Ben Weilun Zhang began his college searched focused on Fudan University, one of the top universities in Shanghai. He viewed his only option as majoring in history at Fudan, despite his lack of confidence that he truly wished to do so. In order to improve his chances, he pursued a program at Fudan and wrote a paper about street names in Shanghai in his neighborhood – his first venture into urbanism. Zhang’s capstone is now focused on the gentrification of Wuding Lu and Jiaozhou Lu in Shanghai, for his self-designed Urban Studies major.
“I vaguely knew I was interested in the city, about the built environment and development in general,” Zhang said. He became interested in NYU Shanghai when his dad saw the university on the news and applied to get into an international education program. His application essay focused on his previous research about the city from the program at Fudan.
At Candidate Weekend, Zhang felt like he knew NYU Shanghai was for him. “When I stepped into the door, I was ecstatic because people were so energized,” he said. “The four years haven’t always been like that, but when I look back at where I came from I know this was always better than the other options I had at that point.”
During freshman year at NYU Shanghai, Zhang had the opportunity to branch out and get a variety of different experiences. “It was the starting point of me, starting to explore myself When I entered, I didn’t have any expectations because everything was new,” he said. His main challenge was adjusting to the coursework that involved writing academically in English. “It was a painful experience to find a way to express myself and set up arguments in English, even though I had good English,” Zhang said.
Zhang joined the a capella club, Deans’ Service Scholars Program, Undergraduate Business Association, and TEDxNYU Shanghai. “There were a million clubs and I was randomly trying out every little thing on this campus,” he said. At the TEDx event, Zhang again spoke about his research with regard to Shanghai and drew the attention of NYU Shanghai Professor Lena Scheen. “I never had this experience of contacting professors and saying oh, I’m interested in talking to you, but luckily she came up to me,” Zhang said. “We spent two and a half hours talking about Urban Studies and it led me into the hallway of what I am doing today.”
At the end of his freshman year, Zhang joined the cast of the Reality Show and got the opportunity to live in another great city for the summer, New York City. “The initial reason was because I wanted to go to New York so badly and I also had a passion for singing and thought why not?” Being a part of the Reality Show also helped Zhang ground himself in the diverse international community he was a member of at NYU Shanghai. “I really developed a sense of school spirit,” Zhang said.
Returning to Shanghai his sophomore year, Zhang switched to a humanities major and continued to take IMA classes as well. However, he moved to the Jinqiao dorms, away from the downtown of Shanghai and felt the loss of his connection to the urban center. “I sought out city-related opportunities to get that back,” Zhang said.
Zhang also took further advantage of NYU Shanghai’s global network and took a J-term course in Abu Dhabi. “It wasn’t quite relevant to my studies, but I learned a lot about the Middle East and got the chance to have another perspective,” he explained. However, returning back to Shanghai three days before classes started with 20 credits and a 0 credit chorale class proved to Zhang that he was overextending himself. As the semester wore on, he burnt himself out.
“I tend to be very ambitious which creates problems,” Zhang said. “I realized that I wasn’t the best person to take on all of that pressure and I decreased my workload.” Despite wanting to take the summer to relax, Zhang had previously applied to spend the summer at NYU Berlin and felt like he could not turn down the opportunity.
“The class in Berlin was the first class really telling me that I had an interest in social sciences and that I needed to change from humanities to social science,” Zhang explained. “I immersed myself in the field of urban studies and realized that it was what I wanted to do, observations and interviews.” He spent the summer with the city as his classroom, meeting Germans, Americans, Europeans and even Syrian refugees while he admired the use of public spaces in Berlin. “With NYU Shanghai I’ve been able to make cities all around the globe my classroom,” Zhang said. “The core of it is to learn intensively and academically about the concept of a city.”
Beginning his junior year, Zhang traveled directly to the United States from Berlin. In New York, he changed his major to Social Sciences, but also proposed to Academic Advising the idea of doing a self-designed major for Urbanism. “I really grew to love places and the people attached to the places that I went to, which is why I want to do this for the rest of my life,” he said.
From New York, Zhang flew back to Europe and spent four months in Florence, Italy. At NYU Florence, Zhang learned Italian with his host family, learned about the history of the old city and traveled to different cities across the continent.
Arriving back in Shanghai for his senior year, Zhang realized that the city he had grown up in had changed immensely during his time away. “I found all the Mobikes and all of the transformations Shanghai and undergone in the past several months and realized I had learned so much about the world, but I was ignoring my home,” he said. To fix that, Zhang applied for internships at companies focused on urban studies in Shanghai and found a position at a think tank in the city which allowed him to learn more about urbanism in Shanghai. “It was such a right decision because they have wide-spread connections all over the city and I got to meet so many people outside of school,” he explained.
The gentrification of the city caught Zhang’s eye as he returned from abroad and he specifically found himself returning to Wuding Lu and Jiaozhou Lu. “What exactly had changed here? I kept asking myself,” he said. “There was gentrification, but still a local life there and I decided to do site-specific fieldwork there for my capstone.”
Zhang feels that he has now completed his journey to realizing his passion for urban studies. “This global travel through NYU Shanghai was really a cumulative journey for knowledge, experience, culture, and language,” he said. “I realized my dream and now I am just following this passion.”
This article was written by Allison Chesky. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ben Weilun Zhang