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The First Chinese Student on the Hill


In 1846, only 30 years after the school was founded, students at Hamilton College witnessed a historical event. 

Zeng Laishun, also known as Chan Laisun, was the first Chinese student ever to enroll and study at Hamilton College. Although he was born with little access to western knowledge, Zeng excelled at a missionary school and eventually came to America with the support of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM).

After graduating from high school in America, he lived and studied on the Hill for two years before returning to China due to a lack of financial support. For years afterward, he helped mentor Chinese students sent to study at American institutions.

Beyond these basic facts, many of the details about Laishun’s life at Hamilton remain unknown. What was he like? Why did he come? Did he have a vision for Chinese and American relations?

These are the questions that Zhaosen Guo ’21 has set out to answer.

about Zhaosen Guo ’21

Hometown: Beijing, China

High school: Church Farm School, Pa.

read more student research stories

For his Emerson project, Guo is researching Laishun’s life—both on campus and at the University of Hong Kong. He’s digging through microfilm, documents and records to uncover more details about Laishun’s experience at Hamilton and his role in the social and cultural revolution that helped to shape modern China.

After working as the international admissions intern at Hamilton’s Admissions office, Guo was inspired to shed light on an overlooked figure in the school’s history of international students. “Even though Zeng was the pioneer, his successors from China didn’t set foot on the Hill until the 1900s. It tells us a lot about the educational development between China and America, along with Hamilton’s versatility in facing an increasingly diverse community,” he said.

As one of the first students from China to ever study at a higher education institution in America, Laishun represents a Hamilton College legacy—and Guo wants everybody to know.

“People should know who he is,” Guo said. “It’s important for the student body and the Admissions office to know that Hamilton was one of the first higher education institutions in America to accept international students, especially from China. We need to have the historical context to international recruitment. That way we can further diversify our school and bring more valuable students like Zeng into our community.”

Both Guo and his advisor, Sidney Wertimer Associate Professor of Biology for Excellence in Advising & Mentorship Wei-Jen Chang, have little to no background in history.

“It was a combined interest,” said Guo. “At first we did it on the side, as leisure, but later on we realized there was so much more to find out. It all started with just an idea.”

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