Four Years Later: What is NYU Shanghai?

NYU Shanghai began as an experiment in international education and cosmopolitanism. Has it achieved those results?

On Oct. 15, 2012, New York University and East China Normal University (ECNU) founded the world’s first Sino-U.S. joint venture university. NYU Shanghai was officially ready to accept its first class of three hundred undergraduates for 2013’s fall semester. Experts around the world deemed the university “a new model for China-foreign cooperation,” and Chancellor Yu Lizhong proclaimed “NYU Shanghai will be a ‘melting pot’ for cultivating innovative talents from China and the rest of the world.” NYU Shanghai, from the very beginning, was a grand experiment.

Like any new experimental venture, mistakes and challenges stayed with NYU Shanghai. The Class of 2017 travelled from the ECNU campus in Puxi (the west side of Shanghai) to the current Academic Building on Century Avenue, never living in the same dorm accommodations for more than a year at a time. Majors frequently changed requirements and even names, while the intersection of NYU’s academic freedom values and Chinese law sometimes conflicted, as OCA previously reported.

As NYU Shanghai completes its fourth year and celebrates the graduation of its first senior class, questions remain. As the Class of 2017 leaves the campus, has the mission of NYU Shanghai been achieved?


What is the Mission?

From an administrative point of view, the mission of NYU Shanghai is highly focused on globalization, as is reflected in the university’s motto “Make the World Your Major.” Though many students view the slogan with a touch of irony, the commitment to cross-cultural interaction is reflected in many NYU Shanghai policies.

Another key aspect to the NYU Shanghai ideal is the focus on China. “A key part of our identity is the fact that we are in China. We want to take advantage of that fact, so all our students come away with sophistication not only in the Chinese language, but Chinese culture and Chinese society more generally,” Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman said.

To accomplish these twofold goals, international students are required to take Chinese classes and room with a Chinese roommate their first year. To tackle big ideas like globalization, the required freshman course, Global Positions on Society (GPS), brings students into engagement with texts and philosophies from diverse cultures and time periods.  

Class of 2017 alumnus Pengcong Dai sees these two goals reflected clearly in the layout of the university, from the GPS course to the study abroad requirement. She recalled her experience living with an international student freshman year. “We’re not roommates anymore, but we’re still good friends,” Dai explained. “I saw many Chinese people didn’t get along with their international roommates. But I like how our school made this, how everyone has to live with international people.”

To Dai, even though the roommate situation may not work out for everyone, it helps students become what NYU Shanghai envisions for its students, learning “how to study and grow in global environments.”

“I’ve often said that NYU Shnghai is grounded in a cosmopolitan ethic,” Lehman said. “We read [Kwame Anthony] Appiah in GPS, and this notion that we can share profound universal values while at the same time respecting the fact that different societies can express and pursue those values in different ways–that ethic, that ideal, does enable us to build a more productive and satisfied world, and enable us to live better lives.”

Appiah, a professor at NYU’s Washington Square campus, wrote about cosmopolitanism and international interactions in the modern world and has been read and discussed by every class of students at NYU Shanghai. His text can be said to be the embodiment of the NYU Shanghai spirit, but it is also a decidedly liberal one focused on globalization and easy flow of ideas.

“I don’t think many societies have done a good job of [helping people disadvantaged by globalization] in the last 30 years, and that has fueled an anti-globalization movement,” mused Lehman.  “The economic pie has gotten bigger, but it has not been distributed in a fair way. Going forward what should you do?” Lehman sees NYU Shanghai as an essential tool in this process of facing the anti-globalization tide, an institution that promotes cross-cultural contact and meaningful discussion rather than a retreat into bubbles of similar people and ideas.


The “Bubble”

A university like NYU Shanghai inevitably attracts students who are already interested in international experiences and those who are willing to dive headfirst into other cultures and experiences with an open mind. The university caters to a Liberal crowd, in the partisan sense of the word. Some students refer to the social atmosphere at NYU Shanghai as a “liberal bubble.”

Veronica Hernandez, Class of 2017, shares this perception. “You can live in the dorms, wake up, take the shuttle bus, eat at the school…you can live here without leaving an NYU location,” she said. A common complaint among NYU Shanghai students, the “NYU bubble” is perceived as occupying a very physical space. “It is an intellectual and liberal bubble,” Hernandez explained.

