Student Spotlight: Noel Konagai

Interviewer: Jamie Hoversen

First Year Undergraduate at New York University Shanghai

Noel Konagai grew up in Budapest, Hungary and graduated from Karinthy Frigyes Bilingual Gimnázium. Fall 2013 Noel enrolled at NYU Shanghai as part of the very first class to attend the university, which includes 295 students, 51% from mainland China and the rest coming from 35 different countries. Noel plans to major in Physics and has already begun making his mark on the university with his commitment to founding and developing globally and socially aware student organizations. The following interview with Noel offers unique insights into what it is like attending the first ever Sino-American University as well as the strong role students play in shaping and developing NYU Shanghai.

What motivated you to apply to and attend NYU Shanghai?

I aimed to study Liberal Arts in a multicultural environment. Since at NYU Shanghai we receive an American Liberal Arts education in a non-traditional environment, it was the perfect fit for me. During our classes we are strongly encouraged to think outside of the usual US-centric context, bring up examples from our home countries, and learn about other nations. Moreover, one of the cultures that I ardently wanted to learn about was China.
Besides the above, novelties always attracted me, since you have the opportunity to be in communication with the institution and give feedback on how you feel and what you see as areas of improvement. Now, as NYU Shanghai has never had a freshman class before, we are also the trailblazers of the first Sino-American University.

You are in the inaugural class at NYU Shanghai; what is it like being part of the first group of students to attend an institution?

Not only are we the inaugural class of a university, but also the inaugural class of the first Sino-American University. No one ever has created before an institution that brings the American Liberal Arts education to this Far Eastern environment.
As mentioned above, the inaugural class has the responsibility to be in a dialogue with the faculty and administration of the university. Whenever we feel there are areas where the university could be improved, we inform the institution. For example, at the very beginning the physics and the mathematics curriculum were incompatible. It was almost impossible to take classes in both disciplines, despite the overlapping nature of the areas. Thus, I initiated a discussion between the Mathematics and Physics department to solve this issue and enable us to attend classes in both disciplines without compromise. As a result, next year mathematics and physics students will be able to pursue an interdisciplinary academic career.
Since we are part of the first Sino-American University, we also represent China’s progress towards cosmopolitanism. Several media representatives came to our school to inquire about the education system that brings together East and West. Our students are often featured on Chinese television and in newspapers.

What was it like adjusting to the American style of education in addition to Chinese culture?

Having completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme in Hungary, I was used to discussion-based classes. However, seeing my multicultural peers in the classroom setting tremendously broadened my perspectives on today’s global issues, such as the topic of national identity in Quebec or Taiwanese independence.
On the other hand, adjusting to the Chinese culture challenged me.
In August, the only Chinese phrase that I knew was “ni hao” meaning “hello”; I was a cultural isolate at the very beginning. This year we are located at our partner university’s campus; even at the cafeteria I had to use Chinese to order food. Oftentimes, when I ordered a dish, I received something completely different from what I wanted. For example, once I tried to order stir-fried rice with beef and I received cold noodles with soy-sauced beef. At least I could successfully say “beef” in Chinese. However, day-by-day my Chinese improved. Currently, I can converse about basic topics with the staff at the cafeteria.
Furthermore, having two Chinese roommates enabled me to learn more about their culture outside of classrooms as well. Whenever we are in our rooms, we discuss various topics ranging from the Chinese mentality to Chinese politics.
In retrospect, throughout the first semester, I gained invaluable knowledge of Chinese culture that I am eager to share with those outside of the country.

What student clubs or activities have you become involved with, or want to become involved with at NYU Shanghai?

This semester, clubs worked mostly on setting up the programs for the next semester and the incoming class of next fall. Nonetheless, we had some inaugural events. I got involved with International Cultural Exchange (ICE) club, Undergraduate Business Association, Filmopolis, and Tennis Club.
The first club has a notable goal: it aims to break the ice between students of different cultures. Oftentimes, language barriers lead some students to think that their thoughts are not interesting, because they are not able to express them in a similarly eloquent way to the native speakers. On the other hand, those students whose English level is more advanced, they would like to get to know the shier peers.

New York University has a large global network, including degree granting campuses in New York City, Shanghai and Abu Dhabi, as well as international academic centers in 11 other countries. Do you plan to study outside of Shanghai during your time as an undergraduate?

NYU is a Global Network University. It is very common that students study abroad for several semesters at our academic centers or other portal campuses. At NYU Shanghai, we are required to spend at least one semester and up to three on one of these global sites.
I would like to spend my first two study abroad semesters in Abu Dhabi, and New York. NYU’s campus at Abu Dhabi has a very distinct feature: no nationality can form a majority within the university. Moreover, you receive an NYU liberal arts education in the heart of the Middle East, where the East meets the West. Spending one semester in Abu Dhabi would allow me to learn more about different cultures and the Middle East.
New York has the largest number of courses offered ranging from a computer engineering class about Artificial Intelligence to a pre-law class about Media Ethics. Owing to this variety, I would like to follow my passion for Aerospace Engineering in New York. As for my last study-abroad semester, I am undecided between Buenos Aires, Paris, and Madrid. At these academic centers I have the opportunity to improve my French or Spanish skills.

So far, what is your favorite thing about studying at NYU Shanghai?

I love that at NYU Shanghai there are no preceding traditions to be followed. If you have an idea, you can make it come true.
There are several start-up projects, including SILA Connections Shanghai of which I am co-founder. SILA is an organization that started in Abu Dhabi: its main aim is to solve global issues by going local. SILA addresses a wide array of topics such as environmentalism and examines how the host city can be improved in that area. It hosts an annual conference where university students get together into small groups and develop a resolution plan for a certain theme. The best one receives funding in order to realize the project within a year from the conference.
Any project like the above one can be realized at NYU Shanghai due to the pioneering nature of the university.