“Ever since I was a freshman at NYU Shanghai, I knew that I wanted to be the Student Body President because I wanted to make the biggest difference that I possibly could for the students,” said Taylah Bland from her home in Sydney, Australia.
Ever since she was a young child growing up in Sydney, Taylah knew that she wanted to positively impact the lives of those around her. As she lead the NYU Shanghai student body through the unprecedented and tumultuous COVID-19 pandemic, the budding lawyer is well on her way to making her mark in the world.
Although her experience as Student Body President was far from ordinary, she did not let that slow her down or dim her bright light. From the get go she knew she was going to be facing a challenge that no other student leader in the history of NYU Shanghai had faced: how to lead a school through a terrifying and life-changing global pandemic.
Even while campaigning, she did not have the opportunity that her predecessors did to connect with her constituents face to face, but she made it her top priority to let every last person know who she was and that she was there to serve them.
“The campaign experience was different because it was all done remotely and I was never in Shanghai for any portion of it,” she recalled. “Although Wenxin, my Vice President, was in Shanghai and on campus, everything was conducted online, but we tried to make our presence as known as possible even though we were talking to students quite literally in every corner of the world.”
However, this unique, yet rewarding campaigning experience would only prepare her for the extraordinary tasks she would be faced with in the following academic year as president.
Taylah’s extensive student government experience without a doubt assisted in giving her the tools for success in this position. An unsuccessful run for class representative in her freshman year only further motivated her to work harder to serve fellow students to the best of her ability. That same year she went on to be Assistant Director for Global Affairs and eventually moved up to the director’s chair. Additionally, she served as the NYU Shanghai senator at New York campus and acted as London Site Ambassador during her study away there.
However, nothing could fully prepare her for the less than ideal circumstances under which she would operate in the highest student leadership position. She recalls the stress and concern felt during her first few weeks in the role, when the world seemed to completely shut down due to the uncertainty and fear brought about by the pandemic.
“A couple of weeks after I had been elected, I saw the mounting tensions and pressures that were rising in group chats,” she said. “People were not attacking each other, but the language that was being used wasn’t exactly the NYU Shanghai community spirit.”
However, it was this culmination of anxiety that inspired her game changing idea: a Google Form to collect student responses and through which students could pose questions.
“I eventually decided to take these concerns, put them into a form, and send them through,” she said. “I remember getting over a hundred messages on that form in that one day, but then more messages kept coming through.”
Although the initial outpouring of anger and unhappiness from her fellow students was overwhelming, this platform allowed her to act as the middleman between the student body and administration. She opened the communication lines and facilitated the transparency which made the students feel heard and their concerns validated and addressed.
Remaining ever so modest and humble, Taylah made sure to repeatedly emphasize the essential role NYU Shanghai’s administration has played throughout the entire pandemic and praise the receptiveness of leaders such as Vice-Chancellor Lehman, Provost Waley-Cohen, and Dean Pe.
“I think a lot of people fear administration and they think that administration doesn’t care about the students’ needs and don’t understand them,” she said. “However, they’ve all been very understanding and supportive of the student struggle. They did everything that was locally able and provided to them to help students get back to Shanghai.”
“It’s just a shame that unfortunately external circumstances will influence that. But I cannot fault how incredible they’ve been in being receptive to me, a student, literally having meetings with them every single week, emailing them at all hours of the day and night, trying to get help.”
Despite her humble nature, it is clear to both students and administration alike that Taylah has been NYU Shanghai’s personal superhero throughout her time as Student Body President. However, not only did she serve the student body in this capacity, but she also held the role of Global Vice Chair on the New York side of student government.
Thus, she fulfilled a dual role which she claims allows her to service students at every single global site in the NYU network. Moreover, as the government restrictions brought about by the pandemic did not allow her to leave Sydney, she also currently works several part-time jobs. When asked if she is superhuman, she brushes off the compliment with a light chuckle, but her ability to perform extraordinarily in so many roles is nothing short of impressive.
She credits her inspiration and capacity to do this work to her passion for making a difference and a strong support system at home.
“I love what I do and I think that’s what makes it all worth it,” she said. “When I have to get up at four or five in the morning to take conference calls with different sites, it’s because I love what I’m doing and that’s what drives me to continue doing it.
“It’s honestly a genuine passion for actually serving the students and trying to make actionable change because when you’re clawing yourself out of bed at those times, if you don’t love what you’re doing, it’s not going to work.”
Taylah also cites her parents and her younger sister as major influences in her path to leadership. “I think it’s always been instilled in me,” she said. “My parents pretty much served as the inspiration for me to progress and be able to take on this role. They always encouraged and inspired me to be a leader and to help others.
“I also think it helped that I had a younger sister as well, so I always felt like that aspect of my life put me in more of a leadership role, being more encouraging, more nurturing, things like that.”
Balance is also extremely important to Taylah while holding so many roles that demand so much of her. Despite being pulled in multiple directions, she always made sure to carve out some time for herself in order to avoid burnout.
“Very early on, I set out guidelines to make sure that I’m not being overwhelmed, while also meeting the students’ needs,” she said. “That has meant not being on call 24/7 like I used to be. I would take calls, conference calls and text messages all through the night, but I got to a stage where I had to say, okay, I’m allowed to have a couple hours of sleep.”
Taking some time away from the screen to do a walk, go to the gym, or just dance it out have also been major forms of stress relief for her. Aside from her student government, learning assistant and orientation ambassador roles, she also makes time to explore her creative side. At NYU Shanghai, she had been heavily involved with the Thespian Society as an actress, dancer and choreographer. This not only allowed her to connect with people, but develop her passion for performing and creating.
Anyone who knows Taylah Bland only has the most positive comments about her bubbly personality and kind nature. Facing bullying from a young age could have dulled her shine, but Taylah has only allowed these experiences to shape her into the caring and compassionate leader she is today.
“Early on I just sort of had to learn that not everyone’s going to like you,” she said. “However, all the way through, I didn’t compromise on wanting to do the best for people. I wasn’t going to let them win by removing myself from opportunities, experiences, and positions.
“I think that’s given me a really strong sense of resilience and capacity to empathize with people who are in a similar situation and always advocate that tomorrow will be better and that if you really stay true to yourself and believe in what you stand for, it doesn’t really matter what other people say.”
This positive attitude is still maintained today. Even in the face of a global pandemic, Taylah was not going to sit around and feel sorry for herself. Despite starting off feeling frustrated, she quickly turned things around and decided to look on the bright side.
“I created a checklist, and every time I found a new positive, I put it on the list,” she said. “Whether I was able to have a great conversation
in my online programming this morning, or the fact that I’m still able to continue my degree online, or I’m in a position at the moment where I’m safe and I don’t have to worry about exposure to the virus, whatever it might be, I just kept reminding myself of these.”
“I put them up on little post-it notes and put them around where I sit. It was flooding that space with positivity, which in turn shaped my mental state.”
This can-do attitude and general love for life has served her well throughout her twenty-two years and will continue to drive her towards future excellence. Even though Australia’s travel restrictions prevented her from graduating in-person with her class this past May, Taylah’s star continues to shine bright.
Although all of NYU Shanghai felt her absence as we slowly reconnect in Shanghai, her positive spirit is always there and we remain grateful for her contributions which have allowed us to be here.
As a Schwarzman scholar and a part of Tsinghua University’s class of 2022, this future criminal lawyer is sure to make her mark wherever she goes.