“I do think it’s liberal, though not in the partisan sense of liberal…Liberal in the sense of liberal education, liberal in the sense of a worldview that can liberate the spirit,” Lehman clarified. Though NYU Shanghai does draw a particular group of students, exposure to ideas like patriotism, communism, and capitalism through the GPS course gives students intellectual exposure to various ideas. The concept of politics-free “liberal” is key to the NYU Shanghai identity, and for Lehman at least, relates more to open-mindedness and willingness to learn rather than any particular party platform.

Dai was unsure about what the “bubble” meant. “I think compared to normal Chinese universities, we’re so much less in a bubble. At least we have people from different backgrounds and cultures. At a Chinese university, we only have Chinese people. By comparison, I feel like we’re in less of a bubble.” She did, however, notice that political opinions tended to align. “I don’t think we have many conflicts in terms of political stuff,” said Dai.  

The intense focus on the globalization mindset does permeate most aspects of NYU Shanghai life. “NYU Shanghai is definitely a bubble,” Class of 2018 student Sevi Reyes agreed. But he doesn’t necessarily think that this is a bad thing. “It’s a bubble of many things: ideas, academic practices, people, but I’m going to focus on how it’s a bubble of students. Coming to New York, I’ve realized that NYU Shanghai’s bubble of students has created a solid community for me.”

Being a part of such a small, close-knit community enabled Reyes to form strong friendships with people from other cultures and college campuses, which he realized was a trait unique to NYU Shanghai. “What Shangai students don’t realize before they study in New York is that meeting 60-70 students in one semester is unheard of in New York,” Reyes joked.


NYU Shanghai in the Global Network

Not only is NYU Shanghai vastly different from the New York Washington Square Campus, NYU Shanghai’s position in the Global Network University (GNU) is also unique. The GNU represents the network of fourteen study away sites around the world, and NYU Shanghai requires students to study away at at least one of them for a semester. As NYU’s new president, Andrew Hamilton will be taking charge of the direction the GNU is headed, NYU Shanghai included.

Lehman described his initial meetings with Hamilton in positive terms. “He has a true passion about NYU’s identity as a global network,” Lehman explained. “He has often said that one of the key attractions of coming to NYU was NYU Shanghai.”

Hamilton has already been to the Shanghai campus several times since his appointment, and met with Lehman and the Minister of Education in Beijing. Lehman described the meeting as “fantastic,” with the Minister himself describing NYU Shanghai as the “golden egg.”

Despite Hamilton’s positive feelings towards NYU Shanghai, the global network may not be growing any time soon. Lehman cites Hamilton’s attitude toward the Global Network University as one of quality, not quantity. “He has said quite clearly that his agenda for the next five years is not to add more sites to the existing group, but to strengthen connections among those sites,” Lehman said.

How exactly will Hamilton focus on “strengthening” NYU Shanghai? One potential option is encouraging New York and Abu Dhabi students to come to Shanghai. “As China grows, as U.S.-China relationships grows, the chance for students to have a meaningful one or two semesters here is extraordinary,” Lehman mused.

However, the interaction also goes both ways. Even as NYU New York students grow more aware of the benefits of taking a semester in China, NYU Shanghai students are realizing the same–and some don’t want to leave.

The majority of NYU Shanghai students study away at one or two locations their junior year, so sophomores must decide where they want to go by spring semester of their second year, applying in advance for junior year fall and spring semesters. Vanelly Garces, a rising junior in the Class of 2019, did not apply for a semester abroad.

“I finally feel like I’m getting a better understanding of what it is to live in Shanghai and what it means to have your entire undergraduate abroad,” Garces explained. Originally from Texas, she has been interning at the same company in Shanghai for a year, an option that may lead to a future career for her. For Garces, NYU Shanghai would be better off making study away an option like other universities. “This entire experience is studying away for me,” Garces concluded. “I finally feel that Shanghai is where I really want to be.”

For Garces, leaving Shanghai would be leaving the environment and opportunities she worked so hard to create.  Fellow Class of 2019 member Lou Demetroulakos also has concerns about how the study away experience will impact his Shanghai life–particularly his Chinese.

