Two photos of a young Asian man smiling at the camera

There is surely no member of the class of 2023 who spent as much time at Amherst as Haoran Tong. He arrived from Beijing 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 left only for an internship in Boston. Before graduation, Tong had not left Massachusetts, or seen his parents, in more than three years.

A black and white photot of an Asian man in glasses wearing a mask

Early in the pandemic, the campus felt “both foreign and oddly homelike” to Tong.

But 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, 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 held 10 campus jobs, completed nearly four majors, wrote two theses, won four undergraduate awards and served as a sought-after mentor to dozens of younger students.

The engine behind it all was Tong’s curiosity about seemingly every person, department and idea on offer at Amherst. He was always asking questions (even of those employed to ask questions of him), and he awaited answers with a broad smile and excited eyes.

One professor describes Tong as a “polymath.” He took at least five classes every semester he was allowed to do so. He graduated in May as a double major in economics and law, jurisprudence and social thought, and 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.

Tong, though he had previously worked in traditional Chinese meters, began to write poetry in English while at Amherst, often incorporating the topics he thought about in classes—yes, even his economics classes. At President Michael A. 
Elliott’s inauguration in October of 2022, Tong read an original poem, “Our Story Keeps Writing Itself,” which also appeared on the back page of the Amherst magazine special issue marking the College’s 2021 Bicentennial.

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 a.m.

A black and white photo of a person holding a framed picture in fron the war memorial
Tong in spring 2020 on a nearly empty Amherst campus. He is holding a photograph he took of the Forbidden City in Beijing. Photo by George Qiao

Amherst was a shock to me,” Tong said, remembering his first days on campus. He arrived in Western Massachusetts, with its rolling hills and cow farms, from Beijing, a metropolis nearly three times as populous as New York City. He describes his first semester as a “high point” of his college career. He delivered a TEDx talk on poetry and social media. He got into the Choral Society, despite having only learned to read clef notation five days before his flight across the Pacific.

The next semester, 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 division, transmitting glimpses of the Pioneer Valley to a College community scattered across the world.

Tong says that his photography in those months helped him connect to a campus that became “both foreign and oddly homelike.” The photographs also epitomized his approach to Amherst more generally: “Nobody else was submitting 
pictures to Instagram,” he remembers thinking, “so I might as well just do it.”

Again and again throughout his four years on campus, whether he was designing and teaching informal courses on Chinese poetry, or serving on at least five College committees, or coaching the Model United Nations team, Tong lived that philosophy: I might as well just do it. With few students on campus in 2021, he volunteered to serve as an admissions tour guide. That year, he also worked as an event planner for the Office of Student Affairs and as a community adviser in James Hall. Tong concedes that this sense of duty might have been born, to a certain extent, out of his desire to seek “distraction from realizing the fact that I’ve been stuck on campus forever.”

But those who know him emphasize his deep and genuine desire to help others. David Ko, director of Amherst’s Center for International 
Student Engagement, recalls that Tong, who served for three years as an international-student orientation leader, spent hours on international-student move-in day ferrying red carts loaded with luggage between 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.

He became a mentor for younger students 
attempting to make a home at Amherst. As Ko points out, Tong even has his own online scheduling service, which students use to set up (for free, Tong emphasizes) meetings about classes, internships and 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 academic supports available on campus.

Ko goes 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 says. “What Haoran taught us is that, ‘No, we are Amherst students first. We can enjoy all these resources—plus we are international students.’”

A young man in a purple shirt smiling at the camera

Those who know Tong seemed genuinely grateful to speak about him. Photo by Maria Stenzel

Yet to describe Tong by any one of the identities or skills he brought to the campus community—as an international student, a mentor, a poet or a scholar—is to miss so much.

His LJST thesis adviser, Senior Lecturer David Delaney, had a quote carefully prepared ahead of our interview: “Haoran has more sides than a dodecahedron,” he said, proudly. (A dodecahedron has 12 sides.)

