Updated: Mar 2, 2021
Tommy Song, CC ‘20, is kind and low-key, but this demeanor hardly stifles his passion for knowledge and justice. His mantra in life—“always assume a position of humility, and always be vigilant”— manifests in every aspect of his life, from his self-deprecating humor to his passion for improving his community.
Song hails from South Korea, and he attended boarding school in the U.S. starting in sixth grade. He remembers loving an American summer program and begging his parents to let him start middle school here. He described his desire to study abroad with the Korean proverb “a frog in a well.”— in other words, remaining in a bubble prevents us from understanding the world and ourselves, an idea which drove him to broaden his perspective. He compared it Plato’s allegory of the cave, before clarifying that he does not wish to endorse the Core.
Song’s love of making friends from different backgrounds is directly rooted in his firm belief that diversity is necessary to achieve truth. Studying history has taught him how subjective the field truly is. Despite historians’ best efforts to remain factual, Song said, he understands that individuals write history and that individuals are flawed. “That’s why we need different perspectives to arrive at truth,” he told me. “History should be about bringing out narratives that have been hidden on and between the margins.” Committed to this belief, Tommy has taken every opportunity he can to seek out diversity and encourage it in his communities.
Illustration by Brooke McCormick
Music has been a lifelong love of Song’s, and while it has taken somewhat of a backseat to his passion for history, it’s still a key part of his life. He’s a member of Notes and Keys, and is also signed to a recording label back in Seoul. His work is available on multiple platforms, including Spotify, and he even released a music video for his original song Riverside, which was filmed in Morningside Heights. His band, previously known as Horticulture, is reuniting soon, and he will perform solo at Postcrypt on December 7.
Matriculate, a non-profit which connects college students to underprivileged high schoolers to mentor them throughout the college application process, has also been important to Song. All three of his mentees got full rides, and he is still in touch with them. He even dug through his messages to show me sweet texts that they sent him after getting into college. He also has self-proclaimed other “unusual” hobbies including bird-watching and gardening stemming from his love of plants and animals. “When you’re walking through a forest, you don’t notice all the sounds right away, bird watching helps me learn to be silent.” This lesson in humility and observation helps him to stay grounded. For prospective bird watchers in New York’s concrete jungle, “you can’t beat Central Park,” he recommends.
Song’s true passion is history. A key project in Song’s time at Columbia is the walking tour of Columbia he created that addresses the history of the university’s ties to slavery. He spent the summer and fall of 2018 researching and creating the tour, which is available as a mobile app. Song is also working on a project about coeducation at college prep schools, and his passion for history extends beyond campus, too: he researches at the Gilder Institution of American History, part of the New-York Historical Society. “I just love being in archives,” he told me. He credits the Columbia University and Slavery seminar, which he took during his freshman year.
Understanding and believing in the importance of history has shaped Tommy’s perspective on his Columbia Experience™. He argues that everyone should know the history of the institutions and communities of which they are a part. He views history as a series of points that make up aline moving forward. While we are not the most important points on this line by any means, he believes that we need to understand the points that come before us so that we can be mindful about the direction we take our small part of history. He recalled his first academic experience at Columbia — the first Lit Hum lecture that every freshman attends during NSOP. At the time, the experience seemed to him to just be an opportunity for prep school kids to ask ‘questions’ that only really served to demonstrate how much they knew before classes had even started. “What is the practical effects of reading the Iliad during NSOP?” he asked, questioning whether this introduction to academia sets a positive precedent for the following four years. Instead of learning about Plato and Homer, Song proposed that the shared education of Columbia freshmen should be centered on gaining an understanding of the institution in which they are about to participate.
This criticism of the first Lit Hum lecture morphed into a firm stance against the Core Curriculum. In line with his belief that diversity is necessary for truth, he argues that the narrow perspective presented in the Core limits its pedagogical effectiveness. While he states that “the language of the core is something I have a lot of problems with,” he qualifies this statement by saying that the Core has the potential to become beneficial, citing instances where students used protest to reform the outdated curriculum. He also made sure to note that while he has published several criticisms of the core, the Core is not very relevant outside of the Columbia bubble — there are a lot of other things that deserve our attention more.
Nearing the end of our conversation, Song granted me some of his hard-earned senior advice. “Everything you do, say, study, touch, positively or negatively affects other people.” His advice to care for ourselves and for others felt like a subtle dig at a recent Spec op-ed: “It’s not emotional labor, it’s having some compassion.” And while he noted that CPS can “suck ass sometimes,” he also declared that “it’s free! Take advantage of that shit!”
After graduation, Song hopes to combine his love of history with his interest in law. His childhood plan was to become a civil rights lawyer, a plan which has been complicated in the last four years. He now questions whether he still believes the legal system is in line with his abolitionist ethical standards. He is also considering going into education after completing a joint PhD program in history and law. As he contemplated the different paths he could take after graduation, he told me, half-jokingly, “maybe I’ll just drop everything and be an activist.”