Joanna Waley-Cohen at Commencement 2020

May 29 2020

Watch Provost Joanna Waley-Cohen's entire speech at NYU Shanghai's 2020 Commencement on Youtube and Bilibili.


Chancellor Yu! President Hamilton! Vice-Chancellor Lehman! Friends! Colleagues! Parents! Ladies and Gentlemen! salute with me our students of the class of 2020! Dear students, on behalf of the whole NYU Shanghai community, from the bottom of my heart I offer you congratulations upon your graduation.

NYU Shanghai, like its parent institution, NYU, is a university in and of the city and in and of the world. It is a university a major part of whose mission is to develop its students to be globally minded citizens equipped with the special multicultural competence, adaptability, and empathy that we believe define the leaders of the twenty-first century. It is an institution founded on the great hope of contributing to the creation of a better world. And it is all those things at a time when pundits and commentators have been vying with one another to declare an end to globalization as a result of the global pandemic that has upended all of our lives over the past months, and, with that, contributing to a spread of, if not despair, then the end of hope for a better world.

What does this mean, and what does it mean for you, NYU Shanghai graduates of the Class of 2020?

 During this time of coronavirus, we have been exiled from all that is familiar and comfortable. Many of us have found ourselves living in unexpected places and unexpected circumstances. We have had to develop new notions of time and space, perhaps unexpectedly spending long periods of time in a childhood home not well adapted to the purpose, perhaps either in too close quarters with families and friends, or separated indefinitely from our loved ones and those we normally spend time with; perhaps unable to travel even short distances; and for some, compelled to complete self-isolation in unfamiliar surroundings. We have had to learn that certainty itself is uncertain, as we constantly make and remake our plans; and to reorder our priorities, as what really matters to us also seems to be in constant flux. The present into which you are graduating is different from the past, and the contours of the future into which you are stepping are more fluid than you might have anticipated. Is this unprecedented, or are there guidelines on which you can draw as you begin the next phase of your lives?

To address these questions I turned to two great writers of the 20th century, Albert Camus, a Frenchman writing in the aftermath of World War 2, and Lu Xun, the great Chinese writer of half a generation earlier, who articulated as no one else ever quite has a vision of China and the Chinese people. From these quite different vantage points, both wrote with penetrating insight about hope and despair in times of change.

Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague” is in part an allegory of the German occupation of France and about resistance to evil in the world but it is also a story about how to make meaning of our lives and about the heroism of simple goodness. The author writes eloquently about life in the city of Oran locked down during an outbreak of plague. The residents of Oran experienced a separation that was so sudden that no one was prepared for it in any way. From one moment to the next, no one could leave the city, and although those outside the gates were allowed back, it quickly became clear that the danger was too great. Trains and ships stopped coming; letters could not be sent, for fear of spreading infection; telephone lines were swiftly overburdened, and zoom, of course, did not exist. Feelings of exile and loneliness were pervasive. Thinking about the past–time with loved ones, for example--was painful, while to think about the future was to tempt fate; there was nothing but the uncomfortable present. At first people clung to their personal preoccupations, with the sense that each one of them was isolated and was free to make individual decisions, but gradually they realized that none of them is free. They were all caught in the plague; their own individual concerns suddenly were superseded by something bigger. For some this led to despair, but for most, others, it led to hope and to the creation of personal meaning through better understanding our common humanity. Camus shows that the meaning the plague created for the people of Oran was that they came to understand more clearly than before that to be human is to be connected, regardless of political or ideological difference, and that commitment to others is central to the human condition.

Lu Xun is well known to many of you. His writings show a great tension between hope and despair about China, which in his time many people thought must abandon its past in order to embrace its future. Its people were very divided, socially, economically and politically. Lu Xun stressed the importance of the will to find meaning even in moments of acute uncertainty, and of collective action for the greater good. Even in times of darkness he never lost his belief that something beautiful can be found in life. Lu Xun wrote memorably about hope in his famous story “My Old Home”, in which he describes a visit to a home he had not visited for 20 years, and the simultaneous shattering of some long held memories and creation of a new sense of hope for a better future. This deeply felt experience makes him afraid and optimistic all at once, and he muses to himself “Hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many pass one way, a road is made.”

Class of 2020, in all that you have done at NYU Shanghai over the past four years, and in all you have experienced this past semester, you have suffered difficulty and experienced joy, you have gained knowledge and developed skills, you have accumulated unbreakable human connections and deepened your moral and emotional maturity. As you step forward together into the next phase of your lives you will be forging a new path together. That itself is cause for hope, for you yourselves and for the contributions that you will make to the future and to a better world.  May those hopes be richly fulfilled for you all!

It is my honor to present to you this year’s student speakers, Isabel Adler and Pan Yunzhu.