The Road to NYU Shanghai

How did you choose NYU Shanghai? Freshman Sabina Olsson reflects on the journey that brought her here.

I never planned to go to NYU Shanghai. Honestly. I never even planned to study at NYU, or even at an American university. If anyone would have told me a year ago that I’d be going to one of the most famous U.S. colleges, I seriously would’ve questioned their sanity. Despite this absurd fact, the ten-hour intercontinental flight is getting closer by the minute, as my iPhone countdown app proudly illustrates.

My life plans have changed constantly for as long as I can remember. I’ve wanted to become everything from a dentist and a zookeeper to a fashion designer and a lawyer. Researching tertiary education early on in high school made me look across the world; Spain, Hawaii, Australia, Japan, and much more. The only thing I knew was that I desperately wanted to study abroad. Looking at obscure schools on another continent seemed reasonable, while attending one of Sweden’s most respected universities (only thirty minutes from my home town) was out of the question. During the summer before senior year, when everyone started realistically planning for their future, my studying abroad urge had just grown stronger.

In late September I had finally made the decision to apply to U.S. schools. At least it couldn’t hurt to try, and it wasn’t that big of a deal, was it? I would still apply to colleges in other countries, so I could go anywhere, and I hadn’t locked down on anything. At the career advising office, the all-American counselor looked at me in sheer horror when I told her that I had never taken an SAT test nor any other academic testing for university applications. I did not even know what the Common App was. “When did you decide to begin applications?” she asked me. I told her the day before yesterday, and she just quietly shook her head.

The early morning of my first SAT, I sat calmly in my kitchen eating peanut butter right out of the jar and just thought about my current life decisions. I hadn’t studied at all for the upcoming test. I figured that being fairly smart and doing an IB Diploma was enough. It couldn’t be that difficult, I thought.

In early December, after having taken my second SAT and a (ridiculously easy) TOEFL, I realized how invested I had become into my American applications. I meticulously polished my essays, kept my grades under serious watch, and memorized admissions requirements. Filling out my NYU application, I noticed the two other campuses possible to apply to and I figured I might as well send my hard work there as well, since there was no extra fee. I had too many applications to worry about to give NYU any extra thought, especially not since it wasn’t even my top choice.

When the interview email hit my inbox, I was surprised, but cautious. The idea of Shanghai felt still very far away. Video chatting went fine, but I told myself that this was only an option amongst others. After all, I still kept my other dreams of traveling far away alive.

I got my unofficial acceptance letter a late evening in March, and let out a shriek of shock causing my mom to barge into my room to make sure I wasn’t dying. I sat astonished on my bed and told her that I might move to Shanghai in August. I’m really not sure who was the most amazed and confused.

Accepting my offer was simultaneously the most obvious and yet unexpected decision of that time. I’d been getting both rejections and acceptances, but the thought of Shanghai had grown on me. Even though it was the most unconventional alternative, it made sense relating to my earlier desire for adventure.  

During the Admitted Students Weekend in April, I saw, breathed, and lived NYU Shanghai for three whole days. It was extravagant, exciting, and exhausting. Even though it was nothing to what I expected, staring tiredly at the overhead flight cabin lights on my way home, I felt sure in my decision to return later that fall.

Word around school quickly spread about me going to China for college, and the reactions came no later. My friends were shocked yet impressed. My parents started out skeptical but became supportive and hopeful. Acquaintances in the lunch hall looked at me with a mixture of worry and wonder, and the school counselor lit up in pride when she heard the abbreviation NYU.  

After exams, graduation, and some traveling, summer brought mostly practical matters. Even though I had an (almost) free couple of months ahead of me, I kept strangely busy. From visa applications and Shanghai research, to headaches from vaccinations and convincing my mom I would not need truckloads of toothpaste with me, I intensely prepped for my intercontinental move.

Coping with all of this has been kind of sporadic. Some days I wrote checklists and other days I cried about leaving my favorite type of cereal from home. I spent about a week binge-watching a TV show out of pure stress of leaving my reliable home wifi in the future. Two weeks before departure I rushed around to stores and cafés I had to visit one last time, together with people I had to see one last time before leaving. Packing only really became difficult when I realized that I wouldn’t be able to bring all of the stuff I had at home (like twenty pairs of shoes, or my favorite type of cereal).

Obviously I worry about my future, just like anyone would. Wrapping up your life and bringing it across the world to a completely strange place is not an emotionless decision.

All I can say is that I hope college is both what I expect it to be, as well as completely different. It always nice to have your expectations come true, but the really good things most often happen to you unexpectedly.

This article was written by Sabina Olsson. Please send an email to to get in touch.
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