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Oscar nominee Steven Yeun, a Troy High School grad, caught acting bug at Kalamazoo College

Posted at 8:36 PM, Apr 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-24 20:36:22-04

(WXYZ)  — Before Steven Yeun was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor, before he starred in "Minari," and before he rose to fame playing Glenn Rhee in "The Walking Dead" — he was a Michigander.

Photo courtesy of Troy High School

Yeun graduated from Troy High School in 2001 and headed off to Kalamazoo College, where he majored in psychology.

"He's a very genuine, honest, open person," said Dr. Siu-Lan Tan, James A.B. Stone Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College.

Dr. Tan was Yeun's academic advisor back in the early 2000s. He also took two of her courses, developmental psychology and the psychology of music.

"One thing I noticed about him, this eagerness to learn and how ... he tended to kind of spring forward. So he sort of learns in leaps and bounds, and I saw him grow every year, every quarter," she said.

Dr. Tan is no stranger to the performing arts, also having appeared in a New York Times Critics’ Pick documentary about the psychological perspective on music in film; she said aside from psychology and both being children of immigrant families, music was one of the things they bonded over.

"Music was something we talked about a lot. He loved music. And then in the psychology of music class, putting that all together I think was very interesting for him," Dr. Tan said.

The acting bug caught on, she said, after Yeun watched Kalamazoo College’s improv group Monkapult perform his freshman year.

"He said, 'I was just blown away and I want to do that.' And I said, 'well, did you try out?' He said, 'yeah. They said I wasn't good enough. They turned me away.' So in the freshman year, he didn't make it. And this is the kind of thing I'm talking about, that he sort of has this ability to absorb, like, 'I want to do this. I didn't have what it took the first time. What does it take?' And then he tried again. So he worked on his craft in sophomore year, he got in and then he became a fixture on Monkapult," said Dr. Tan.

Photo courtesy Kalamazoo College

At graduation, Dr. Tan and Yeun parted ways.

"We got to say goodbye to each other and wished him all the best and had no notion of what would be happening in the years to come," she said.

Dr. Tan fondly recalls the first time she saw Yeun on her television screen.

"I told my husband, 'rewind, rewind that Best Buy commercial. I think that's my student.' And then we watched it over and I was like, 'that's Steven Yeun in the middle of a Super Bowl commercial. That's really big,'" she said.

And of course that was just the beginning. After landing the part of Glenn in The Walking Dead, Yeun paid Kalamazoo College and Dr. Tan a visit.

"I remember thinking he hasn't changed at all. Same Steven Yeun, very humble, very open, perceptive. He was so gracious about the college, about Kalamazoo College, and everything he'd learned. He was very realistic. He knew that a role doesn't last forever, he told me that, and he was thinking about being very, very thoughtful about the roles he should take," said Dr. Tan.

Dr. Tan said "Minari" was a beautiful, authentic film, and when she heard Yeun was nominated for an Academy Award, she became emotional.

"I was just so moved and just astonished at the same time, it completely made sense, so well deserved," she said. "It's really an astonishing dream come true for him. I'm just so excited for him."

Dr. Tan said she’ll be watching The Oscars on Sunday night, cheering Yeun on.

Photo Associated Press

"I've been telling students in classes to go and watch. This is the year to watch. And no matter what happens, just the nomination alone, he's already made history," she said. "I can't wait to see what he does next, because it's always surprising, and he's always, I think, finding a different part of himself to bring to the story."

It's that developmental journey of past students, like Yeun, that Dr. Tan says she loves to watch.

"I'm a developmental psychologist, I just love to see the change and the growth and especially how students sort of open up ... open out," she said. "I think it's the growth and the transformations we see over time that are so beautiful for us to to watch, so moving."