During the start of the fall semester, amongst the hassle of picking and choosing to be a part of student clubs, I came across a poster for the LEAD program. Promising to be a space “to cultivate diversity and social justice awareness, practice allyship and inclusive leadership, and create positive change on campus,” the program seemed promising. However, due to my previous experiences with similar programs, I had a few presumptions – the biggest of it all tokenism. Would this be just another program posing as an inclusive and impactful space, while its sole purpose of existence is to make the university look good while nothing fruitful is being achieved? As I applied, the desire to experience and analyze the program for myself became a major reason.

LEAD Program is a non-selective program. They see your willingness to join the program as enough of a qualification for you to be considered after submitting your application. The program consists of four stages: Diversity in Dialogue, Diversity in Action, Diversity in Engagement and Diversity in Leadership. The program starts at the foundational level, where the students have the opportunity to engage in weekly discussions about concepts and issues relating but not limited to gender, class, sexuality, and intersectionality. Upon students’ personal preferences and willingness to continue, the next stages include designing a project (individually or collaboratively) with help from the university, helping the staff behind the program hold campus wide events regarding social justice and diversity, and finally joining the staff to facilitate the new batch of participant students at the foundational level.

As the weeks rolled out, session after session, I realized that some of the most enriching conversations I had the whole semester must be credited to the program. One of the more effective strategies that made it possible was the Program’s refusal to give in to the assumption that every participant is coming into the program with some previous knowledge of the concepts in the curriculum. It allowed everyone, from different levels of understanding, to come together and create an environment that fizzled with thoughts and experiences. Providing a unique worldview and effort to achieve a balanced understanding of our surroundings. It proved to be a great place to meet like-minded equity driven individuals: individuals with specific identities, and unique perspectives. The college experience might be a bit difficult to navigate, especially when it concerns socialization and interaction with other students. It is tricky to navigate when one realizes that the human mind is not a monolith (and certainly not a reflection of our own), that not everyone thinks or views the world in the same way as we do. Therefore, the existence of prejudice and bias continues to be a reality, which can be deeply ingrained in a person’s thought patterns and behaviors.. In such a case, it is a rewarding experience when an individual is able to find a community that ensures solidarity, acceptance, and understanding of the human identity. 

However, such an experience is majorly dependent on chance i.e.  having good facilitators or having a batch of participants who are involved. In the initial days, awkward silences and self-awareness made it hard for our facilitators to create a free-flowing environment. Furthermore, one question that occupied me consistently was whether there was any value in the program or not. I posed the same question to my facilitator, Tate Pan, Class of 2024. For Tate, he felt like he did not know what he would do without the program. With other students and facilitators, he feels “as if he is closely working with them” and that gives him a reason to continue. Tate elaborated that “The program itself is a stepping stone. It’s not just about one person’s personal effort, rather it’s about the solidarity we have built as a community and the work we are trying to do together which is the most rewarding part,”. Upon inquiring about why he chose to facilitate the program for a second time, he replied, “To me, it’s no longer a program anymore. I feel like I have already built solidarity with other students who are equally passionate about the program, and we are all doing the same thing, trying to make the campus a more diverse and inclusive place.” 

While individuals and their personal efforts remain visible, the applications for this year’s cohort were significantly lower than last year’s. Upon inquiring from fellow students, it was surprising to know that almost more than half of them were completely unaware of the Program. For a program that aims to achieve practical goals on the campus, regarding some of the most important issues in the world like representation, inclusion, and diversity, it is difficult to understand why the LEAD Program remains relatively unknown. Should the program receive special attention from Leadership at NYU Shanghai? I believe that it is not a question of should, rather, it is a must for the program to be taken more seriously. Visibility is key, and while joining the program is students’ personal preference, the program being unknown is alarming. Social Justice and diversity are not an added extra, they are crucial for the school’s environment to be safe, fulfilling and enriching. Therefore, the university management should give the program some extra attention.

When I asked about the program’s direct implication on the campus environment, Tate responded, “The direct implication would probably be a participant getting inspired and choosing to lead a more impactful and feminist life.” He also expressed, “Beyond that things are really not working. And so, at the moment, it’s hard to get a sense of the vibe at the campus and its general inclination.” On a lighter note, I also discussed how the LEAD Program application feels a bit too academic and scary, and while we agreed to the outlook of the Program being a possible reason for being a deterrent, Tate emphasized that while he believes for the program to be light on its participants, he expects them to come with a sense of responsibility towards the Program. He also mentioned how letting the participants help facilitate sessions is like giving the power back to them. This creates a more balanced environment and pushes and inspires them to consider taking the next step – from dialogue to action.

Once you feel inspired, you take all the actions in the world. The program is trying to do just that. An environment that teaches you when to take the space and when to leave it for others, NYU Shanghai’s LEAD Program has its heart in the right place, but it has yet to strengthen its roots in the school domain.