Review on Studying Abroad at NYU Shanghai

In Art of Travel Spring 2016, Shanghai, Tips by Brian Greco

Studying away in Shanghai as an NYU student has been quite an experience. I am grateful for having had this opportunity—there are many lessons and memories I am taking with me, and there are also some important things to note if you are someone who is considering living abroad in China for a semester or year here in Shanghai as part of NYU’s network. There are so many ways to approach the topic, and endless discussion that I could embark on, but to distill the key points I will be doing a Q&A style using the questions listed as prompts for this week.

Would you recommend this study abroad site?

NYU Shanghai is a full-on portal campus that is part of the New York University global network (the other two being New York and Abu Dhabi). It is situated in one large building in the Pudong area of Shanghai, which is the hub for financial activity and modern architecture in this city, facing the more downtown cultural areas of Shanghai on the other side of the Huangpu river. There are around 900 students who attend and it is a self-standing degree-granting entity with your usual large range of major as well as some specific options for studies like Global China Studies and China-related courses.

I recommend NYU Shanghai for the NYU student who is seriously committed to themselves, to international learning, to the challenge of travel, and to the journey of embarking on something very different and very growth-inducing. I will say from the outset that it is not for the faint of heart, for someone who only wants a “lite”, comfortable travel experience that resembles what they already know from back home—and not for someone who does not want to engage with a language and culture that can be very challenging to break into for many.

I think studying at NYU Shanghai is profoundly helpful for creating an open mind and adapting in a way that you may have never before. While all the major facilities of NYU one expects, like top-quality education, interesting student events, library and wifi resources, and so on, are completely present and available, some of the aspects of student life and what fills one’s experience in terms of living, eating, studying, and socializing, are things to consider. I will explain more what I mean by this below.

What would it help to know in advance? What do you wish someone had told you?

I think NYU Shanghai is a very unique and pioneering university that is offering a new take on education in China and providing a space for Western students (and Chinese students alike) to experience a different kind of college life. I think as well, however, that it is largely still figuring out what it really is, what its vibe is, and how it all is put together. There is something that seems to be missing in terms of the identity of the school—not in a dire or problematic way, but I think partially as a result of being in an area of Shanghai which did not even exist 20 years ago as well as only being a few years old itself.

The school itself is quite small, not only in number of students or actual physical building space being entirely housed in one building, but also in terms of the social vibe that I felt being here for a semester. In short, I was reminded of being in high school. I hadn’t experienced this in a long time and it took me a while actually to readjust being in that kind of environment in conjunction with who I am having lived in New York City for almost two years before.

I don’t mean this in a loaded or derogatory way, but I think it’s important to be honest. I really don’t think I was clear on what I was getting into having been in such a big-school, New York mindset. That is to say, at NYU shanghai, you see the same people every day. You are all in one building. You walk by your teachers and friends at all times, so there’s no anonymity. There is one library, one cafeteria, and a bus to and from home.

At NYU New York (a distinction I now make having lived here, whereas prior it was simply “NYU’… isn’t the New York part a given?), weeks would go by and I would not see the same person walking down the street. I walked down Broadway or Fifth Avenue to go to class, and ate out every meal or made food at home. One definitely maintains a certain level of anonymity in New York. Some people say that that is a part of NYU they don’t like back home, i.e. that there is no “community” or campus feel and you miss out on the benefits of a smaller school, so at the very least, while I don’t think this is for me long term, it was interesting to experience a taste of that other college experience.

In addition to this sense of the structure of the school, there are other practicalities of living to be aware of, which I will continue into below.

NYU Shanghai Inside

If there are choices about where to live, what would you recommend?

Unfortunately, as per policy of NYU Shanghai which is based on the rules the Chinese government has for foreigners registering their residence in official locations, especially for students on student visas, it is required that all students live in NYU Shanghai residence halls, so there is no choice in housing in this respect.

The housing offered at NYU Shanghai had both disadvantages and advantages. In terms of strengths, at least speaking as a study-away student who chose the apartment-style option in a single room, the rooms were fairly spacious and offered ample space for bedroom, a large common room and well-stocked kitchen, and two bathrooms for four people, which all were aspects not easily boasted of in New York City or in many cities around the world, and for much less cost.

