In nearly four years as a Spider, Russell Gong, ’11, has never looked back on his decision to pass up offers to play Division I lacrosse and instead attend the University of Richmond. With his record of leadership and civic engagement on campus — plus a consulting job waiting for him after graduation — why would he?

Gong, who grew up in Singapore and Fairfax, Va., was a regional lacrosse standout and was captain of his high school’s varsity lacrosse and football teams. But athletics captured only part of his attention; ever since a summer restaurant job washing dishes, he has wanted to work with refugees and immigrants.

“In the kitchen, I witnessed traumatic abuses against Mexican immigrant workers,” he says. “From there, I focused my college efforts toward social justice and community inclusion issues.”

As a Bonner Scholar at Richmond, Gong got involved with the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE) and began teaching English as a second language at Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services (RRIS) during his sophomore year. He taught students from ages six to 70 who came to the U.S. from everywhere — Ecuador, Mexico, Jordan, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and other countries experiencing economic or political turmoil.

While teaching ESL, Gong and other volunteers saw the opportunity to improve the management of ESL programs on campus and in the community by bringing together resources and ideas to improve teaching operations and deepen student advocacy. After Kelly Behrend, ’10, founded the Refugee and Immigration Issues Coalition last year, Gong and a group of his peers have been instrumental in leading its work.

Kimberly Dean, director of the Bonner Scholars Program, explains that the CCE encourages students to integrate their interests and experiences and consider meaningful intersections between research, coursework, internships, and community service.

“Russ has done a fantastic job of connecting the dots between his own ESL teaching and summer internship experiences with those of his peers at RRIS, resulting in positive program enhancements for off-campus teaching efforts and collaboration with the on-campus ESL teaching program,” says Dean.

For his part, Gong attributes his motivation for working with refugees and immigrants to human strength.

“The men, women, and children we teach come from some of the darkest corners of the world,” he says. “Men from Afghanistan who have lost their families, women from Darfur who will never see their husbands again, and hardworking Central American mothers who had to leave their children behind to find jobs in the U.S.

“Our students face the most unimaginable circumstances. Yet, in spite of all of this, when all our teachers and students are together, troubled pasts seem forgotten and human strength endures.”

A political science and Latin American and Iberian studies major, Gong still finds time for other pursuits at Richmond. He interned with the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond and worked in Washington for a summer, advocating on Capitol Hill for for national Hispanic organizations. He studied abroad in Santiago, Chile for seven months and has held an on-campus job.

He’s also stayed committed to lacrosse throughout college, playing close defender for the club team, which transitioned to a varsity club this year. He always has time for a good “lax sesh,” even if it means rushing to school or business meetings after practice. “It’s incredibly rewarding to live in both extremes of life — all of our players are well-rounded,” he says.

Gong will leverage his teamwork and communication skills after graduation when he joins Deloitte Consulting LLP as a federal analyst. He may defer the job for one year; he has applied for a Fulbright Scholarship that would allow him to spend nine months in Mexico as an English teaching assistant.