NYU President Linda G. Mills at Commencement 2024

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May 19 2024

In 1938, my family was living in Vienna amid the rise of Nazism. Several countries had strict immigration policies, including the United States, which prevented many Jews from finding their way to safety. My immediate family was saved by an entertainment lawyer living in Los Angeles named Martin Gang. Martin provided the affidavits and financial backing that my grandparents and my mother needed to emigrate to the United States. Others, however—like my grandmother’s sister Jenny Berger—did not have a contact in the U.S. She and her family became increasingly desperate to find a way out of Europe. They learned of a surprising opportunity: Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat posted to Vienna, was offering visas to Austrian Jews willing to travel to China.

On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1939, Jenny visited the steamship company in Vienna to inquire about tickets to Shanghai. She was told there were none left. She was also told that if she came again on Monday, they might have more. Not wanting to lose her place in line, she stepped outside and waited. She slept on the street Friday night then Saturday night and Sunday night, too. A line formed behind her. When she entered the office Monday morning, lifesaving news: tickets were available. She booked passage for herself, her husband, and their two-year-old son, Gustav. The journey took a month. My family—along with nearly 30,000 other European Jews—found safety in Shanghai. Years back, when I spoke to Jenny’s daughter Ellen, who was born right here in this great city, I asked her what it meant: “We were saved because of China,” she said. Mr. Ho's bravery and compassion rescued thousands of Austrian Jews, including seven of my family members.

It is deeply heartening that at NYU Shanghai you too embody this spirit of bridging divides, taking risks, and developing a deep and abiding sense of our shared humanity.

You learn these skills in the classroom;through roommate assignments;when you study at other global sites;or even when you have a chance meeting with a student, walking along the waterfront. 

Today, the relationship between East and West has rarely been as important as it is now. Where others doubted that Western universities in China could thrive, NYU saw possibilities. You are a living testament to our success. On this special day, my sincerest congratulations to all of you. And my warmest welcome to Chairman Chesler and Trustees. Chancellor Tong; Vice Chancellor Lehman; Provost Waley-Cohen; Leadership from ECNU; And Mr. Yao Ming.

Faculty, families and friends too: Thank you for being with us on this significant day.

Congratulations to the NYU Shanghai Class of 2024.