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Classes opened this month at the first Chinese-American joint venture university. It's called NYU Shanghai. And its goal is to educate a new generation of students who can speak English and Mandarin and who can navigate both U.S. and Chinese culture. Sounds like it'll cost a bundle, but not necessarily. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai that the school is offering huge tuition breaks for many first year students who are willing to take the plunge.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, no.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I got this. I got this.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: It's a Friday evening after the first week of classes. Some American students are filling in a map on a whiteboard for fun.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm totally kidding.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Ooh, Switzerland's in here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: That's Mongolia.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Mongolia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Are these - are these the stans?
STEPHANIE ULAN: I'm Stephanie Ulan. I'm from New York City.
LANGFITT: Where in New York?
ULAN: Queens, Flushing, Queens.
LANGFITT: Ulan came here to study international relations. She says the first few weeks in Shanghai are already challenging her.
ULAN: It pushes me a lot more here. I'd message my friends, and they're all there at United States colleges, and they're all very, like, wow, this is so awesome. I party every night. And I'm thinking, like, wow, I need to find someone who speaks Chinese, because I want to eat lunch today. You know, I'm going to learn the language, and I'm going to learn how to adapt to new situations. I wouldn't get that in New York City.
LANGFITT: But originally, that's just where Ulan wanted to go. She applied to New York University in Manhattan. The school offered her a generous scholarship but told her and her dad they'd still have to take out big loans.
ULAN: My father is 62 years old. There was a big scene. He like flipped out because he was like, I can't do that. Like, I can't take that money, and I don't want to put it on her.
LANGFITT: Then NYU offered a better deal, if she came to the new Shanghai campus where she'd applied as an afterthought.
ULAN: Here, I've got a full ride and even a refund to help pay for my plane ticket and food and other necessities.
RON ULAN: I was a little bit flabbergasted.
LANGFITT: This is Ron Ulan, Stephanie's dad. He works as a computer programmer with the New York City Police Department. Ron says he lives check to check.
ULAN: NYU, so prestige university, at least think of it as a prestige university. a scholarship that's worth about $228,000. How can you turn that down?
LANGFITT: Stephanie Ulan wasn't the only American student to get financial aid. a half dozen others told me they either got huge discounts or free tuition. Ron Ulan suspects NYU is so generous because it wanted to attract quality students to a new program.
JEFF LEHMAN: My name is Jeff Lehman, and I am the vice chancellor of NYU Shanghai.
LANGFITT: Lehman says the school is able to offer big scholarships because of private donors, including Chinese interested in reforming the country's education system.
LEHMAN: In the early years, we've benefitted from tremendous philanthropic support. As we prove ourselves, as we develop a strong track record of achievement, I very much hope that that kind of support will translate into the creation of a great endowment.
LANGFITT: The inaugural class of 300 is nearly split between Chinese and international students, including 90 from the U.S. Every foreign student roams with one from China. The attraction for Chinese students is getting a Western education without leaving home or draining their parents' bank accounts. The Shanghai government pays roughly two-thirds of their $45,000 annual tuition bill.
YANG XIRAN: I'm Yang Xiran. I'm from Sichuan.
LANGFITT: Yang grew up in a town in southwestern China. She came to NYU Shanghai to get away from the country's rouge style of teaching and to engage with professors.
XIRAN: The teachers want you to be involved in the class more. Like, they want you to ask why. Like, in my high school, the teacher just kept talking.
LANGFITT: They talked the entire class?
CAI XINGYANG: My name is Cai Xingyang, and I'm from Jaingsu Province.
LANGFITT: Cai claims the classrooms here much freer than traditional Chinese ones. In the first week, students discuss politically-sensitive topics such as the 1989 democracy movement which ended in slaughter.
When Cai tried to address the subject back at her Chinese high school, it didn't go well.
XINGYANG: I said my - today, my topic is Tiananmen uprising. And my teacher said, don't say that again.
LANGFITT: Were you able to give your presentation, or did she stop you?
XINGYANG: That day, I just didn't do my presentation. But the next time, I chose another topic about food.
LANGFITT: One thing Cai finds challenging at NYU Shanghai is the language. All classes are taught in English.
XINGYANG: Sometimes I just can't understand all the things my classmates and my professors said, and I do practice listening every day.
LANGFITT: How much do you think you don't understand? What percentage would you say so far?
XINGYANG: Maybe 30 percent.
LANGFITT: Some faculty in New York worry that the university, which also has a campus in Abu Dhabi, has expanded too quickly, straining resources. Rebecca Karl is a faculty senator and China scholar. She says that as professors head overseas to staff other campuses, NYU New York suffers.
REBECCA KARL: In the senate committees that I'm in, the complaint has been persistent about Abu Dhabi, particularly from such places as the economics department, who have had trouble finding professors to teach the large intro courses here in New York because their professors are going abroad.
LANGFITT: Jeff Lehman says Shanghai has minimal impact on New York. Of the 50 faculty here this year, he says only 15 are from the Manhattan campus. And he adds...
LEHMAN: Only three of them are here for the whole year.
RICHARD VEDDER, CENTER FOR COLLEGE AFFORDABILITY AND PRODUCTIVITY: I think schools like NYU are in a little bit of a difficult situation.
LANGFITT: Richard Vedder runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington think thank. He says with students balking at high tuitions and endowment growth slow, some schools like NYU are looking to other countries.
PRODUCTIVITY: I think there's a financial motive. They want to have a top, national reputation, and they do have a good reputation, but they don't have the resources or the historical prestige that the Harvards have. So a school like NYU has to look for new places to expand its franchise and also to make some money.
LANGFITT: What does Shanghai stand to gain from the partnership? For one thing: prestige. NYU is widely respected. The local government is giving the school rent-free use of a 15-story building, estimated to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in China's Wall Street, Lujiazui.
YU LIZHONG: That would really help the future development and image of Lujiazui.
LANGFITT: Yu Lizhong is the chancellor of NYU Shanghai. He says in addition to boosting the city's profile, NYU can also help reform China's oft-criticized educational system. In fact, Yu says, it's already happening. NYU Shanghai is a partnership with the city's East China Normal University. When prospective students interview there, they used to sit and wait with nothing to eat or drink. After watching NYU's more gracious approach, Yu says East China Normal, known as ECNU, changed.
LIZHONG: Now, ECNU also prepares some, you know, tea, coffee, some dessert for the students to make them comfortable, to be respected.
LANGFITT: That sounds small, but it's a significant change. In China's hierarchical education system, a prospective student is seen as a supplicant, not a consumer. Of course, NYU Shanghai has far bigger goals. They include building an undergraduate student body of 2,000 and developing a sustainable way to fund the school. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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