Freshman Steven So of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department has arrived on campus with eight world titles in various martial arts under his Black Belt. Well, to be more accurate, it’s two Black Belts; one in Taekwondo, and the other in Traditional Mixed Martial Arts. He also holds multiple state and national titles and has won several grand championships all over the country. He also appeared and performed on ESPN multiple times and was featured in Karate World Magazine. The articulate, soft-spoken undergrad from Billerica, Massachusetts, also has the grades, academic awards, and smarts to enter UMass Amherst as part of the first class ensconced in the brand new and upgraded Honors College, where he lives on a residence floor devoted to talented engineering students.

Oh, and on the side So is a professional martial arts instructor, plays classical and contemporary music on the piano, and has more than 500 hours of community service teaching over 200 children and adults about confidence, integrity, discipline, attitude, and perseverance through martial arts seminars, anti-bullying instruction, and summer camps.

If So decides to become a Renaissance person in a society obsessed with specialization, he has a head start on practically everyone his age.

So is very humble and unassuming despite all his early accomplishments. As he recalls the first step of his many-thousand-mile pilgrimage through the martial arts, “The reason I started Kung Fu as a recreational sport was because my mom wanted me to get out of the house. This is when I was 11. At that age I just liked to play video games. But she wanted me to do something more physical. I would just sit on the couch, sit on the couch, all day just playing video games.”

But there were no competitions available, as So says, and “nowhere to go” in Kung Fu. Then a new school belonging to the American Taekwondo Association (ATA) opened up nearby, so both he and his father joined, and a brave new world opened up for So. “I have to admit,” he says, “I really began to enjoy it after I went to my first competition at 11 yrs. old and won. Because, you know, you like being successful.”

He won his first national competition in the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) when he was 15. He was a natural. But, in this case, being a natural also required three hours of strenuous and often painful workouts, seven days a week. So took martial arts to a whole new level. He practices Extreme Martial Arts that involves tricking and acrobatics.    

For the uninformed, such as this writer, various martial arts represent many variations on one theme. Taekwondo is a martial art originating in Korea that combines combat and self-defense techniques with sport and exercise. Gyeorugi, a type of sparring, has been an Olympic event since 2000. Karate can be practiced as an art, as a sport, as a combat sport, or as self-defense training. Sport Karate places emphasis on exercise and competition. For more thorough explanations, follow these two links: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJDOLGIqwDo; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=39T3FcQpMaY.

So competes in two international circuits. “In the NASKA circuit to get a world title it’s more like the NASCAR system,” So explains. “You compete in tournaments throughout the year and build up points, and whoever has the most points at the end of the year wins the world title. ATA is different. The top 10 people in the world go to the championship tournament in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the end of the year and compete for the ATA world title.”

So doesn’t play favorites between NASKA and ATA. He has world championships in each.

Meanwhile, while sparring and kicking his way to these titles, he was also ranked in the top 3 percent of all high school students. With all his academic accomplishments, So had his pick of many colleges. But, as he says, “I decided to come to UMass because I thought the student life would be a lot happier here than in some of the other universities that accepted me. It was also closer to home. And I didn’t want to give up my martial arts life, which revolves around my home and my hometown. The Honors College also offered a lot of opportunities, and the new buildings and residence halls are really nice, and the campus is a really fine place to be. Besides, the food is really good!”

How good? Dining Services was recently ranked third in the nation by the Princeton Review.

Attending UMass allows So to go home on the weekends to participate in tournaments and teach for about eight hours as a Certified Martial Arts Instructor. “I train people at my house,” he says, “because our basement is set up with all the mats and instruments that are needed. It’s part of working my way through the College of Engineering.”

With So’s shift from high school to college, his priorities are changing as well. “In high school martial arts was really my first priority. But the education is much  more intense here in the College of Engineering. I missed one day of school here, and it felt like I missed a week. So education is definitely my top priority now.”

If nothing else, So is a person of powerful priorities. It’s safe to say that, with So’s track record, anything he puts his heart and mind to will turn out to be as good as the food he enjoys in the UMass dining halls. That means world-class! (October 2013)