Campus & Community

Young scholar aims at physics, finance, and the physical

4 min read

Lin “William” Cong remembers his early childhood as a time of playing in the street, reading comic books, and coasting through the early grades. College was a dream.

But Cong graduates from Harvard today (June 4) with Phi Beta Kappa honors, a dual bachelor’s degree in physics and mathematics, a secondary field degree in economics, a language citation in French, and — whew! — a master’s degree in physics.

At age 12, high test scores earned him the chance to board and study at Northeast Yucai School, a middle school just across town in Shenyang, his native city of 5 million in northeast China.

“It was my first time away from home,” said Cong (pronounced tsung), and he was ill-prepared academically. “I learned to work hard … and to have empathy for others not doing well.”

At age 14, Cong won a competitive scholarship that took him even farther from home — to Hwa Chong Junior College in Singapore. He fought off loneliness, cultural isolation, and a crisis of confidence to burrow deep into physics, chemistry, higher math, and Chinese calligraphy.

In his gap year — Hwa Chong graduates its students in November — Cong worked in Singapore. Every month, he earned what his parents earned in a year.

In the time since, mostly from part-time work at Harvard, Cong has sent his parents enough money to buy a house and keep up with the payments. “My money is my parents’ money,” he said. “It’s not a separate account.”

His hometown, a thriving industrial hub, is famous for its airplane factory, for the pianist Lang Lang, and for being the founding capital of the Qing dynasty. But Shenyang may one day be famous for Cong himself.

Since high school, the John Harvard Scholar has authored five academic articles in mathematics and science; won many fellowships and prizes, including the Jack T. Sanderson Memorial Prize (for physics) and the Allston Burr Resident Dean’s Award (from Lowell House). Cong has also had six rigorous research jobs at Harvard, at the University of Cambridge, and in Singapore.

In the fall he will start a Ph.D. program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business to study finance and economics. China’s rapid growth is driven by Western economic models, said Cong, but few of its economists are trained in the United States.

His mother, Li Naiyan, is a nurse at a kindergarten, and his father, Cong Zhiliang, is a city policeman. For both his parents, education stopped at the ninth grade.

His father was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, but he managed to save his texts in physics, a favorite subject. The same books first inspired his son to study the science of matter and motion.

“They went through hardships,” Cong said of his parents, “but they aren’t bitter about it.” Both will be at the Harvard graduation ceremony. Cong’s mother had visited Cambridge once before; his father had never been on an airplane.

“I have great parents,” he said. “They love me deeply.”

Cong himself has visited home once or twice a year since coming to Harvard, but never for more than a month. “If I stayed longer,” he said, “I’d put on weight.”

Aside from his academic accomplishments, Cong is an ardent practitioner of the physical arts.

He was on Harvard’s badminton team in its championship 2005-06 season. He participated in intramural squash, crew, and swimming, and found time to study tae kwon do and aikido.

These days, the slight, muscular Cong practices CrossFit, a hell-bent combination of aerobic training and weight lifting that burns calories like a bonfire. “The movements,” he said of dead lifts, running, shoulder presses, and rowing, “you actually use in real life.”

Real life for Cong has also included volunteering at the Harvard College Fund, serving as president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and taking up French, from scratch, in his sophomore year.

Cong is studying Japanese now too, in part because of a Kawamura Fellowship this summer. “It’s like a cultural immersion,” he said: five weeks in Japan, and a week each in Korea and Thailand.

Cultural immersion was the idea behind the nonprofit foundation Cong co-founded in 2007: Initiating Mutual Understanding through Student Exchange (IMUSE).

The idea is to get future U.S. and Chinese leaders to experience each other’s culture — “to get them to talk,” he said, “even on sensitive issues.”

Harvard has taught Cong the value of exploring more than one academic pursuit, and of searching out your passion in learning. If students don’t feel it, he said, “they take a year off and find it.”

Harvard also taught him the true value of his parents, of fine teachers, and of lasting friends, said Cong. “I really want to thank them.”