Harvard has Jeremy Lin and Linsanity; Brown has William Tong ’90
A Brown graduate, William Tong is running for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate seat to be vacated by Senator Joseph Lieberman (CT). If his bid is successful, he would be the first Asian Pacific America to be elected as the state’s U.S. Senator. Here is his story:
What inspired you to become involved in politics? Did you know you wanted to enter politics when you were a student at Brown?
My interest in public service began as a kid working with my parents in our Chinese restaurant. I came into contact with a diverse group of people between the cooks, waiters, and customers. Each day after finishing my work, I would sit at the bar and listen to the conversations people were having about their day-to-day challenges. Even as a young boy their stories moved me. I heard how they struggled with educating their children and trying to make ends meet. I just wanted to help.
As a student at Brown I became involved in the undergraduate council of students at Brown, which was one of my first experiences serving the community as a representative and being part of a democratic process. Running for council president was a great experience as well. I enjoyed reaching out to students across the university, understanding the important issues, and helping to enact change in student life and the curriculum.
How has being an Asian American impacted your career?
Being an Asian American has been both a blessing and a challenge. There is a lot of interest in Asian Americans—our experience, our unique culture, and the ways in which we enrich our community here in the United States. As a candidate and elected official, it helps me stand out. I’ve discovered that our story is a universal story because so many aspects resonate with other people. I grew up working in a small business. My parents were immigrants. English wasn’t my parents’ first language but we persevered. People of all communities relate to experiences like mine. That’s made me a better and more effective representative because it helps me understand and connect with people in a meaningful way.
It’s a challenge as well. Being an Asian American candidate and elected official is still far too rare and unusual. One challenge we face, as a community, is that we remain more politically disengaged and, as a result, more disenfranchised. The biggest problem is that our community has a hard time believing that political participation is valuable, that representative democracy is real, and that we as Americans can petition our government and affect the course of our history. It’s as if they need proof before they’ll engage and that is what makes it both a challenge and opportunity. I know that it’s on me to provide proof to show them that political participation is important, meaningful, and possible. Every day I struggle to convince people that it is a valuable commitment to make.
How has Brown helped you be where you are today? What have you learned since graduating from Brown?
Brown challenged me to constantly question who I am and where I am heading. What I mean by that is this: most students upon their arrival at Brown have already been successful academically and in their extracurricular pursuits. They studied hard in school, played hard in sports or developed talent as an artist or musician, and built a set of credentials to make it into the university. But Brown challenges you to think more about who you are and what you want to do. One of the strengths of the New Curriculum is that it pushes you away from thinking about your successes in As and Bs, core requirements, and bullet points on a resume.
Instead it challenges you to focus on prioritizing what you want to learn and pushes you to find a way to measure success on your own terms. If you want to take everything for a grade and pursue professional school, you can do that. If you want to branch out into a subject that excites you, but that you might not know you have the facility for, you can take that chance with pass/fail. Brown encourages taking risks. That is something that has served me extremely well and will be a part of me for the rest of my life.
What advice would you give to students or young alumni interested in politics?
Don’t wait. There’s never a perfect time to serve. There’s never a perfect opportunity. People in your community need you to step up now. Our country and our economy need our help and the opportunities are there. If you’re planning for a career in politics and waiting for right moment so that your career goes in the direction you had planned it to go, then you’re missing the point.
The point is not to structure a successful personal career or to pick a safe course. The point is to engage, to serve, and to fight for your community. That can’t be perfectly arranged. You just have to take a risk, get in there, and do what you can to start helping people.
Leadership isn’t something you plan for. It happens organically. It happens through effort and commitment, through proving yourself to people in your community. It takes learning how to listen and understand where people are coming from and then demonstrating the ability to solve problems and chart a course. That can be a chaotic process.
But if you do that, people will see your passion and commitment. You’ll have the chance to experience success and failure, good campaigns and bad campaigns, and that will ultimately make you a much stronger public servant. People will recognize that and they’ll ask you to do more. To me, that is the most straightforward path to successful leadership in politics.