Anna Shevchenko grew up in a small city, Blagoveshchensk, Russia, that borders China. “It’s as close as Brooklyn and Manhattan,” she said. Growing up, she saw Chinese tourists and businessmen in her city that had relocated for business and family reasons.
Shevchenko’s first study abroad experience was as an exchange student in the US during high school. “It was in the middle of nowhere Iowa, a small town with population of 7000 people,” she remembered. “It was so drastically different from where I came from. It was my first experience and I got slapped in a face with a massive culture shock. My host parents were great people, I had wonderful friends, but I didn’t want to go back. Now, looking back, it was a great starting point that allowed me to get where I am today which I am very grateful for.”
Along with various other colleges in the US, Anna decided to apply to NYU Shanghai. “When I opened Common Application, it asked we if I would like to be considered for Shanghai campus. In the moment I thought: ‘Man, I lived so close to China my entire life,’” Anna said. “There was a stigma of a pipeline of students who are not getting accepted to good Russian universities and choose to study in China instead – I clicked the box, then unclicked it, thinking that even if I get accepted I won’t attend. But then I figured they don’t charge me any extra, so I reclicked NYU Shanghai and submitted it.”
Next up was Anna’s Admitted Students’ Weekend in New York. “I saw all the people from all over the world, with different amazing life stories. I loved interacting with them. I figured Shanghai was far, but close to home,” Shevchenko said. “In the US, it would be me with 3% of the other weird kids in the international bubble. Here, we’re all from different places. It’s a way to travel the world without really traveling.”
Finally arriving at the NYU Shanghai campus, she was immersed in Orientation activities. “Orientation was a strange time in our lives, hanging out with random people. It felt like jumping around and not having solid ground under your feet,” she remembers. “In the moment, it seemed rather entertaining, but now, looking back, I don’t know how we survived. We had the one communal kitchen on the first floor of 268 which was gone after a month. If we plugged in too many things, all the power shut down. So it was like a survival camp that builds character and really boosts your creativity.”
Anna had to immerse herself in the NYU Shanghai community. “In high school, I had my own established group of friends, so making new friends wasn’t easy. Taking elevators and having small talks was absolutely terrifying. I wouldn’t be able to count times where I avoided people to just not make small talk, and now I’m a master. Coming here I was starting from scratch and I had to reach out, which made me more extroverted,” she said. “I don’t care what people think of me now, who cares.”
“The moral standards and life views that I live by changed a lot too, because in Russia, very traditional and homogeneous society, we have one set of world views, one set of aspects. Then, I come here where we have all the people with their different approaches and later study away which is totally different again,” she said. “At some point, you start questioning 17 years of growing up and the way that you were told you’re supposed to operate and live. For me, I changed my perspective on a lot of different things. Now, it’s easier wherever I go, because I don’t have a set of ideas about how things should be.”
Making friends and dorm life were not the only adjustments, however. “All of my classes were in English and it was hard to adjust,” Shevchenko said. “The GPS struggle was whether to read the texts in English or Russian, but I figured if I read it in Russian I wouldn’t be able to talk about it or write about it in English, so I stuck to English.”
“Writing was hard, because in [Russia’s] schools, no one asks us what you think, no one really cares. You are just asked by a teacher what Page 25, line 14, first paragraph say. Here, it’s not memorizing, it’s pushing you to think and connect different concepts,” Anna explained. “‘Do I really have any thoughts?’ I had to sit down and really make myself think.”
These experiences have heavily impacted our student body. “Kids who come here are more prepared, because we had to figure it out ourselves. It was a new university, not well-established,” Anna said. “We’re more scrappy, we’re using our resources to make the best of what we have. That’s a very valuable experience.”
Shevchenko did not feel the typical international student adjustment to China, however, having lived across the border. “I thought it was great, but it was weird when most of my friends were complaining and not necessarily loving it freshman year while I was having good time,” she said. “Then, sophomore year, they all liked it, but I thought it was getting old. As a kid who always saw China, I didn’t think it was that exotic.”
Yet, while studying abroad, Shevchenko missed Shanghai. “It’s that spirit of adventure. You go out with your friends and the night develops and there’s so much Chinese culture with tuk tuks or monkeys on the street or sometimes just bizarre things happening that makes it very special,” she said. “My freshman year in 268, I was going out to get food and there was a guy in the middle of the street holding a big turtle shouting. I had so many questions: ‘where did he get this turtle? Did he steal it from the zoo?’ They don’t just run around Shanghai,” she said, laughing. “He kept trying to give it to cab drivers and they wouldn’t take it.”
Studying away in New York was a wonderful experience, despite missing Shanghai. “It was the best year of my life so far, but the first semester was really tough with recruiting,” Shevchenko said. “I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself.”
In NYU New York, Shevchenko took classes at NYU Stern, NYU’s business school. “I loved my classes and professors. I had helpful and approachable professors, and one of them, Aswath Damodaran, was so famous in his field but it blew my mind how accessible he is,” she raved. “I think there’s this mystery about the Stern community with the competition, how hard it is. Many NYUSH kids had the best GPA of their school career there, though. And if you try, you can meet great people that will become your life-long friends, all you need to do is leave NYUSH bubble.”
Returning to Shanghai, Anna had trouble finding courses to take. “It was tough coming back in the beginning, because there was still a part of me that has the idea of education back home where you have to specialize and learn about your own field, but I had taken all the finance classes of interest,” she said, “but I do appreciate being able to take unrelated classes. As someone who considers herself absolutely not creative, my favorite class this semester surprisingly is Creativity Considered.”
Shanghai had changed while she studied abroad. “Something that really blew my mind was the bikes. I remember that Alipay had just started, and I only had it for the store across from Jinqiao,” Shevchenko recalled. “Now, I don’t even have a wallet anymore, I don’t need one. We are in a very privileged position where we were able to see the development stage of Shanghai and China first-hand.”
“A lot of people have the perception that China is rice fields and cheap labor – thats not true any longer. For people back home, the perception is that China is underdeveloped, but when I get home I feel like it’s the Stone Age,” Anna explained. “I can’t get good delivery service, I can’t pay online, I need a wallet. I feel like it’s 25 years behind.”
Looking ahead to her future, Anna had to really ponder where she wanted to end up. “Recruiting took up a lot of time, but the process of figuring out where to go was helpful,” she said. “I didn’t want to go home, because of all my international experiences, I feel like an outsider back home now. I miss the diversity every time I return home. ‘Where is my home?’ I asked myself,” she said.
“Russia is my ‘back home’, China is my home now, but I’m not going to stay here. New York was my home for a year, and will always stay with me,” she said. “I figured, London would be a good place to go – it’s diverse, speaks English, and I have never been to Europe. The process of figuring out how to explain my life story to interviewers allowed for a lot of reflection time and a moment of appreciation that not everyone gets a chance to have all these experiences I had. It’s a lot of nostalgia, I’m going to miss it. But I am also more than excited about what is ahead after graduation.”
This article was written by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Anna Shevchenko