The letter came from Harvard Law School, where Gong had just failed his first-year exams, and it said that he would not be invited back to Harvard. In fact, it said, Gong would “never become a lawyer.”
But he went on to earn a law degree, served as a U.S. attorney and later won an improbable victory to become the first American of Chinese ancestry elected to the Florida state legislature.
The law school episode came after an undergraduate career at Harvard where Gong had encountered—and overcome—academic difficulties.
He had attended Miami Senior High School and by his own account struggled to catch up with his prep-school counterparts when he came to the College.
“There was a natural divide between the high school graduates and the prep-school graduates. They wore their Ivy-League suits, knew how to take notes, and how to study effectively,” he says. “But I caught up soon.”
Although “you simply couldn’t go to a party without a tuxedo,” he says, there was nevertheless a sense of brotherhood in the Class of 1952, irrespective of class or high school background.
“It all came down to what you had in your brain, how you thought,” he says.
Like many incoming college first-years at the time, Gong harbored hopes of becoming a doctor. His parents wanted him to be a missionary in China. But after a year of fulfilling his pre-med requirements, Gong realized that he was more interested in economics and government.
College started as a struggle—in his very first term, he failed almost all his hourly exams and his father came to Cambridge unannounced to lift his spirits.
“Harvard makes it very difficult to flunk out of college,” he says. “I went on to make it to the finish line as the first Gong to go to college.”
Gong says he felt “a certain loneliness” at Harvard because there were so few Asian Americans. But he remembers the help he received along the way. While working at Hong Lo Doy restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown, Dean of Freshmen Judson Shaplin came to the restaurant with his wife one Saturday evening to boost his morale and tell him not to worry about his scholarship.
Gong went on to graduate with honors, an achievement he attributes to Samuel P. Huntington, now a famed professor and social scientist but then a government fellow and senior tutor at Kirkland House.
He “touched my life at critical times when I was down and hurting,” Gong says.
“No Sam, no cum laude,” he quips.
After graduating from the College Gong went on to serve in the Air Force for two years as a second lieutenant—having attended college with war veterans who were a “very positive and inspiring”