For two weeks in July, NYU Shanghai’s classrooms were filled with the voices of students a decade younger than usual - as some 40 Shanghai-based migrant youth from grades 5 to 7 joined the NYU Shanghai College and Career Lab (NYUSH CCL), a free summer camp designed to teach underprivileged children critical lessons about team building, decision-making, self-expression and becoming independent learners.
The faculty-designed, research-based, and student-led program was stacked with interactive activities, workshops, and classes by guest speakers, and storytelling and design activities with NYU Shanghai professors.
The summer program was organized by NYU Shanghai’s Office for Community Engaged Learning and Associate Professor Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng from NYU Steinhardt, who has long been a core part of the team that started NYU’s College and Career Lab in New York.
When Cherng arrived in Shanghai in September 2020, he reached out to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Office of Community Engaged Learning Director Diane Geng about building a program to address the specific needs of the children of migrant workers in Shanghai. Migrant children lack Shanghai hukou—household registration permits—meaning they are unable to take the college entrance examination in Shanghai. If they wish to strive for college admissions, they must return to their hometowns as early as late elementary or middle school. Their hometowns are often in rural areas where the quality of education lags far behind that of Shanghai.
“Sebastian’s vision matched perfectly with our mission to work with faculty in developing academic service learning initiatives that bridge authentic community-centered needs with undergraduate experiential learning,” said Geng.
The two spent months interviewing teachers, researchers, and nonprofit leaders with experience in rural and migrant youth education. They discovered there were few opportunities for migrant kids to explore career options and build social-emotional skills, so those became the focal point of NYUSH CCL.
Migrant students stepped up to gesture feelings of confusion and excitement about moving to a new place, while camp counselors (undergraduate students) stood frozen in place, embodying their reactions.
The NYU College and Career Lab in New York provided a grant to help fund the pilot program in Shanghai. To recruit youth participants, Cherng and Geng coordinated with Taiyanghua, a nonprofit organization that has provided extracurricular education to Shanghai’s migrant children for over a decade. Local education experts and members of NYU Shanghai’s own faculty, staff, and student community were recruited to help design and implement the camp activities. Office for Community Engaged Learning Coordinator Qian Chunhao assembled fourteen undergraduate camp counselors from NYU New York, NYU Abu Dhabi, and NYU Shanghai to serve as small group mentors for the youth throughout the camp.
“Many of my elementary school classmates, who were once migrant youth in Shanghai, have been through difficult times, and were unprepared when they returned to their hometowns,” said camp counselor and Zhejiang native Chen Hainuo NYU ’24. “I decided to join the program to help migrant youth today…[so] they would not feel as helpless and confused as my classmates once were.”
Many NYU Shanghai faculty volunteered for various camp roles. For example, Assistant Professor of Psychology Cui Lixian oversaw the social-emotional skills-building components of the camp. He also worked with Cherng and Miao Jia, Assistant Professor Faculty Fellow of Sociology, to design and implement the program evaluation. Music Faculty Wei Chen and Gabriel Song, and IMA Faculty Rodolfo Cossovich shared their personal life stories with the camp participants and gave highly engaging demonstrations of their work.
Dramatic performance played a key role in many camp activities as a playful way to introduce ideas about life changes, social relationships, and self-expression to the young group. One morning, students spread across a classroom floor, watching as their counselors acted out the story of a migrant youth facing a tough decision: leave her rural village where she lives with her grandparents, or move to Shanghai to be with her migrant parents and join a new school. Students in favor of venturing to Shanghai lined up on the main character’s left, while students who believed she should stay in her hometown lined up on the right. Although the scenario was the opposite situation that the migrant youth in the camp would be facing, it was intentionally designed to help them think through how to grapple with life changes that many would be imminently facing.
Camp-goers gradually felt more comfortable expressing and reflecting on their own views and attitudes. “I used to make fun of others, so in the drama session, I took on the role of a mocking classmate,” said 14-year-old Zhu Jianan from Huilai, Guangdong Province. “[But] now I realize that mocking doesn’t help in any situation—it just leads to fighting. We need communication and exchange of thoughts.”
“At times, some of the kids were difficult to approach, but I listened to them, shared their stories, and became part of their team,” said Hu Gang, a local drama education expert who facilitated the drama exercises. “They found their own voice and were able to speak up.”
“I became open, confident, and dared to ask questions,” said Lin Xue, a 13-year-old from Heqiu, Anhui Province. “The teachers and counselors were nice and friendly. I want to be like them because it helps getting along with others.”
On campus, students also heard life and career stories from Student Life Diversity Initiatives Specialist Joyce Tan and Leo Yao, the head chef of Sproutworks in the NYU Shanghai cafeteria. Class of 2021 alumna Kong Xiaoyan who grew up in a migrant family and shared her personal experiences with migrating from Shanghai to continue her schooling in a rural town. Guests who talked about different career paths included former Danone and PepsiCo marketing specialist Caroline Wu.
Chen Hainuo, the undergraduate camp counselor who is studying Applied Psychology, says that having an in-depth personal experience with the campers added another layer of meaning to the upcoming courses she will take in developmental psychology. “It’s an experience that fuels my passion for education and social service, and now I’m motivated to further explore these two fields in the future.”
“I often felt like I was looking at myself, as a child, while spending time with the children,” said E’jane Li ’22 from Johannesburg, South Africa. “As we grow up, most of us forget that we are sometimes children too, that we need to be taken care of and given a little extra love, a little extra kindness. Each child is also unique….They have their individual ways of expressing themselves and their thoughts. It just takes some time to slow down and really notice that.”
1. The head chef of Sproutworks shared his career journey with the students and gave them a tour of the operations of the NYU Shanghai Cafeteria. 2. Rodolfo Cossovich, Assistant Arts Professor of IMA, gave a workshop in Chinese on using computers to design face masks.
Students gathered for a photo in the auditorium to celebrate the end of their NYU Shanghai summer camp experience.
The camp ended with students putting on a dramatic performance for family and friends. “Our NYU Shanghai student counselors were creative, patient, and respected our choices and ideas,” added 14-year-old Zhu. “Before...I didn’t know about NYU Shanghai, but this summer camp helped me to draw a future for myself. I now have dreams and expectations.”
Cherng and Geng hope to expand on NYUSH CCL’s successes to make the camp an annual program. “We look forward to reflecting on this year’s pilot experience to develop future programming to serve migrant youth populations that can involve even more interested NYU Shanghai undergraduates, faculty, and staff in the future,” said Geng.
Learn more about NYU Shanghai's Office of Community Engaged Learning.