The Colgate Scene
July 2003

No fears, no limits
For Kelli Wong '03, the toughest tests weren't in the classroom

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]
I'm not a coward, I've just never been tested. I'd like to think that if I was, I would pass.
— "The Impression That I Get,"
Mighty Mighty Bosstones

Kelli Wong '03 has passed tests far beyond any she could have expected when she entered Colgate in 1999.

During her four years of college, the winner of this year's 1819 Award compiled an enviable record of achievement unique even for a student body of Colgate's quality. She was class president for three out of four years, and an active member of 10 organizations, including the China Club, Asian Awareness Coalition and Konosioni. Wong organized events for the CAB Special Events committee and served as head resident of East Hall and 'Gate House. A finalist for a Gates fellowship, and a winner of Fulbright and Watson fellowships, the Bangor, Maine native graduated as an accomplished -- and published -- researcher in organic chemistry. She even learned to juggle.

Yet for all Wong has accomplished, her parents, teachers and friends insist that it is the intangible aspects of her character that, far from setting her apart from others, draws people to her.

"She likes to take the lead in all situations. Her family and friends inspire her," said Gail LeClair, Wong's mother. "She's like the Energizer bunny. She just keeps going and going."

"She is kind and compassionate. Always willing to be of assistance to friends, she views the world as only being better when we each can do the same. She extends herself to those in need, giving voice to those who may not, for a variety of reasons, be able to speak for themselves," said Father John Donovan, former Catholic chaplain at Colgate. "She is not afraid to get her hands dirty and has a strong work ethic matched with talent, grace and intelligence. She has demonstrated courage, leadership, wisdom and humor, like no other student I have encountered."

But it's difficult to comprehend just how much Wong has been tested at Colgate -- until she's asked to name the person outside the classroom who most influenced her during the past four years.

"I would have to say Volker," said Wong.

"She is the liberal arts — the engaged heart and mind that forms the human being."

Star crossed
Volker Tüttenberg and Wong met when she was a sophomore in high school and he was an exchange student from Germany. The two began dating that year and continued to stay in touch when Tüttenberg returned home to complete high school.

"As we began dating, we discovered that we shared many of the same passions, including a love of science and the medical field," Wong said. "We saw each other maybe four or five months out of the year, but we stayed together. People laughed, but it seemed ridiculous [to us] not to."

As hoped, the two were both accepted to Colgate, with Tüttenberg also realizing his goal of playing Division I college basketball. They both hoped to eventually attend medical school.

Ernie Nolen, associate professor of chemistry and Wong's research mentor, had the couple in his organic chemistry class during the spring semester of 2001.

"They carried a good portion of the class," said Nolen. "When many students had questions, they would often turn to Volker and Kelli for the answers."

During the same time, Nolen also got to know the two students through the campus juggling club, which he founded.

"Volker was a great juggler, with tremendous hand-eye coordination," said Nolen. "Within a month of joining the club, although she was not an accomplished juggler, Kelli was thinking of ways the club could approach the administration for extra funding to buy more equipment so everybody could have a better experience."

But Wong and Tüttenberg's common hopes for the future ended on a wintry day in March 2001, when the tall, blond athlete collapsed while sledding on campus, and died soon after.

Returning to campus after Tüttenberg's burial in Germany was among the hardest things she's ever done, Wong confessed.

"It's not that I didn't want to come back," she said. "I didn't quite know how I was going to deal with things."

Wong coped through action, helping to organize a campus memorial service to Tüttenberg as well as Colgate's successful involvement in the local heart run, an effort supporting research on heart disease.

LeClair believes what brought her daughter through the tragedy is the strength of her character.

"Of course, it was rough for her. She went through deep soul-searching, trying to understand why this all had to happen," LeClair said. "But she's resilient. She has a philosophy, especially since the tragedy, of no fears, no limits. She wants to make the best of every situation, no matter how bad it is."

Seeking the origins of chess
Wong and her mother agree that spending her junior year away from campus helped her to recover from Tüttenberg's passing. Wong spent the first semester of her junior year participating in the off-campus study group at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

"It was beneficial to me to remove myself from the constant reminders at Colgate and to slowly regain focus. I had no activities to distract me, only my chemistry," she said. "While at NIH, I pursued my interests in organic chemistry, primarily as it relates to the human body and the chemical processes within."

While at the NIH, Wong decided to spend the following semester studying in Germany's University of Freiberg, motivated in part to delay returning to campus and, most importantly, to be near Tüttenberg's grave.

By accepting the Watson fellowship, she will spend the next year researching the origins of chess. According to her application essay for the Watson, Wong takes issue with the assertion of chess historians, most notably H.J.R. Murray, that chess was imported from India to ancient Persia and then spread to China, Egypt, Japan and eventually, Europe. While she agrees with many of Murray's conclusions about the game's evolution, Wong believes there is evidence that chess has its roots in China, and didn't merely arrive there from somewhere else.

Wong's interest in chess springs from her father, who is an experienced chess coach and tournament organizer in Bangor. His only daughter began playing the game later than her brothers, Steve Wong said, but approached the game with her characteristic drive.

"Although her brothers played, Kelli showed no interest until she was in eighth grade," said Steve Wong. "She'd sit back, watch, and learned how the pieces moved."

Within two years, his daughter started winning matches against him.

"I have to pay close attention when I play her. She just doesn't want to lose, period," he said.

After completing her Watson fellowship, Wong plans to complete a masters degree in epidemiology at the University of Cambridge, and then go on to medical school. She is also considering applying for another Fulbright after graduate school or returning to the NIH for more research. Whatever path she chooses, no one who knows her doubts her best is yet to come.

"She is that rare student. She has made obvious impacts on the campus through her many involvements inside and outside the classroom," said Dean of the College Adam Weinberg. "But the real impacts are the hidden ones. She makes the people around her better -- more curious, more aware, more kind. She is the liberal arts -- the engaged heart and mind that forms the human being."

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