Bound by Demographics

I have learned to dread this question. I know I should have some proper, succinct, out-of-the box answer prepared in the event that it is posed. Nevertheless, so many of us fail to provide an acceptable answer to outsiders who ask, “Why did you choose NYU Shanghai?”

One can mention the ever-lauded Global Network University with its incredible, if a little bit intangible, study away opportunities. One can cite the importance of learning to work and communicate effectively in a foreign language. However, none of the practical reasons are at the core of why a student could choose this adventure. We wanted to try something different, to live and study with talented students from every background, to play the elusive “other octave.”

Upon admission, we were told that we would be members of a highly elite, talented group of students from all over the world with diverse perspectives and that this diversity would help us to grow and develop diverse and nuanced worldviews of our own. That is a great deal of diversity to promise. Attracting a highly qualified group of students from around the world to an unproven model of education is a tall order. This plan has met with some success, though it has limitations, and will be continuously improved upon in future years. We are fortunate to have a dynamic, interesting, multicultural, multilingual, innovative, and extremely resilient student body, but diversity is a term more all-encompassing than NYU Shanghai often likes to acknowledge.

In the long term, NYU Shanghai’s population will remain 50% Chinese with a shift in the U.S. national and non-U.S. national populations to about 15-20% and 30-35%, respectively. In an attempt to boost enrollment statistics in favor of multi-nationalism, we may lose qualified students whose nationalities make them somehow less interesting people and therefore bad candidates for admission. In many ways, it seems as if the administration and admissions staff like to define diversity as “multinational” alone, as if one’s passport dictates one’s place in a university community. Thus, we are presented with two problems. The first deals with whether the decline of the American population is justified. The second is whether the demographic breakdown of the international population can be improved upon.

To tackle the first problem, I can only convey my personal experience. I am an American. That is what my passport says. However, nationality does not necessarily dictate one’s cultural diversity or ability to learn from other cultures. The United States is one of the most culturally diverse nations on the planet. I grew up in a row of five houses on a very run-of-the-mill, average, suburban street. That one row of houses had five nationalities, five languages, five religions, and five very different familial structures represented. On Halloween, I had to learn to say “Trick or Treat” in Ukrainian, Spanish, Vietnamese, Somali, and my family’s Hindi. Growing up, my favorite cuisine was Ethiopian and my mom liked to play Brazilian samba music at home. I attended all of my friends’ holiday events, regardless of whether they were hosted in a temple, church, mosque, or synagogue. I had a friend with a mother and a father, one with two fathers, one with a mother only, and then there was little Rima with a mother, father, stepfather, near-stepmother, and a host of step and half siblings. I was exposed early on to many varied lifestyles and viewpoints. I am American, but I do not necessarily listen to country music, eat apple pie, and watch American football, nor am I ill-travelled or ethnocentric. In the United States, no one story can dictate someone’s culture. That sentiment rings true everywhere. No one biographical data point, particularly nationality, can define a person’s character, ability to grow, or ability to contribute to a community such as ours.

Decreasing the percentage of American students gives the impression that Americans are somehow not talented or open-minded enough to handle this kind of education or that they do not have enough culture of their own to contribute to this community. An American applicant should not be treated as a bland person fit only to receive culture. Students from the United States and from everywhere should be viewed more holistically, taking into account that their viewpoints may differ greatly from what is considered “average” in their nation of origin. Our school’s mission is to educate individuals of diverse viewpoints rather than simply those that provide more color to the rainbow of flags that we collect for display.

The character of our class cannot be defined by our demographic data and it would be a disservice to boil our strength as a diverse community down to some impressive statistics. If our education is truly global, given the pervasive NYU Shanghai rhetoric, and meant to foster the education of globally minded individuals, then we must be treated as more than our nationalities would otherwise dictate. Our worldviews and academic inclinations are meant to be nuanced and varied. Why strip our student body of the cultural nuances inherent to it? It seems easy enough to leave the demographic requirements very liquid, such that the best candidates are allowed admission with less regard to their place of origin. Decreasing the American population is unnecessary. New York University is an American school and NYU Shanghai is the first Sino-American joint venture university. While we are international in focus, we are not an international school. It is conceivable that the two largest majorities should be Chinese and American. Furthermore, it is inherently difficult for most NYU Shanghai students to say with certainty where they may be from as we are so mixed in our many origins. An American national may also be culturally influenced by the other countries in which they have lived, or the cultures their immigrant parents or grandparents passed to them. Why should we encourage this black-and-white delineation between nationalities? It is an ideal far more desirable to release our community of the boundaries created by placing demographic restrictions upon the admissions process.

The second limitation that has emerged with NYU Shanghai’s process of sourcing talent for admission lies in the breakdown of the non-American international population. The school has majority populations from South Asia and Eastern Europe while notably neglecting much of Western Europe, Africa, Australia, and South America. The class of 2018 has nearly two dozen students from eastern Europe with only a small handful representing the west. There are over a dozen students from Pakistan but only one from India. Of the students from Pakistan, several are recruited from one of two “feeder schools.” Five students represent the entire continent of Africa while Bosnia and Herzegovina alone is afforded seven representatives. Why does Hungary alone have more students present than all of South America? The admissions process should be based mostly upon academic merit and ability to fit into a unique community such as this one. However, NYU Shanghai is too small, internationally diverse, and young to have “feeder schools” or “feeder nations.” One large demographic delineation, Chinese vs. non-Chinese, is already enough of a boundary for us to tackle and overcome. Walking around the cafeteria at B1 and acknowledging tables as “the European corner” or “Little Lahore” is socially damaging to a community that is meant to break down these borders.

NYU Shanghai’s best asset as a school is its very connected and close community. Creating micro-communities within our already small cohort reduces the integrity of our experience to that of a petty and divisive high school. Fracturing our population into small groups based upon region of origin degrades our mission. We were not brought here to spend time with those more culturally close to us alone. Seek similarity for comfort, but know that homogeneity does not yield growth. NYU Shanghai is just an institution meant to facilitate our growth, but the students are meant to instigate it. Administration may be the navigators of this ship, but students are the force propelling it, and in the end, our efforts or lack thereof will dictate whether we achieve our collective goal: One community based on our collective experience rather than many based on superficial demographic data. Fracturing into pieces of the single community we idealize is dangerous and counterproductive. We cannot directly influence the admissions statistics of future classes. However, we can decide how to act based on what we have been given by choosing not to close ourselves off from those who may be slightly different.

The beauty of our school is that we cannot be defined in blocks of color as we stand next to one another. Outsiders are forced to see the nuanced spectrum that we create. Beyond that, I can proudly say that I do have an answer to the dreaded question posed at the outset of this article: I chose NYU Shanghai because everyone in this community does truly wish to see the goal of one community realized.

This article was written by Rima Mehta. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Zhang Zhan

2 thoughts on “Bound by Demographics

  1. Rima you rock !!! I loved to read this and will love even more to read more articles as the years go by – to go out of our comfort-zones and sit at “non-European” lunch table (for example) is easy for some and takes time for others. As NYUSH grows the spirit of the school will grow and you will be more united. Common interests, language and birth-places brings us together as we start out in the world, in a new job or in a new country. Some venture out and grow globally, some go back “home”. Surely the same will happen at NYUSH. In my 19th year abroad from my home country Sweden I cannot wait to encounter more new people, cultures and challenges. I have seen many people ‘come and go’ and the unspoken barrier hits you at seven years abroad. Love you guys, you are awesome and such a spice in my life . <3

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