Just when it seemed as if Yul Kwon LAW ’00 had survived it all — grueling Marine officer training, the symbolic systems major at Stanford and three years at Yale Law School — he found himself on an isolated island in the South Pacific this summer, struggling, once again, to survive.
Whether Kwon foundered or prospered is still a tightly kept secret, but beginning this Thursday evening, millions of Americans tuning into CBS will be looking for clues — the Yalie is one of 20 contestants on the newest season of “Survivor.”
Kwon’s Asian background propelled his selection for the show, which is dubbed “Survivor: Cook Islands” and features tribes split into four racial groups — Caucasian, Asian-American, black and Latino — which consist of individuals competing for the multi-million-dollar prize. Since announcing the intentional segregation last month, CBS has come under fire, with some activists calling on viewers to boycott the network and on executives to pull the show entirely.
Kwon, whom many family, friends and Yale peers described as a role model — quietly brilliant, physically agile and an expert in group dynamics — was the only contestant to question the forced ethnic divide, according to host Jeff Probst. Probst called Kwon one of the “most interesting” and “definitely one of the smartest guys” he has met.
One of Kwon’s close Yale friends, Nisha Chhabra LAW ’00, echoed Probst’s sentiments.
“He’s very concerned with racial groups being expected to behave and perform according to stereotype or being treated in a discriminatory matter,” Chhabra said, adding that she trusts Kwon’s decision to participate in the show despite his concerns about segregation.
“One of the reasons he tried out was because it really was important to him that there be a greater presence of Asian members on TV,” Chhabra said. “He was willing to take the risk even with this ethnic divide twist in order to puncture some of the Asian stereotypes.”
Chhabra said she thinks Kwon will dispel such preconceived notions. After all, Kwon has been a social activist, martial artist, boxer, federal appeals court clerk, lawyer, technology expert, businessman, staffer for Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 and Marine officer in training, just to name a few of the roles he has filled in the past decade.
His former employer at a Washington, D.C., law firm, Scott Blake Harris, said Kwon adapted to new circumstances at work without any need for instruction or adjustment time, an ability that may serve him well on the barren Cook Islands.
“The truth is, I don’t think we taught Yul anything,” Harris said. “You take his ability to get along with people and you combine it with brilliance — that’s one hell of a package.”
A longtime friend of Kwon, Yidrienne Lai, met him as an undergraduate while writing an article for a Stanford student newspaper. Lai was investigating the seemingly unstoppable student, who had organized one of the largest Asian bone marrow transplant drives in U.S. history for his best friend, who was dying of cancer and in need of matching marrow. Kwon would later win a prestigious service award for his unprecedented efforts.
“He put his life on hold to find bone marrow for his best friend,” Lai said. “If I were a tribemate, I would totally want him on my tribe. It’s remarkable how much he wants to help out other people — he’s the type of guy who would help an old lady cross the street. … He would bust his ass. If you have to catch fish or chop coconuts, I’m sure he would do quite well.”
Although members of Kwon’s family and his friends were excited that he would be on national television, few said they were particularly surprised.
“It’s consistent with his character,” said his older brother, Paul. “I was excited. I thought this was a great opportunity, but we were all like, ‘Oh, just don’t get hurt.’ ”
Kwon’s brother, who said his sibling would probably donate a large chunk of any potential winnings to his parents, believes Kwon’s strongest asset is his mind, which, he hopes, would have allowed him to surmount “hard-core physical” opponents.
Chhabra warned that Kwon’s intelligence is “incredibly easy” to underestimate.
“The first day of law school, he showed up in the dining hall in a baseball cap backwards and a tank top, and he just seemed like funny California — he didn’t come across as an east coast person,” said Chhabra, who soon discovered in one of her first-semester courses that Kwon’s essays were praised publicly by the professor and that he was one of “those rare law students” who could cram before a test and still perform flawlessly.
On “Survivor”, flawless or not, Kwon will surely be on full display as part of an increasingly controversial season, which New York City’s first Asian-American councilman called on television executives to cancel altogether. But CBS has refused to yield to pressure, arguing that they “actively recruited minorities this season primarily as a result of the criticism faced in the past with not having enough diversity on the cast,” CBS spokeswoman Lori DelliColli said.
Regardless, millions will still be watching.
“I am going to have to watch ‘Survivor’ now,” said Harris, Kwon’s former boss. “I’m half-embarrassed, but I can’t not watch Yul.”
Kwon was unavailable for comment because contestants are contractually barred from interviews until the conclusion of the season, which airs from Thursday through mid-December.