“The school ought to create a program for students to continue and review Chinese while studying away,” Demetroulakos said.  “Especially for students who have passed the advanced level, our biggest worry studying away is that our Chinese will not improve.”

In response to concerns like Demetroulakos’, the Chinese department has begun a program for students studying away, aiming to provide resources for students wanting to continue learning Chinese abroad. The program is currently in development.

Lizzy LeClaire, Class of 2018, spent her year abroad in Madrid and Buenos Aires learning Spanish, but doesn’t find that her Chinese has been negatively impacted. “Not seeing characters all that time has hurt my ability to write Chinese, but I can still read. I still follow a lot of Chinese TV shows, and listen to a lot of Chinese music.” For LeClaire, the study away requirement presented new opportunities to discover the world rather than limiting her experiences.

Sevi Reyes will be spending three semesters studying away in New York City. He sees the study away experience as essential to his personal growth.

“Junior year was a crucial time for me to be in the city where I wanted to spend my life after college: New York,” Reyes said. “Studying abroad has allowed me to experience the world from a dramatically different perspective than I have during my first two years.”

“I think I get a lot of [opportunities] through this university, like studying abroad and the constant rotation of students here,” Hernandez agreed. She studied in Florence and Buenos Aires. “I think it was successful in opening my eyes to the world.”

Like many other students, Hernandez is keenly aware of how the study away requirement fits into the overall vision of NYU Shanghai. “It’s the stuff they try to push in GPS, like being a global citizen,” she said, referring to the heavy emphasis on Appiah’s cosmopolitan philosophies. “I don’t like the concept, but I realize that I do have lots of friends and connections around the world.”

Fellow Class of 2017 member Sarabi Eventide also recognizes the obvious trend towards a globalized worldview that NYU Shanghai pushes. “I guess the point of NYU Shanghai is to create fearless, globally minded explorers. But I’ve also probably been brainwashed.”

Despite the bubble’s cosmopolitan echo chamber, the results have turned out in Eventide’s favor. “My soul doesn’t comprehend fear,” she said. Being exposed to so much of the world has also exposed her to new ideas and interests: “Our school goes country-hopping like it’s our job, but I’ve started to take an interest in world politics as well.”


Who is NYU Shanghai?

“One of the important philosophical commitments of NYU as a global network is not simply creating fourteen identical bubbles that are implanted in fourteen cities around the world,” Lehman said. “Each one will take on its own personality.”

What is NYU Shanghai’s personality? Who are its students? Lehman already has his point of view. “To be a student who chooses to come to an entirely new university, you have to be a little bit brave and curious. You have to be open about being with people who grew up in a different culture,” he said.

Some NYU Shanghai students might use different words to describe how their years in China have turned out.

“Wild,” Hernandez said. She remembers an incident her freshman year where she had to navigate the Chinese hospital system on her own, with limited language abilities and no passport. “This is a huge liability for NYU, that I was so underprepared for what happened, but I did learn a lot about how to prepare for things and take care of myself,” she recalled. “You learn how to be a little scrappy and how to fend for yourself.”

“We’re all in college to learn about the world through a certain perspective,” Reyes said. “That perspective may be broken down into many aspects — our subject, language of instruction, the diversity of our classmates, and the list goes on.” An ideal description for NYU Shanghai, which openly promotes diversity of thought and experiences, Reyes feels that the school has been successful in that regard. “My first two years shaped me into a student mature enough to face the changes that would come with studying abroad.” He chose the words “My Home” to sum up his first three years at NYU Shanghai.

“I think the biggest thing NYU Shanghai has taught me is flexibility and openness to other cultures,” added Class of 2017 alumnus Richard Lewei Huang. “NYU Shanghai is…intriguingly different.”

“Our school is the first university in the mainland to put Chinese students and international students together. I think that’s the experiment,” Dai said. In her view, referring to the school as an ‘experiment’ means some people expect it to fail.

“Before college I was just a typical Chinese student, 100% devoted to study stuff. Going to NYU Shanghai opened many possibilities.” Although the road NYU Shanghai has led the Class of 2017 along was a long and challenging one, Dai sees a brighter future. “I mean, we’re the first class, we came in thinking we might fail and we might not graduate. But I think it’s been going well.”

This article was written by Savannah Billman. Please send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: NYU Shanghai

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