Attending college at the right time, right place

Senior class president Feng to deliver Commencement speech

Class President William Feng, an economics and strategy major at Olin Business School, built bridges during his time as a student here. (Photo: Whitney Curtis/Washington University)

Senior Class President William “Bill” Feng could not have anticipated the changes this nation, city and campus would undergo in the past four years. But he’s glad to have seen and been a part of it.

“This was the right time to be in a college,” Feng said. “And Washington University was the right place.”

About William Feng

Hometown: Portland, Ore.

Major: economics and strategy, Olin Business School

What’s next: Feng will work as an analyst at Goldman Sachs in Salt Lake City

Favorite building on campus: Bauer Hall “I love big, open spaces and the natural light of the sky. When I am at Bauer Hall, I feel calm and collected.”

On the power of college friendships: “My grandfather in China is 85, and he still has dinner once a month with the friends he made when he was 20. There is something powerful about that. It’s bizarre and wonderful to know that the friends I made because I just happened to share the same floor or the same class may be the people I still lean on for the rest of my life.”

Modus operandi: “I don’t buy it when people say they are too busy to learn new things or meet new people. There is always time to have a conversation. There is always time to listen.”

Feng, who will graduate with a degree in economics and strategy from Olin Business School, will address thousands of classmates, faculty and family members Friday, May 18, at Washington University in St. Louis’ 157th Commencement. During his speech, he will encourage fellow graduates to stay engaged in the challenges that face their futures and the world.

“With all of the essays and exams and late nights of studying, it would have been easy to tune out everything else,” Feng said. “But whether it is racial equality or the #MeToo movement, we must confront the big questions and issues of our society and community. Our class has proven that we are brave and innovative.

“My hope is that we don’t stop — that what we have accomplished so far is nothing compared to what we will achieve.”

Feng himself has accomplished much during his tenure here. He served as Student Union speaker of the treasury and as a director of Bear Studios, an undergraduate-run firm that offers strategy consulting and design services to early-stage startups and faculty members who want to commercialize novel research. He interned at a multimedia startup in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and studied abroad in Milan.

But Feng is most proud of the bridges he has built between classmates with different backgrounds and identities.

“I’ve always been comfortable being the odd guy out, being the nomad,” Feng said. “It’s easy to want to study with or eat with the person who is like you, but I’ve always liked communicating across barriers.”

That’s how Feng grew up. His parents immigrated from Guangzhou, China, to Portland, Ore. They spoke little English, and Feng was not proficient in their native language.

“As an Asian-American, I’m in that in-between space of my American upbringing and my parents’ culture,” Feng said. “It’s an experience that some people might find difficult, but it has helped me feel comfortable not being comfortable. It has taught me to reach out to people who are different and to really listen to them.”

Feng has brought that approach to the office of senior class president. Feng and the senior class officers started a new art exhibit featuring the work of graduating seniors and launched the “How to Adult” series, which featured a financial planning workshop, a wine-tasting tutorial and a conversation with happiness expert Tim Bono, assistant dean for assessment and analytics and a lecturer in psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences. 

He also reworked two major series of events, the senior trip to Chicago and Senior Week, to make them financially affordable for all students to participate.

“Our class has a lot of interests, and we respected that by programming a lot of different events where people could learn new things and learn about each other,” Feng said. 

Read about Donald Gerke, who will deliver the graduate student speech at the 157th Commencement.