Today the first class of NYU Shanghai landed at East China Normal University.
One year ago, I also embarked on an adventure at NYU’s Shanghai center. Now these 300 freshmen will be part of a four-year experiment, to see what a joint US-China college in Shanghai can really produce. I’ve followed the development of the school, from the opening ceremony while I was in Shanghai last fall to watching applicants on weibo fawn over everything NYU Shanghai. They posted pictures of themselves in NYU Shanghai t-shirts and forwarded posts by the school chancellor, Yu Lizhong.
Some of those applicants are now part of the entering class. Many others did not get in, even those whose usernames once included the letters NYU.
The students who checked in today are the remains of an extensive selection process, which, from local TV reports, included social activities such as using balloons and other items to build something under a time limit. But the students, about half Chinese and half from overseas, also faced high academic requirements.
At first, Chancellor Yu’s statement last year at an information session that those who couldn’t enter China’s top universities shouldn’t consider NYU Shanghai seemed rather stringent. Since college admission in China is based solely on test scores, I thought an American school and admissions system could embrace students of different academic strengths. But China’s highest-ranking schools barely make the top hundred universities in the world, while NYU ranks in the 30s or 50s depending on the evaluation system.
From my computer in Beijing I see pictures of the students arriving at ECNU, staff greeting the newcomers, and a former professor of mine assuming her position as dean. The photos bring memories of my first week in Shanghai, when I discovered the city for the first time along with 120 other students. Now we know the city: the Cloud 9 mall, the Bund, Tianzifang, People’s Square and Lujiazhui. We’ve learned about the challenges migrant workers bring, the hukou system, the diminishing shikumen, and the idea of spectacle over reality.
I returned this summer for a week and saw the same local friends, the same stores, and the same subway system. I walked the same streets I got lost in a year ago, and now knew the best way to travel from place to place. Shanghai was about the same. But that one semester last fall had changed me. It had changed my friends. I found us all thinner, another year older, another year more mature, and focusing on the future rather than playing the weekend away. Shanghai, Fall 2012, was our catalyst to friendship and life.
In their next four years at Shanghai the new class of 300 students will learn and grow under a mixed Chinese and Western leadership. I wonder which will prevail, or if they will manage to thrive equally. I wonder how this partnership will affect future society. The high school graduates from all over the world who landed today in Shanghai will change, and I hope their interaction will result in better understanding of both Chinese and other cultures. May they meld into the international community of the future.