Psychology and Biochemistry major, and tennis player Steffi Kong ’20 (Nisbet Honors) has been named the Conference Carolinas Women’s Tennis Player of the Week. The conference office made the official announcement on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
A senior from Singapore, Kong won both of her singles matches at No. 1 singles last week in straight sets. She earned wins over Johnson C Smith and Lees-McRae. She also collected two wins at No. 3 doubles.
Meet Steffi Kong
There are many “overachievers” in this world. Then, of course, there is Steffi Kong.
By rights, her photo belongs next to the word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Raised by her father in Singapore, Kong has been one determined young lady since childhood.
“We were a very poor family living in one of the most expensive cities in the world,” recalls Steffi, the senior team captain and No. 1 singles player on Converse College’s tennis team in Spartanburg, S.C. “My father (Richard), who had no college degree, always told me to cherish and appreciate what you have and work really hard to do your best.”
Clearly, Kong took her father’s sage advice to heart. When it came to schoolwork or tennis, which she started playing when she picked up a racket at two, she has been driven to succeed all her life. While Steffi has carved out a remarkable legacy at Converse as one of the most accomplished students and athletes in recent school history, her tenacity and determination to overcome circumstances was honed at an early age.
At seven years old, she contracted the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus, which became a world epidemic that affected 8,000 people in 2003. While a new vaccine helped her recover, Steffi’s immune system was severely weakened.
“I had to start from scratch to build up my stamina. It took a long time to feel normal again.”
“I lost all my strength, particularly playing tennis,” she said. “I had to start from scratch to build up my stamina. It took a long time to feel normal again.”
In the meanwhile, Kong’s immune system was so compromised that, three years later, she also was infected by the H1N1 flu virus—commonly known as the Swine Flu—which sidelined her for two full weeks. Through it all, Steffi persevered.
In fact, her curiosity about SARS and the Swine Flu sparked an interest in biology that remains today. A double-major in Biochemistry and Psychology at Converse, Kong’s journey to the United States was the product of her father’s undying love and support and the chance meeting of an international tennis player that once attended Converse College.
After a career at Morgan-Stanley, her father became a full-time certified tennis instructor, with Steffi among his pupils. Beginning when she was 10 years old, Richard Kong sacrificed to send his daughter to the Saddleback Tennis Program in Tampa, Fla. for summer training with noted instructor Pat Etcheberry.
At that same young age, Steffi met a German tennis player some 10 years her senior on the courts of Singapore. Her name was Tina Rohner and they began a fast friendship. Unbeknownst to Kong, Rohner had played tennis and graduated from Converse College and had recently moved to Singapore to pursue her master’s degree at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
She encouraged Steffi to play college tennis in the United States, giving her a list of universities to consider. Converse just happened to be on that list. She applied there for admission and was awarded both athletic and academic scholarships. To this day, she credits her father for the opportunity.
“My dad believed that academics, while important, will not teach you the discipline that sports will.”
“My dad believed that academics, while important, will not teach you the discipline that sports will. As a child, I tried a lot of sports but wasn’t very good. I always came back to my first love. Tennis was my passion and it gave me the motivation and competitiveness that has shaped my life.”
In typical Steffi Kong fashion, she dove right in as a freshman. Beyond immediately playing No. 1 singles in tennis and tackling a rigorous academic curriculum, she served as a community (resident) advisor at one of the campus dormitories to supplement her living expenses and joined the Converse Debate Team.
“It was a lot to handle,” she admits. “I was 9,000 miles away from home. I felt a lot of responsibility because, for my father, this was more than an opportunity. It was an investment in his daughter’s future. I definitely experienced many highs and lows that first year but learned how to balance my life.”
Kong, who speaks both Chinese and English fluently, has flourished as an exceptional student at Converse.
In her psychology major, she was chosen to make a presentation at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies 53rd Annual Convention in Atlanta November 2019—a rarity for an undergraduate student, considering that some of the world’s leading experts participate in the prestigious event.
