Five months into a new role, David Pe, Dean of Students at NYU Shanghai, was called on just before start of the 2020 Spring term to help strategize solutions to counter the potentially destructive implications on the school community of a global pandemic.
Since the outbreak, he has contributed to the rapid and innovative solutions devised by university administration to ensure the teaching semester could continue.
NYU Shanghai’s challenges have been extensive. From connecting students to professors for online learning, to coping with issues of dislocation from campus and friends, and to negotiating graduations and enrollments, among many others.
And for the Dean of Students, a usually vibrant and interactive university complex now bereft of the very focus of his job: students,
Within a few weeks of the outbreak of the coronavirus, NYU Shanghai was able to develop a holistic new digital teaching structure that thousands of students around the world would soon adopt.
Thirteen time zones apart, we Zoomed in to talk for this interview about the university’s success in delivering 2020 Spring courses.
At the end of December 2019, news started to circulate around the globe as Wuhan, China, began to confirm cases of what is now known as Covid-19. Within the same week, NYU Shanghai began discussing plans to move to digital learning,
Dr. Pe said that “at the beginning of [the coronavirus] onset, we were meeting every night, Monday through Sunday … every day to discuss and figure out where things were.” And by February 17, students Zoomed in from 80 countries for the first day of classes.
As the pandemic has spread, Dr. Pe’s connection to students has put him repeatedly on the frontline as he supports them around the globe.
However, his drive to guide students didn’t start just five months ago. For the last 16 years he worked as a Resident Hall Director in New York City progressing all the way through academia to his relatively new role as Dean of Students.
So how did he get there?
“I was on academic probation after my freshman year. I really didn’t understand what college was about and so I struggled until I met those individuals that really helped me through it,” Dr Pe said. “I realized that I could be like them and there were students like myself that also needed that help, That was really [where] I found my calling.”
He was a first-generation college student whose Cambodian parents became refugees to the U.S. in the early 1980s. “I was born and raised in the States and so ethnically I’m Chinese and culturally I would consider myself Chinese-Cambodian-American.”
After graduating from UCLA in 2004, Dr. Pe moved across the country to pursue his master’s in Higher Education Administration at New York University where he started to work in residential life. He then completed a Doctor of Education in Organizational Change and Leadership at the University of Southern California. In 2012, Dr. Pe became part of the inaugural team at NYU Shanghai. A year later he was promoted to Associate Dean of Students and stepped into his current role in August 2019.
He said his aim is “to help develop experiences for students, whether it’s individuals who come from having no understanding of college or individuals whose generations of family members were in college.” He wants to create areas of equity, areas of inclusion and to make sure everyone gets “that college experience.”
And he now faces the challenge of maintaining this philosophy when the fundamental collective structure of education is being threatened.
NYU Shanghai was able to activate a system for digital learning in response to Covid-19 in the course of a few weeks. Not only is this wildly impressive and hard to comprehend, it has been extremely important to the lives of students everywhere, whether they know it or not.
Any influential plan must begin with an objective and in the case of NYU Shanghai the utmost concern, said Dr. Pe, was “making sure the university could still operate and run the necessary courses for students in terms of their sequencing or core requirements, major requirements, prerequisites.”
The second most important concern, he said, was the health and safety of students and staff.
A pandemic is fundamentally global in its effects and with students in 80 countries the university was hard hit. Dr. Pe said Shanghai “had to keep in mind what was changing outside that wouldn’t be in our control.”
So why adopt the Zoom technology, which has quickly penetrated the lives of people far outside higher education? The answer is quite simple, according to Dr Pe.
“NYU has been using Zoom for years. As you can see, even when you log in, its NYUZoom,” he said. And when the Shanghai campus had to transition quickly, it had to use whatever resources were available. “If there was a need to sign a new contract for a new platform, those things take six months to a year,” he said.
As Dean of Students, Dr. Pe’s role “is to make sure that students are getting the answers they need to ensure they can focus on their academics.” But he admitted that one of his biggest challenges was working in an environment where he’s supposed to see students, but they just aren’t there.
Not only have the NYU Shanghai administration and Dr. Pe guided their own student solutions, they have also helped a plethora of other universities in transition to digital learning.
After developing its own contingency plan, NYU Shanghai uploaded the relevant information as a ‘Digital Teaching Toolkit’ for public reference. As the effects of the pandemic spread, the site was getting 10,000 clicks.
NYU Shanghai was able to show “how you could teach language classes in digital, or piano classes, so it pushed people to think about what they needed to prepare for,” Dr. Pe said. As one of the first university campuses in the world to convert fully to online teaching in response to Covid-19, “it was much easier for us to be able to guide people,” he said.
All things considered, he said that “everyone has been champions in this whole process … the cohesive spirit and the solidarity is definitely still something that I’ve been quite impressed by.”
In looking forward, Dr. Pe mulls over the potential implications for Zooming on education.
“A lot of people who would normally not be using a lot of these tools are now more able,” he said. “Good things have come out in terms of peoples’ ability to think how to use the technology to their advantage.”
He said he has “always been proud of the university for its forward thinking” characterized by its rapid technological development.
Dr. Pe ended the interview with some poignant words to consider as we all move on.
“It’s a good time to be reflective about everything … it’s a quiet time [and] instead of feeling like all things are negative … reframe it. Like, what can I do during this time that I normally have not been able to do and that allows for me to explore.”
This article was written by Miranda Hernandez based in Austin, Texas. Please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: N/A, received permission to use this image from Dr.Pe.