I never felt unsafe or particularly uncomfortable in the residence halls, and they were well staffed with security and maintenance staff. There were few issues besides some early hot water issues due to freezing pipes from odd weather in the beginning. The shuttle service was regular and reliable to and from the campus and the academic building as well.

But that brings up the main disadvantage: the location. The Jinqiao residence halls are around a 20 min drive or 35 min train ride from campus where all class and student life activity occurs, creating a significant expenditure of time that needs to be built in and creates a different kind of atmosphere as a student. If there is anything I could sincerely change about the way things are run, it would be to find a residence location that is closer to the campus. It really did cause me to feel isolated many times throughout the semester, and totally separate from what actually is going on in Shanghai the city. In fact, I would have built the campus in Puxi (other side of the river) if possible at all, but that’s besides the point… 😉

There are ways around this of course, for example by using the very convenient and quick train system that runs throughout Shanghai, or by using the abundant cheap taxis and Ubers that are around. The shuttle bus, as I said, was quite convenient, and with some effort, one could circumvent the location issue.

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What tips do you have about preparing in the weeks and months before the abroad semester begins?

I think NYU Shanghai could do a little better in terms of its “marketing” and communications for students who are not versed at all in the details of China and are looking at Shanghai as a study away site, not as a portal student, and that’s what I think a lot of my concerns came down to as far as the adjustment process.

For one, I wasn’t even really clear until I got here on this hugely important distinction here of “study away” vs. “portal student” as they call it, i.e. the students who go here full time for the 4 year program. In my mind, we were all studying away… we’re in China. But this is not the case, as for these students, this is their primary university and most of the resources are geared towards them. In short, I think there is a lot of lack of synergism and cross-check in the dynamics between NYU New York and NYU Shanghai and that there is a missed opportunity in terms of attracting New York students to China for a semester away.

To be specific, there is really not a whole lot available in terms of information and videos and pictures and other resources online about the nuances of how things work once you are on the ground here in China. I did not even find out what my living situation was until under 1 week before I stepped onto a plane, and a lot of details around visas, residence halls, academic processes, and the actual experience of being a student were completely all found out only upon getting here and actually being in China.

That aside, the other thing you will need to know is that YOU WILL NEED TO BE (AT LEAST ENGAGED IN) LEARNING CHINESE while you are here. Yes, I said it. You CANNOT have a full experience in China if you are not wanting to at least study some of the language, the ideal being to be fully interested in attaining skill in it.

English is not a thing in China. Yes, there are signs and announcements around modern Shanghai in English, and you might get by with some basic international vocabulary and phrases and pointing, but in China, practically no one speaks English. Make the effort as a foreigner to learn Chinese and you will be warmly embraced by most people. I put that in caps because I am passionate about the importance of studying Mandarin. Chinese is the language with the most native speakers in the entire world, and it’s very enriching to learn, and the resources at NYU Shanghai are absolutely there to help you. Avail yourself of them – this is the time!

What places have you discovered that you want to tell people about? 

Yes, there is room for improvement as I’ve explained above, and I could continue on and on in sharing the aspects that have shaped my experience here at NYU Shanghai, but this post must come to an end for now… (oh yes, that’s another thing… I’ve done more homework while here than the rest of my first three semester combined!). All that aside, there is simply nothing like NYU Shanghai to catapult you into one of the most unique and fascinating opportunities you can add to your educational arsenal.

What a cool thing to be able to live in CHINA, do something that most people would never even consider, and immerse yourself in the most populous nation in the world only of ever-increasing importance as we head into the next 50 years. I am so glad that I chose to come here and invest in this learning, and I will remember it for the rest of my life. I have made some wonderful friends, seen many awe-inspiring places and some that had me question everything, and I’m grateful for all of it.

I hope this helps anyone who is considering studying abroad at NYU Shanghai. I am happy to make myself a resource for questions here on Facebook if you would like to reach out. Thanks for reading, and wish you the best!

Brian Greco

Image source

  • NYU Shanghai Inside: Brian Greco
  • Brian Greco – NYU Shanghai: Brian Greco