The U.S. Ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, has identified NYU Shanghai as an important example of where people-to-people diplomacy is being conducted between the two countries.

“Americans and Chinese need to meet each other at a young age to understand that there’s a human connection there,” he told a China Town Hall, livestreamed from the embassy of the United States to China in Beijing in October 2023. It was hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR).

Young Americans should take a chance and “come over and study at NYU Shanghai, or Johns Hopkins in Nanjing, or at Schwarzman College in Tsinghua, or at Duke in Kunshan just north of Shanghai,” Burns said.

“I think it’ll pay off because it’s very important for Americans to see China, this enormous country, this extraordinary 5,000 year old culture to appreciate the dynamics here,” he added.

This type of people-to-people diplomacy, however, is being expanded by NYU Shanghai to include more than the Chinese and American students in its catchment.

In the Fall 2023 semester, it welcomed 442 new first-year students, the members of Class of 2027 hailing from 35 countries.

The Shanghai campus reported the most incoming international students of any other university in mainland China, with a ratio of international to Chinese students of approximately 1:1.3.

They’re joining a campus community that presently boasts a representation of 64 unique nationalities. 

And what’s unique to NYU Shanghai is that when students first attend, they can rely on the fact that their freshman roommate will hail from a country other than their own. As “China’s first Sino-US research university,” multiculturalism is at its core.

Ingrained in the university’s mission statement is the description of the community “where half are from China and half are from other lands.” 

In teaching, NYU Shanghai aspires to prepare its students for lives of discovery, satisfaction and contribution. They will study with superb teachers who nurture their capacity for original, rigorous, and critical thinking, and with diverse and intellectually gifted classmates. They will pursue a liberal education in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and mathematics. They will immerse themselves in English, the language of international communication. They will master the skills of cross-cultural effectiveness in a community where half are from China and half are from other lands. They will reflect upon the role that great cities play in human progress, and upon the interdependent relationship between China and the rest of the world.

Excerpt from NYU Shanghai Mission Statement

This 1:1 ratio of Chinese students to international students is a defining characteristic of each incoming undergraduate class, and it is highlighted in the school’s promotional material and brochures.

The university’s founding Vice-Chancellor, Jeffrey Lehman, is proud of the fact that “​​this is part of the design of NYU Shanghai.”

“When we were having the discussions in 2011 [about the founding of NYU Shanghai], this was one of the things that we thought would distinguish us from other educational experiences, [other] university experiences, not only at other Sino-Foreign joint venture universities, but also throughout the world,” he said.

It’s part of the message that he echoes to every first-year student during their orientation each year.

“Every student should be spending at least two hours a day actively engaging with someone who holds a different passport […] the best way to facilitate that is to give everybody a roommate who’s from a different country,” Lehman said. 

Due to Covid, however, this ratio on campus was disrupted. Students were spread across NYU’s various campuses and study-away sites, making use of the option to go local, or, in many cases, engaged in distance learning via Zoom across the globe.

As such, the freshman roommate policy was impossible to enforce fully, particularly for the classes of 2024 and 2025. NYU Shanghai’s associate dean of students, Adam Ebnit, said: “[While] we’re not requiring seniors to come back and live with someone of a different nationality, we certainly encourage it.”

The new Pudong campus and expansion of the center for student life help facilitate cross-cultural interaction. “I think that through all the different activities and resources available to students, that encourages students to participate and engage with one another,” he said.

But in Fall 2023, the founding policy was fully back in action. Freshmen students were living day to day in rooms composed of at least one Chinese national and one international and there was no sign or intention to change the policy. In fact, in the future, the office of student life “anticipates returning to a retention rate [between Freshmen year to Sophomore year roommate pairings] consistent to 30% or above.” 

In keeping with the mission of NYU Shanghai to train young people from around the world to master the skills of cross-cultural effectiveness, the office of student affairs has formalized several new centers – the Center for Student Belonging and the Center for Civic Engagement, Dean Ebnit said.

“The Center for Civic Engagement focuses on Chinese nationals and some requirements that the government mandates for our Chinese national students, but they also have the mission to provide opportunities and programs that will help integrate international students into life in China to learn about the culture, the people, and the society in general,” he said.

“The center for student belonging looks at all cultural identities, people from different backgrounds, and also supports niche communities to ensure they feel connected.”

In a separate interview with the National Committee on U.S. China Relations in September, 2023, Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen reaffirmed the university’s ethos.

“Our students learn how to handle themselves when they’re outside their comfort zone and don’t automatically know all the cultural references. They learn how to interact respectfully with people whose assumptions about life might be totally different from their own,” she said.

“They learn how to navigate situations where they aren’t sure if they just inadvertently insulted someone or someone insulted them, intentionally or not. They learn how to see the society and culture they are familiar with through the eyes of others,” the Provost said.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of these experiences and these skills on an individual level, a national level, and a global level,” she said.

Every interaction at NYU Shanghai is a chance to build lasting people-to-people relationships with peers from around the world. It is diplomacy that starts from your freshman room and extends from there.