NYU Shanghai: A Double Edged Sword

In Shanghai, The Art of Travel Fall 2014, Tips by Benjamin Engler

In my experience, most of the students who end up at the NYU Shanghai study abroad site fall into one of three categories. The first is those students who have family connections to Shanghai or to China—this makes sense. Most of them speak a little Mandarin and have been to China many times before. The second group is those that want to shock everyone back home. They look at the list of possible abroad sites and say which is the farthest away from home. When they are too scared to go to Accra, they choose Shanghai. Finally, there is the group who has to come here because of their program. This is where I fall. Although I never would have chosen to come to Shanghai on my own accord, I think it has been an incredible learning experience.

That being said, I will strongly caution those who may consider coming here. It can be an incredibly frustrating and difficult experience for those that do not enter with the right mindset. One must be fully prepared to be regularly uncomfortable in their environment and accept that you are in a completely alternative system and way of life. To an extent, this is true of any abroad site, but I believe it is especially true in Shanghai—especially those students who come with no language ability.

This is also an interesting time to choose Shanghai as your study abroad choice. This is the first year of NYU Shanghai’s new campus being fully operative, and this is clearly noticeable. The administrative efficiency and quality of the physical space of this new academic center could certainly benefit from a few years of development. The campus is still being built, sometimes right under your feet. Some professors seem to be adjusting to their new role (likely recently transitioning out of college themselves) and the administrative staff often seems more concerned with projecting an image of competence than actually helping students with their issues. No doubt, NYU is committed to alleviating these concerns, but with anything new, it will take time. Perhaps in a few years, this will be the best study abroad option, but for now, I would say maybe take a second look at some of the other choices.

If you are looking for a more traditional study abroad experience, where school is secondary to your experience of traveling, and immersing in foreign cultures, this place may also not be for you. The workload is the same if not more than that of New York classes due to NYU Shanghai’s status as a fully functional 4-year institution, and the additional burden of a daily Chinese course ends up being very time consuming.

That being said, if you do choose Shanghai, you can certainly make it into a meaningful and memorable experience, you just have to push yourself. Push yourself to get out of the NYU bubble and explore the greater Shanghai metro area early in the semester. My biggest piece of advice for future students is to prepare to unprepared. Like I said, unless you come with a background in Mandarin or familiar with the Chinese culture, the first few days and weeks will feel daunting. Overall, despite some frustrations along the way, this has been an experience that I will hold with me for the rest of my life—one that pushed me to my limits and taught me perhaps more about myself than anything else.

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