Here’s a sampling of Tong’s academic work at Amherst: 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. To bolster the offerings in the Chinese department, he designed and taught three not-for-credit courses. As a Schupf Fellow, he helped Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture, put together an anthology on the particularly American strain of the English language. He shared and interpreted Chinese texts for a project on rights-based international law for Adam Sitze, the John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought. He assisted Assistant Professor of Economics Mesay Melese Gebresilasse with an analysis of Rwanda’s system of performance contracts for public officials.

Tong’s theses both approached a similar topic—antitrust regulation—but from different perspectives, and each thesis was, within itself, interdisciplinary. The economics thesis considered how algorithmic pricing, in which companies like Amazon use data to provide each shopper with a unique price, impacts consumer welfare. He says he intends it to provide “a clear guideline for the U.S. enforcement agencies” regarding the circumstances under which algorithmic pricing would have either pro- or anti-consumer effects.

Tong’s LJST thesis approached algorithmic pricing from a totally different angle. Delaney, who worked closely with him on the LJST thesis, describes it as a complex but tightly argued treatment. In it, Tong traces the conceptions of antitrust regulation that have predominated in different periods of American history. For Tong, this is a history of metaphors: At one point, for example, monopolistic firms were imagined as octopuses, slowly encircling smaller companies and the levers of power. In tracing this history, Tong applies an almost literary approach to the law. Focusing on metaphor, he draws on the work of cognitive linguists to argue that thinking and reason are inherently metaphorical, that humans can understand new things only 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 broader 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 opportunity to reflect on his impact on the College.

A young man speaking at a podium outside with a large video screen behind him
Tong read his poem about the College, “Our Story Keeps Writing Itself,” at President Elliott’s inaugration. Photo by Jesse Gwilliam

In fact, Arianne Abela, director of the Choral Society, spoke to me during her maternity leave, singing Tong’s praises while her 1-month-old cooed in the background. She remembered the day 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,” she says. She said that Tong could have made a great music major, noting that he has “perfect pitch.”

But what she really wanted to talk about was Tong’s positivity. During the pandemic, when singing in a room with others became dangerous, the choir was forced online. Abela remembers that 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 says. Tong went on to become president of the Choral Society after delivering a stirring speech about music as a universal language.

As I interviewed Delaney, he 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 described 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 said, “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 “strikes me as a very decent human being.” Just as I moved to stop the recorder and end the interview, he emphasized that point again: “His brilliance is not his most distinctive characteristic.”
Ko made a similar point. Though he raved about Tong’s intelligence and what he described as an almost photographic memory, Ko emphasized that what he will remember about him are his smile and the energy he brought to the task of helping those newly arrived international students in the hot sun.

All of those I interviewed expressed amazement 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 home, with only his camera, his poems, his boundless energy keeping him going.

Then he came back down to Earth. After more than three years apart, Tong’s parents flew to 
Amherst for graduation. Delaney doesn’t usually attend the ceremony, but he made an exception this year. He wanted to see Tong walk across the stage; he wanted to meet his parents.

Soon after I interviewed him, I followed Tong on Instagram. Over the next couple weeks, leading up to Commencement, he posted a few photos on his Instagram story. They were 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’s Instagram. Then, on May 25, a new post: A table from above, set for a feast. The caption: “First meal with parents for almost 4 years.”

Postscript: Tong and his parents traveled to Yellowstone National Park after graduation, “the first family trip in quite some years,” he says. After a trip to Beijing in late July “for a long-overdue reunion with my extended family and childhood friends,” Tong will move to Boston for a job at Cornerstone Research. He plans to continue work on his thesis topics and may join a choral ensemble and poetry groups. He’ll also be the editor of several anthologies for an international, multilingual poets’ association.

Leo Kamin ’25 is a history and economics major from Denver and a managing news editor at The Amherst Student. This article first appeared in the Student’s Commencement edition and is republished and adapted with permission. Read the full edition, including profiles of 13 other members of the class of 2023, at

Top photo by Jesse Gwilliam