Graphic by Zoe Hu/The Gazelle

Purple Fiction: The Global NYU Identity That Wasn’t

New York University. That is, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU New York and NYU Shanghai. Three continents, three cities and three campuses. Separate administration, ...

Dec 5, 2015

Graphic by Zoe Hu/The Gazelle
New York University. That is, NYU Abu Dhabi, NYU New York and NYU Shanghai. Three continents, three cities and three campuses. Separate administration, financial and registrar offices. Different demographic profiles, distinct academic standards and unique student bodies.
New York University. That is, three university experiences mashed into one identity; all connected by one viole(n)t love for Albert, one mandatory Sexton hug and one diploma.
New York University. That is, a Global Network University.
As one GNU, what is it that connects the three degree-granting campuses? Are we merely connected by the common name NYU, or is there something else that allows for a sense of community to grow across the three campuses?

Presence of the Global

Even as a New York student spending only one semester in Abu Dhabi, I can pinpoint the buzzwords that NYUAD is proud to distinguish its students with. Global Leaders and multiculturalism are only a few of the terms that this campus propagates during Marhaba week. In New York, we get bombarded with the notion that “the city is our campus,” and that NYU is “in and of the city” during Welcome Week. Seems far less global, doesn’t it?
If I were to mention the concept of the GNU to any Abu Dhabi or Shanghai student, they would know what I am talking about. If I ask a New York student, they might say they have heard the term, but that does not imply they are aware of the difference between study away sites and portal campuses. The acronym GNU is even less-known on the New York campus.
When a New York student is familiar with what the GNU connotes, that either means they studied abroad themselves — which about 40 percent of the over 20,000 undergraduates do — or are very interested or involved in university matters, which to my knowledge not many are, or have spent enough time around John Sexton, for example, by learning about epicycles in his Government and Religion class.

Understanding of the GNU

So why does it seem that we, the New York students, care so little about NYU’s GNU project?
My attempt to answer that question is three-fold. For one, I realized that global is a more graspable concept at NYUAD and presumably also at NYUSH. Where international students represent close to 50 percent of the student body in Shanghai, and a clear majority in Abu Dhabi, I feel like one of the few who do not consider themselves U.S. American in New York — which has approximately 20 percent international students.
The names NYUAD and NYUSH reveal the dual locations and global identity of the respective campuses. NYUNY encourages a New York-centric understanding of NYU: New York students would never actually say, “I go to NYU in New York.” Again, the notion of global citizenship is far more present in the new portal campuses through the campuses’ actual names.
Furthermore, the administration of both portal campuses explains NYU’s global structure much more effectively to their students. In Abu Dhabi and Shanghai the presence of three degree-granting campuses is clearly portrayed. In New York, however, global mostly represents the opportunity to study abroad, whether at study away sites or portal campuses.
The way I visualize it is as follows: where Abu Dhabi and Shanghai students understand NYU as presented in Figure 2, I have the impression that many students in New York understand it as represented in Figure 1, or some confused combination of the two.
figure 2
The figures are a very simple illustration of the change NYU has undergone as an institution. The transformation in question began with the introduction of the two additional degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai.
Before NYU identified as a GNU, NYU meant the New York campus with its study away opportunities. When the portal campuses were introduced, NYU did not automatically imply New York campus anymore. Now, NYU can mean all three campuses in their different locations. Whereas NYUAD and NYUSH had the difficult task of defining themselves as new campuses, the New York campus had to begin the process of understanding that it did not represent the whole of NYU anymore.
Hence, the New York administration had to reframe its presentation of the NYU structure. Unfortunately, this imperative was not carried out in practice. For New York students, the opening of portal campuses felt equivalent to the addition of more study away sites. New York students did not realize that there has been a change in NYU’s structure. Personally, I don’t think that the administration did an appropriate job in clarifying the difference.
As a result, NYUNY lags behind NYUAD and NYUSH concerning its understanding of the concept of the GNU.

Campus Comparisons

Despite realizing that the campuses are at different stages of their understanding of the GNU, I’ve asked myself whether the different campuses want to be associated with one another at all.
During my conversations with Abu Dhabi and Shanghai students, I sensed a strong urge to compare the different campuses, which can too easily result in a hierarchical perception of the GNU.
For example, I have often heard that both Abu Dhabi and Shanghai students feel as if New York students display a sense of superiority above the other two campuses. However, I believe that it is accidental ignorance rather than superiority that causes New York students to disregard other portal campuses.
The lack of a persistent information flow between degree-granting NYU campuses, and the difference between study away sites and portal campuses, seems to have resulted in widespread misunderstandigns among the New York student body.
Another display of superiority that I sensed was during various conversations with Abu Dhabi students who prefered NYUAD to be seen as a separate entity from NYU and NYUNY, the reason being allegedly differing academic standards across campuses.
Evidently, the portal campuses have profited from NYU’s name and reputation as a brand. But does a common name necessarily imply a common identity? The feeling that NYUAD has some higher academic standard than NYUNY demonstrates that a shared understanding of the concept of a GNU is not the only requirement in creating a common identity across campuses.
What clearly binds us together is the overarching name of NYU, and the U.S. American NYU degree that we will all receive. Whether we want to expand our common identity further depends on all of us.
I believe we must accept that a common identity across the three campuses is a very unrealistic project, as it would compromise the uniqueness of each campus. With so much individualism across all campuses, it is difficult enough to create a sense of community within each campus on its own, especially for New York’s 50,000 students.
In the end, what creates a sense of community across the three campuses are the unique experiences of studying abroad. The cross-campus friendships, only encountered during study away, are what brings together the GNU. Cross-campus relationships have not only brought a deeper appreciation for the Global Network, but from my personal standpoint, have also enriched my university experience.
Even though I believe it is impossible to create a common identity across the campuses, I feel a certain sense of solidarity towards NYU students as a whole. Maybe it results precisely from the opportunity to access such a diverse and wide spectrum of identities that all undergraduate students of the NYU community can identify with. We may not have a common identity, but we share a unique university experience.
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