“It’s very unusual for an undergrad student to present at a national convention,” said professor Dr. Marie LePage, who collaborated with her on the presentation.
“It’s very unusual for an undergrad student to present at a national convention.”
What stands out most about Steffi is she’s a little bit different than most over-achieving students. She is motivated by more than grades. She really wants to understand the subject and is genuinely curious about things. Steffi always goes above and beyond to gain more knowledge about what we’re discussing in the classroom.”
Again, Kong points to her father for contributing to her interest in psychology and mental health.
“My father taught tennis to a wide variety of students, both adults, and children. Some had special needs, whether they were down syndrome students or mentally challenged in some other way. He asked me to help coach those students. I think this opportunity influenced my thinking and I gained a real interest in mental health and the chemistry side of medicine.”
After her freshman year at Converse, she returned home to serve a summer internship at a Singapore mental health institute.
“I did mostly administrative work, but also was involved and interacted in many activities with patients. It was a real eye-opening experience.”
The summer after her sophomore year, she added further to her resume by interning at the Kidney Foundation in Singapore.
Dr. LePage believes that what separates Kong from most students can be described in one word: passion.
On our way driving home from the Atlanta conference, she just lit up like a Christmas tree,” said LePage. “That’s special for a student to get that jazzed about therapy. She’s just genuinely passionate about it. She wants to be the best she can be. I’ve taught thousands of students, and she ranks among my top five in terms of being an advanced scholar. But when it comes to passion, she absolutely ranks No. 1!”
Kong has gone on to make two other appearances at major conferences in her biochemistry major, a biophysics presentation at both the December 2019 Materials Research Society Fall Meeting & Exhibit in Boston and the January 2020 South Carolina IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence Science Symposium in Columbia, S.C.
She also is now placing the finishing touches on her senior honor thesis, entitled “Stress, Depression, and Anxiety: The College Student Dilemma” where she pays particular attention to the differences between student-athletes and non-student-athletes.
Pretty heady stuff for a young woman who had to make significant adjustments by changing cultures and leaving an island city-state off Malaysia with a population of 5.6 million for a U.S. southern hamlet of 37,000 people.
“People here take things a lot slower,” observes Steffi. “I envy and appreciate it. I know it’s a lot healthier to live that way.”
Tennis has played a major role in the transition, as well as her maturation as a person.
“Tennis is a very individual sport, so it was a culture shock to be part of a team effort in college,” she said. “It’s no longer just about me. I really enjoyed sharing the highs and lows with my teammates, many of whom will be life-long friends.
“Coming from Singapore, I was very conservative and somewhat close-minded. I was slower to speak than most students. But the coach would encourage me to be a leader and to step it up. My style was to lead more by example, not by telling teammates what to do.”
Katie Mancebo, former Valkyries’ head women’s tennis coach, expresses such respect and gratitude for Steffi. She has been her No. 1 singles player since 2016 and has been named to the school’s dean’s list and the Conference Carolinas Presidential Honor Roll.
“She’s played such a big role in our program the last four years,” Mancebo said. “She always goes over and beyond. Steffi is definitely a leader by example, but I’ve talked to her about being a more vocal leader. I’ve seen a lot of growth in that area and it makes me very proud of her for being willing to get out of her comfort zone.
“She’s a special lady. Very dedicated, a hard worker and so determined. You couldn’t ask for a better student-athlete.”
Coach Mancebo also speaks glowingly about Steffi’s competitiveness.
“You can never count her out of any match,” said the coach. “She never gives up. If you’re the opponent, Steffi is not someone you would like to meet on the court. She’s going to run down everything. And when she has the opportunity, she will attack. She’s going to drive her opponent crazy. You just don’t see many players like her. She’s so determined and knows how to compete.”
With plans to graduate this spring, Kong is currently waiting to hear from several medical schools in which she has applied for graduate work.
Her mentor/professor has no doubt about Steffi’s future success in the field.
“I know she is very interested in medicine,” said Dr. LePage offered. “Whether she goes into psychiatry or general medicine remains to be seen. No matter which way she goes, she will be exceptional.”