democratic Theory” — sealed the deal for him.

A Foray Into Journalism

During his first semester at Amherst, Yu tried out a plethora of extracurriculars, from crew and Green Room to acapella and, of course, The Student. While he dropped most of these activities after half a semester, The Student stuck. An avid news reader in high school, Yu had a knack for news writing right away. His editors kept asking him to cover stories, and “magically, by the end of the semester, I was a managing news editor,” he said.

In this way, Yu “stumbled into The Student,” as he put it. But he found himself enjoying the experience of immersing himself in the community and becoming more deeply acquainted with it. For a while, he thought of pursuing journalism after college and contributing to what he saw as the vital task of disseminating accurate and relevant information in society.

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd the summer after his sophomore year, however, Yu saw a nationwide reckoning with the complicity that news outlets have in perpetuating violence against Black communities. It made him think more about the harms journalism can do in maintaining unjust structures. When he became editor-in-chief the following spring, these discussions were high on Yu’s mind, as he and Picciotto grappled with the question of how to position their own coverage to avoid those traditional pitfalls of journalism.

“What resulted from that is a shift in perhaps how we approach news coverage,” said Yu. “Instead of just aiming for a ‘neutral’ representation of what the college offers us, part of our disposition was a shift towards trying to start from the margins and then working in.”

This involved centering the voices of groups not as empowered on campus — whether students, staff, or faculty — instead of reporting from the perspective of the administration. “Ultimately, the power of journalism is vested in the community that it represents,” said Yu.

In addition to the ethical difficulties that came with directing coverage, there was also the concrete task of transitioning back to an in-person newsroom this past fall. As one of a select few members of the newsroom who had been on the paper before the pandemic, Yu bore the brunt of passing down protocols and conventions that most editors had never learned — particularly for putting together the weekly print issue, which had not been done for a year and a half. “It was rebooting the newsroom in a sense … a project in reestablishing things that were,” he said.

At the same time, there was the challenge of revitalizing the newsroom community for an editorial board that, by and large, had only ever experienced the news-Zoom. At this, though, Yu was a natural. Sometimes, he would stir up passionate arguments on topics ranging from serious to trivial, such as his stubborn insistence that “Kate” is a valid abbreviation of the name “Caitlin.” Other times, he would expound how Heidegger’s notion of Dasein informs parts of his life philosophy. Starting in December (or perhaps even earlier), Yu would play Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” on a weekly basis, one time waking Picciotto up from a late-night power nap by blasting it right next to her ear. And on his last production night, he shared a spreadsheet with the 3,000 most common baby names and asked all the editors to rank the top 100 on a scale “from F to S.”

But while what Picciotto called “Ryan’s beautiful distractions” made the newsroom a place of lively fun, it was also a place of grueling nights, week after week. “It’s 7 a.m. That’s insane,” Yu said to me one week early in the semester as he was showing me how to finalize the print issue. Little did he know that production for the Homecoming issue would stretch until 11 a.m. the next day, while production for his and Picciotto’s final issue as editors-in-chief wouldn’t end until 9 a.m. — after going to 6 a.m. the previous night. And these don’t even include the weeks Yu found himself rewriting entire articles at 3 a.m. because he was dissatisfied with the framing of the stories.

The task of bringing the newsroom back in person after three remote semesters was no easy one. But Yu’s eccentricities often made the newsroom a place of chaotic fun. Photo courtesy of Emma Spencer '23E.

Although Yu was a vital presence in The Student’s newsroom, he doesn’t think he’ll continue with journalism after Amherst anymore. The summer before his senior year, he interned with The Christian Science Monitor, a publication he notes he had previously read a lot for its “bias towards optimism” — something which he’s become a good deal more pessimistic about. As the work was remote, the experience underscored to him “the importance of local reporting and the principle that information should be shared and gleaned within one’s own communities as much as possible, as opposed to plopping in from above,” he said.

“I felt like a lot of the reporting just elided important elements from a particular story for concision and sometimes presented an angle which felt like something that was (a) not true to life, and (b) ideological in a way that I didn’t entirely agree with,” Yu added. “Although I enjoyed the experience, it convinced me [that] maybe conventional journalism’s not for me.”

Doing Good in the World

Through his time on The Student, Yu became acutely aware of the role that the framing of information plays in mediating how people understand the world. Besides shaking his faith in conventional journalism, this awareness has also led him to become more uncertain in general about what form his life after Amherst should take.

“One of the questions I think about most often is what it means to do good in the world and how that’s possible,” he said. “The Student has helped to make things uncertain by allowing me to understand the instability of supposed ‘facts.’ … Everything that’s been covered has some kind of angle to it, and so it instantiates a certain uncertainty in all of it which I think I was less cognizant of earlier.”

Yu also thinks the pandemic and concurrent crises of the last few years has shown him how limiting the vantage point at an elite college can be for bringing change to the world. He feels that his classes have allowed him to answer important questions about the world, but he wonders whether the relentless pursuit of answers to increasingly specific and defined questions has perhaps led him to lose the bigger picture. “Several years of study stringed together has put me in a place where I feel like I need to take a step back and just think a bit about things,” he said.

So when it comes to plans after graduation, Yu’s not looking for anything in particular. “I’m looking, I guess, to resolve uncertainty,” he said. “I think the primary thing that I learned from college is how much I don’t know. With that in mind, it’s difficult for me to make a firm decision about how to live my life in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s missing something.”

And thus the search continues, although Yu thinks he’ll be able to find a more certain place than he is right now. “I’ve never been in a state of absolute certainty. I don’t think anyone’s been in a state of absolute certainty ever,” he said. “But eventually we find something that’s good enough. I just don’t think I have something that’s exactly good enough yet.”

What is certain to me is the indelible impact that Yu has had on not just The Student, but also the other members of the newsroom he presided over. “So many of the things we published were so much better because of Ryan’s tearing them apart,” said Picciotto. “I think I may have learned more from Ryan than I have in any of my classes.”

As for myself, there’s no way I would have been able to take over in leading The Student this semester without Yu. Seemingly every week, there was something new he had to teach me, whether it pertained to specific newsroom processes or broader journalistic practice, or something else entirely. While I can’t match his talent for creating “beautiful distractions,” his commitment to making the paper the best that it can be is something I’ve strived to carry on in all my work.