College doesn’t define you, you do it yourself

It is frequently misunderstood that the college you get into either makes or breaks your future. However, as covid-19 has equalized schools through remote learning, it has revealed that while the right college environment helps, what really makes a difference in your education is your own will.

Last year, when I was deciding where I wanted to go to college, one of the biggest factors in my choice was the sense of community. I tried to picture myself in the community of students of each school I was considering, and my ultimate choice ended up being New York University (NYU) Shanghai. I chose NYU Shanghai because I thought that the institution’s multicultural student body and transnational higher education would make me a better person or a better ‘citizen of the world.’ However, after my first year, I realized I was wrong.

Six years ago, the Vice-Chancellor of NYU Shanghai, Jeffrey Lehman, gave a speech on “Transnational Education in the Age of Convergence” at a National Fulbright Conference. In this speech, he emphasized the need for and importance of people who understood cultural similarities and differences — “bridge people.” He believes it is through transnational institutions that bridge people are made and prepared to solve the “grand challenges” of the twenty-first century. In a nutshell, Lehman’s claim was that transnational education helps shape students into bridge people.

However, in an interview, Clay Shirky, the former Chief Information Officer at NYU Shanghai, argued that in the graduating classes he met, only “a handful of students” truly succeeded in being bridge people. Taking this perspective into account, I wonder, if according to Lehman, transnational education creates bridge people, why isn’t everyone at NYU Shanghai like that?

An explanation Shirky provided was that some students were “naturally good at” being bridge people, whereas others, despite spending their entire experience in a multicultural environment, were more focused on obtaining a career-related education and failed to embrace the skills needed to understand other cultures. Similarly, in an article for Foreign Affairs, Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that in the process of achieving multicultural understanding with others, “both the concern for strangers and the curiosity about them matter,” showing that it is not solely the diversity of the environment that matters, but what each person does with it. Appiah and Shirky give importance to each individual when it comes to cultural understanding and their growth as a bridge person.

Both these perspectives help show us that, in fact, it really doesn’t matter where you study, as long as you, as a student, take advantage of your surroundings to make the best of your college experience. Yes, being in a transnational institution immerses you in a diverse environment; however, you will not become a bridge person unless you truly desire to do so. In my experience, the transnationality of NYU Shanghai’s education sparked my interest in becoming a bridge person, but that interest wasn’t enough unless I did something about it. The type of student you are is not correlated to the school you choose. There is no college that is a ‘perfect fit’ community because it is not just up to the school’s environment to provide you with the tools you need to succeed; it’s also up to you to actually take advantage of them and embrace your surroundings. Therefore, your ‘perfect education’ is actually within you.

At this moment, all universities, regardless of whether they are transnational or not, are filled with uncertainty because of COVID-19. This pandemic has served as a test on various fronts; it is testing bridge people and their ability to overcome a challenge like the coronavirus, students and their willingness to learn, and colleges which are being equalized, as the features which made them unique cannot be readily transferred to remote learning. This unprecedented event has even tested our views on how understanding we are of others. It has questioned the stereotypes we readily accept, and our will to refrain from generalising a classmate’s experience when a crisis hits. It has shown how one event can shift all our views on education, as the experience you are acquiring now is maybe not the one you originally chose. During online classes, some students haven’t taken much initiative in school, whereas others have used social distancing to study harder– all out of their own will. The same dynamic happens with the creation of bridge people: some become it, and some do not, but it is all up to ourselves. Right now, at the end of my first year of college and in the midst of this global challenge, I came to understand that my initial assumptions were completely wrong; college doesn’t make us who we are, we do it ourselves. We are the ones who decide how to approach and appreciate our education and people in our lives, even in the midst of a pandemic. We are the ones who can choose empathy and initiative over judgement.I do not regret my choices, as I have taken advantage of every opportunity that has come by, but that is because of the student I am. Now I ask you, what type of student are you? As many of us currently in college, I thought my experience was going to be easier than this year turned out to be. I thought guaranteed success would come in hand with my ‘perfect fit’ community, but I was wrong. Even though my initial choice of attending a transnational institution revealed the type of environment I wanted to be in, it is how you overcome challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic that come in your way, that really test the kind of student you are. It is once you master your education within yourself, that you truly succeed.

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

One thought on “College doesn’t define you, you do it yourself

  1. OMG, you are wise beyond your years! A very interesting and insightful piece of work. Just keep doing what you do, as you said, it’s all inside you and your gift is to share who you are with the world, and more importantly, those you love. You rock girl!

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