Building Bridges, Shattering Stereotypes

CLARIFICATION APPENDED

On a rainy April afternoon in Harvard Yard, Jeffrey Kwong ’09 stands on the steps of Widener Library with a fellow member of Students for Israel reading names from a list of 3.3 million Holocaust victims, Yahrzeit candles glowing at his feet.

“Shimon Viner, age 14, Lithuania,” he reads somberly as students rush past with puzzled looks.

But curious glances are nothing new to Kwong—not for the openly gay former President of the Harvard Republican Club, one of the most vocal conservatives on a predominantly liberal campus, providing a fierce presence for the Grand Old Party in campus debates over the course of his college career.

And though some may consider his political ideology at odds with his sexuality, Kwong says he has sought to “build bridges” between “two almost diametrically opposed” community affiliations.

“He has this way of just connecting with everyone,” said Jacky Kwong ’11, Jeffrey’s younger brother.

This ability to harness unique personal experiences in order to spark interaction between different groups on campus has been a watermark of the government concentrator’s four years in Cambridge, something he hopes to continue in a public service career after graduation.

EARLY INITIATIVE

Kwong was born to Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. His father worked in construction, and his mother was a seamstress.

A childhood in a socioeconomically-depressed Chinatown neighborhood—his family lived in a four-bedroom apartment with three other families—led to an early interest in using the political system to develop his community.

As early as middle school, Kwong channeled his experience into political activism, becoming heavily involved in campaigns for local government. A speaker of Chinese and Korean, he also served as a translator while volunteering.

“He was always pretty much this way, always involved in the community,” Jacky Kwong said. “He loves taking initiative and pursuing things that he things are worthwhile.”

Jeffrey Kwong continued this work throughout high school, earning a designation as one of his state’s top teen volunteers from former Secretary of State Colin Powell at the beginning of his freshman year at Harvard.

BUILDING BRIDGES

Once in Cambridge, Kwong hit the ground running, but he soon learned that “the way you communicate your political ideas are as important [if not] more important than the actual ideas themselves.”

As a freshman, he made waves as a member of the College’s Right to Life club—designing controversial pro-life posters that featured pictures of an in utero fetus that sparked protest and debate about abortion discussion on campus.

“I realized that...we were just antagonizing people [with the posters],” Kwong said. “Other than having a good laugh among pro-lifers, we really didn’t change peoples’ minds. We decided we really couldn’t keep publicizing our message that way.”

The following year, as president of the group, he joined forces with the Women’s Center and Students for Choice in challenging the administration to offer more services for pregnant students on campus.

That summer, he informed his peers that he was gay, an announcement that evoked mixed reactions in Harvard’s political circles. From that point forward, he began to attempt to “build bridges” between “Republicans, conservatives and pro-lifers and...the LGBT community,” Kwong said.

The culmination of these efforts was a forum at Harvard last fall between the Stonewall Democrats and Log Cabin Republicans, the national-level gay contingencies of both major parties. The national chairs of each organization debated which presidential candidate was best for the LGBT community, the type of discussion Kwong says he feels needs to be had at Harvard. “I feel like being a gay Republican, and being open about it, I can help change views of the people around me.” Kwong says.

And Kwong is not afraid to break with either affiliation if he sees the need to do so—though he once edited the Harvard Salient, he later resigned from the publication and lambasted it in an editorial in The Harvard Crimson for being representative of a “fringe minority” of the conservative movement. [SEE CLARIFICATION BELOW]

But in attempting to straddle these political lines, Kwong often raises the ire of those more firmly on either side. He says he gets “the most flack” from the gay community, though those more conservative than him have attacked his views as well.

LOOKING FORWARD

Apart from his political activities on campus, Kwong is also part of the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program, which certifies students to teach at public schools while still at the College through classes at the Graduate School of Education.

Kwong spent a large portion of his junior year at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, where he taught a two-hour class every weekday and designed a curriculum on weekends, while writing his senior thesis.

“He puts as much into every lesson plan as much as a student would put into a 15-page paper,” said Orin Gutlerner, former director of the Undergraduate Teacher Education Program. “He taught that class like a senior government seminar. If he had a flaw at all, it was that he had so much to give and not enough time to give it.”

He also serves as administrative director of the Miss Asian America Pageant—which requires flying across the country on weekends—and sings in the choir at St. Paul’s church.

“He does 10,000 things. It’s amazing how much energy he has,” says Jacky Kwong. “I think his secret is that he doesn’t really sleep.”

Next year, Jeffrey Kwong will return to his home state to pursue a Ph.D. in political science at the University of California at San Diego—turning down offers at McKinsey & Company and Goldman Sachs.

“Part of the reason I’m going into academia is because I realize that the Republican Party will continue to fail if it doesn’t apply lessons in the classroom and research to everyday political situations,” Kwong says.

“Being a conservative is absolutely not about ‘conserving what cannot be conserved’ or lying there to wait for things to revert back to the way it was in the past,” Kwong wrote last fall in an editorial in The Crimson. “I have witnessed the transformation of the campus conservative movement to a more dynamic, diverse, and welcoming force.”

—Staff writer Spencer H. Hardwick can be reached at hardwick@fas.harvard.

CLARIFICATION

The May 11 news article "Building Bridges, Shattering Stereotypes" incorrectly implied that Jeffrey Kwong '09 held a key editorial position on the Harvard Salient. In fact, in his role there as associate editor, Kwong "had no oversight of the periodical's content or administration," according to Christopher B. Lacaria '09, editor emeritus of the publication.