A Fluid Dancer, Intellectual and Traveler
Issue   |   Fri, 05/18/2018 - 11:15
Photo courtesy of Stefan Yong '18
Yong’s passion for dance has been rekindled during his time in Western Massachusetts, as he has joined two dance groups — Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College and DBJ Dance Crew.

Stefan Yong is a black studies major with an eclectic set of interests. As a member of Dancing And Stepping at Amherst College (DASAC) and DBJ Dance Crew (a Five-College group), former e-board member of the International Students Association and one of the founding members of the Asian Students Association (ASA), Yong is deeply involved on campus through a variety of distinct avenues.

It is not surprising, then, that he will be part of an intense interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in University of California, Santa Cruz, a future that fits in with his diverse interests, passions and unique way of thinking.

Bootstraps and Backpacks

Yong, who grew up in Singapore, spent two years after high school in mandatory military service for the city-state. While serving in the army, he developed valuable friendships — he noted that you tend to closely bond with a “group of people where we are all suffering together.”

Besides learning all your “you know, army skills,” he recalls the period being a formative part of his character development. After all that time he spent walking around in the jungle, he said, he now loves to go on hikes.
However, Yong admits that he has a complicated relationship with the military. “Sometimes I wish I could get that time back,” he said, noting that he wouldn’t have joined the army if he had a choice in the matter.

It was during these two years that he ended up discovering the liberal arts and applying to college. His decision to apply to Amherst was an unusual one compared to his friends, most of whom chose colleges in Singapore, Australia or the UK. Yong felt a sense of curiosity and wonder when he first learned about the nature of a liberal arts college and knew almost immediately that he wanted to “be whatever that is.”

“The model of education in Singapore is very different. It really focuses a lot on performance,” Yong explained. “In a lot of stages of your education they assess you and you’re meant to turn yourself into a high-performing individual. So hearing about small class sizes and seminars and open curriculum and hearing about all these things I’d never heard of before — I was like, ‘Yes!’”

Yong made his way through the application process largely on his own, using websites like College Confidential to learn about the U.S. college application process, standardized testing and other required elements of the application. After applying to to several colleges, Amherst was his only acceptance and so, “it was either stay home or come to Amherst.”

Expectation and Reality

“I think the key feature of my thinking about Amherst before I came wasn’t what I was thinking about, but how I was thinking about it,” Yong said when asked about his first-year transition.

Like many students entering college, he imagined Amherst as “uncomplicated, and almost like … some type of paradise.” He remembers thinking that “when I got there things would be so different, and things would be great all the time. And obviously it’s not great all the time.”

Yong experienced culture shock during his first semester and recalls having to get used to “different senses of humor.” He was a few years older than most in the incoming class, an international student and had served in the military. Among these large groups of people that were new and foreign to him, he had to “learn how to translate my own sense of humor to America.”

He also experienced dissonance between the expectations and reality of his academic life. When asked if he had taken a class that he hadn’t expected to before arriving at Amherst, he said took Narratives of Suffering with Professor of English Geoffrey Sanborn because he felt it was important “even though I didn’t think I’d be necessarily comfortable.” In the end, the class left a deep mark on his thinking — whenever he sees “people who took that class, and I only know them because they were in that class, I still say hi to them and I feel like, ‘Yeah, we took that class together.’ It means something that we were in that space.”

Despite not considering himself a literature person, the class helped him develop an appreciation for the written word, and he ended up writing a thesis with a literary emphasis.

Finding Community and Rhythm

Yong has been an avid dancer since middle school, but he stopped upon joining the military. After two years without dancing, he began to think that he might never do it again. Things changed during his second semester at Amherst, however, when he casually accepted an offer a friend made to try out for DBJ Dance Crew, a K-Pop dance group. “I went to the audition, and it was super fun,” he remembered. He hasn’t looked back since.

Since DBJ Dance Crew is a five-college group, Yong soon found himself frequently leaving campus to perform, and the group became a way to branch out of the Amherst “bubble.”

Indeed, the group became like a family for Yong, who explained that “people care about nurturing a sort of community where we dance together and we have fun dancing together. You know, in addition to looking good on stage, you want to have fun, be friends. So that was something that I got a lot from and I’ve been in that group since freshman spring, so it’s been a long journey with them.”

Yong’s dancing has not been contained to DBJ Dance Crew, as he joined DASAC at Amherst. Yong recalled how he went to the group’s shows before he tried out and loved how different the atmosphere was from other dance performances , especially the intensity of audience participation. “There is a feedback loop; the more the audience is into it the more the dancers are into it,” Yong said.

Being part of DASAC has exposed Yong to many different styles of dance and made him a significantly better dancer. Even more important, Yong said, is the restorative power of dance.

“[Dance is] one of those things that when I do it I feel like I’m not thinking about anything,” he said. “I let stuff go and just enjoy myself and move. And part of that is I just like dancing, so I would go to practices anyway, but performing is also something else; with the rush that you get, you don’t even feel — you forget you have bruises, you forget you’re aching and you forget about your own breathing.”

A Life of the Mind

Stefan knew he would be a black studies major fairly early on, knowing when he got here it would be either that or history.
“In other parts of the world when people try to … think about race, a lot of the vocabulary is borrowed from scholars that have done the work before in black studies or other kinds of ethnic studies departments. And so, that idea from the beginning was very attractive to me,” he explained.

In his first semester at Amherst, he took Critical Debates in Black Studies with Professor Jeffrey Ferguson, who recently passed away. “He was just, wow,” Yong said. “He’s just something else. He has this composure of a very easygoing, but hyper-intellectual kind of vibe.”

Perhaps Yong’s most memorable experience from the class was when he turned in a paper and Ferguson told him that “this entire paragraph could be like one sentence, if you just removed all your unnecessary prepositional phrases.” Thinking about how he writes was one of the major takeaways from the course, one that would serve him well as he went on to complete a black studies thesis on Samuel Delany’s science fiction novels.

“The only contribution I can claim to have made is helping him to think more closely about reading material texts, but in terms of the theories he was looking at and the debates he was critiquing and entering, it was just amazing … it was quite a fabulous experience to work with him,” his thesis advisor Professor Rhonda Cobham-Sander said.

After Amherst

Yong will continue pursuing his intellectual curiosities as he prepares for his Ph.D. program, called the History of Consciousness. It is an “unorthodox, interdisciplinary, humanities program,” which Yong hopes will allow him to take on “really interesting stuff that transgresses disciplinary boundaries.”

Despite Yong’s success, Cobham-Sander describes him as “surprisingly modest.” Yong’s strong desire to learn is surely a factor in his humility, as it is through collaboration and learning from others that we discover new ideas and enrich our understanding of a complicated world.