At 39,000 feet, there’s lots of room to think. Over the past three years we’ve known what that’s like to fly in the sky, sitting still but moving fast. That is how it feels to exist planted in a new place. There is a momentum to it, something you always want to preserve in life — you could be sleeping but you still know you’re going somewhere. Some of us travel over the largest oceans, over countries manyfold, more than students at any other university out there. We’ve said harder goodbyes and more interesting hellos than we could imagine or sometimes bear. Despite the distances I imagine the crossroads where we meet — that center is our little, interesting, set-up shop, adaptive, teething, rigorous, and life-changing home of NYU Shanghai.
What makes a school a school? More than anything else it’s the people, the reinforced leverage of institution and the surrounding avenues of exploration, both environmentally and personally. Going to a school about which the question “So which school do you go to?” is answered with “It’s complicated” with either a grin or a grimace generally attracts two types of people. First, those starry-eyed and inspired by fantastical wanderlust with hope for a world different and novel, and second, those jaded and calloused enough to mutter “sure” to a seemingly crazy choice with more apathy than a stone. Remarkably–perhaps fundamentally–a good proportion of NYU Shanghai individuals are a paradoxical mix of both.
We are out of stream, but I think with an inkling in our gut that we’re where the swell is cresting — cresting with China, the developing giant whose impact casts quite the shadow. For students to make someplace foreign their home for upwards of a year is not an easy decision. A mix of circumstance, strategy, and spontaneous intuition made the new NYU Shanghai somewhat of a dark horse — one that took a very strong X characteristic to put the first foot in the loop.
These first steps were in 2013, when a set of around 300 students witnessed the exhilarating weight of being the pilot class on their own to fend for themselves in a big, clashing cosmopolitan city that sported both rickshaws and Audis face-to-face in its intersections. It was scary; it was good. Although sponsored by the well-known institution of NYU, these ragtag explorers and endearing faculty came to stand as their own opinionated entity with fantastic, adventurous, and innovative classes to follow. The first shoes on the ground indeed had a lot of ground to cover — now, with their culminating year heating up, it is a good time to look back on the trail and peer ahead into what it really meant to come to NYU Shanghai in its inaugural stages — of which every senior, junior, sophomore, and new freshman alike is a part of.
Behind the scenes of the first, three-week-long freshman orientation (demanding enough to be called the Puxi Summer Olympics 2013), one could hear the rattling suitcases rolling in through the East China Normal University roundabouts right behind those empty walking shells straight out of highschool. We were sweating with life (and the heat) and ready to be cordially introduced to 奶茶, 白酒, and late nights at Ellen’s where it wasn’t surprising to see the class president order a hookah for the whole table. In a way, humanization was a large part of the inaugural experience — trickling into a GPS (Global Perspectives on Society) lecture every Monday resulted in a warm familiarization with our classmates.
No one could say that things were perfect. In fact, it seems to be a constant that there wasn’t very much luxury at all — and that’s an important part in the gauntlet that has been these past three years. From the worst pollution in the world (some weeks), to a lack of hot water (on the most frigid of days), to an earnest attempt of Thanksgiving-in-China with sides of cranberry sauce (and widespread food poisoning), we were always kept aware and vigilant. We tried not to mention the debilitating homesickness many students felt, probably curled up in our own rooms and in our own minds feeling lonely some days and in good company the next. We are lucky and should always be grateful to have been the ones selected; we are fortunate to have the opportunity to live in such a unique environment; but yes there have been problems that come with being exposed like this — problems that give a firm eye opening on appreciating on the things we do have instead of that we don’t.
In the first year, there was no one to set an example on what it meant to be an “NYU Shanghai student”. We were both the eldest and youngest on campus, a Lord of the Flies environment that thrust us into a certain atmosphere of independence whether ready or not. Now that the university will be at a fully-fledged four years, we can truly see those initial conditions taking hold. The way the first class treats China, treats their experiences abroad, and treats each other sets some precedent on what underclassmen see for themselves. And it’s not all altruistic role-modeling either — those who come after us affect the undergrad university name which you will cite for the rest of your life — and so far, I’m pretty happy with it. I’m proud to be an NYU Shanghai student because it gives us privilege and opportunity while at the same time beating us into the ground. When I have conversations with people, I’m sure to touch upon this fact of balance.
So let’s continue the conversation in a way that inspires people who have never even dreamed of anywhere else to say “Wow, that’s different, and that’s wonderful” — no matter if the story is about finding your forte in an international class or getting lost on empty Chinese streets after a night out. In three years we have kickstarted everything from a student-run publication to a student-run hackathon, to sustainability conferences to volunteer work. It is safe to say that in the future these events and hard-earned struggles will serve as :
- robust contemplations on why the absurd sometimes works,
- a fond memory and utility on how to make something our own, and
- a reminder that there’s a lot more to the world than where we were born.
Wherever we are in the world right now, this is our home on Century Avenue, for one more year. And it’s a good time to be alive.
This article was written by Michael Lukiman. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit:NYU Shanghai