After being separated for at least one year during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese and international students are now facing the greater challenge of getting back into the cultural exchange groove at NYU Shanghai.
Student Life has implemented multiple strategies to respond to the impact of the pandemic on cultural interaction, but a gap has developed between reality and the school’s expectations.
At the start of the 2019 academic year, Chancellor Jeffery Lehman clearly espoused his expectations for Freshmen: learn how to respect different ideas and deal with disagreements in the NYU Shanghai way, and talk to someone from a different cultural background for two hours every day, in a language other than your first language. He added these two things are hard, but they would make you stand out among your peers.
The pandemic has, however, made Chancellor Lehman’s two things even harder, bringing cultural challenges to NYU Shanghai whose usually diverse student body was impacted by travel restrictions.
Many students believe cultural bubbles, based on nationalities and language, have formed among the student cohort.
Minji Chen, a Fuzhounese-American freshman brought up in New Jersey, said that when she came to China in November 2020, when the international student cohort was not fully returned, she mainly interacted with Chinese students. She got on well with them and admits that they are now her main social circle, although she is an international student.
Alan Huang, a Cantonese-American from New York, did not leave China during the pandemic, spending the past two years in Shanghai. “Many freshmen told me that they did not have community involvement,” he said in Cantonese.
“When I was a freshman, there were bubbles, but people would still move out of them. But now people, like, segment themselves,” said Carter Christensen, a sophomore from Salt Lake City who was one of the first international students back to Shanghai after the school reopened.
“Now you only see Chinese students in one group [and] international students in another,” he said. “And if you see international students in a group all the time, they would be all from the same country.”
Answers about how the school responds to such culture changes were sought from Patty Xu, Assistant Director of student involvement at the Department of Student Life.
She said NYU Shanghai maintains the pre-pandemic policies and guidelines for student integration in Spring 2021, except for a few roommate assignments where international students are not able to return to China.
For example, as soon as international students started returning, she said, Student Life made changes to roommate assignments for freshmen so there was at least one Chinese student and one international student in each room.
In relation to clubs, the student government still requires diversity in membership: students of one nationality cannot make up more than 50%. The school also relaunched the “first-year dialogue” program for freshmen students, encouraging Chinese and international students to share their experiences and life at NYU Shanghai.
Yunfei Zhou, a freshman from Shanghai, says she still lives with a Chinese roommate and there is a sharp gap between the English language context during class and the Chinese language environment in her residential life. Yunfei is now looking forward to communicating more with international students.
Maggie Hao, a freshman from Liaoning, China, understands the aims of institutional activities, but she prefers something more informal. She uses “尴尬” (embarrassing) to describe her experience of the “first-year dialogue” program and now prefers to find friends with mutual interests in her own way.
Patty Xu said the Student Involvement team and Diversity Initiative Program organized many events, but without the adequate amount of student involvement, it is hard to achieve desired outcomes. She agreed there might be a disconnect between the organizers and potential participants.
Many students questioned the methods used by the university to advise them about upcoming events. “I don’t get enough information from the school, so I don’t really know exactly what programs are going on at the moment,” said Minji Chen.
Currently, the “Engage” platform is used by the school to manage student events. In the elevator waiting areas, there are poster bulletin boards. Students can scan the QR code on the poster and be directed to the NYU Shanghai website to RSVP.
Apart from the posters, students will receive each Monday a newsletter from the university about the week’s events. But these messages are often ignored.
Xiaoying Xu, a sophomore from Jiangsu, China, does not check emails of low priority, only paying attention to messages about academic activity, such as exams and assignments.
Other students get to open the emails too late. Maggie Hao said she once found details of an interesting event in her mailbox, but it had happened three days earlier.
Apart from the newsletter, students also receive lots of separate emails from the school about different events. Alan Huang, who mainly relies on emails for information, said in Cantonese: “If there’s something interesting happening, I will participate in it. But if I skip over the message, I just miss it.”
Students consider WeChat a good platform for event communication.
“In Shanghai, everyone has WeChat,” Minji Chen said, and Nora Liu, a sophomore from Guangzhou, agreed. “WeChat subscription might be the best way to receive communications,” she said.
WeChat is already being used in various aspects of the school’s operations. Public Safety has launched a WeChat Mini Program for the shuttle bus service. The school recently held a “Clean Your Plate” event, where students could participate by checking into a WeChat group every day, Patty Xu said. The 2nd Floor cafe also accepts WeChat Pay.
Student Life’s Xu said the range of events, such as career seminars, can attract students with varying interests.
Kathy Song, a junior from New York, said she learned a lot about Chinese traditional culture by participating in the Chinese New Year events at NYU Shanghai. She said it is hard to expect an event or activity of specific interest, such as major exploration and career development, to promote cultural exchange.
Andrew Lustig, a freshman from the U.S., said some international students were strongly interested in exploring the city immediately after they had completed three weeks’ quarantine. But the school didn’t provide such an opportunity.
Lustig organizes a board game event every weekend for Chinese and international students and it is a perfect opportunity for students to talk with each other. He said similar events organized by the school could really promote cross-cultural communication.
As Chancellor Jeffery Lehman said in 2015: “Liberal education and academic inquiry are not fragile flowers that can survive only in perfect soil.” And now, NYU Shanghai students are expecting this flower to thrive under global pandemic conditions in 2021.