Tong Shijun at Commencement 2022
Distinguished guests, dear students, dear parents, dear colleagues,
I’m both sad and happy to speak now to you from a dorm room in Shanghai. Like many of you, I’m a bit sad for not being able to speak to you in person from our campus or in a fancy place like the Oriental Center of Arts. But I am also happy - because your hard work in the last four years has brought us together today from all across the world. I’m happy also because the Omicron spike early this year in Shanghai allowed me to spend several weeks together with students in our residence halls, giving me a rare opportunity to better understand their essential needs.
Here I use the word “essential” deliberately in line with phrases such as “essential workers,” “essential services,” or “essential industries,” phrases familiar to us since the outbreak of the pandemic two and a half years ago. As American philosopher Michael Sandel said in a recent book, “the pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reﬂect, at least ﬂeetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers.”
Among these “many,” as I came to realize later, are some of our own students. In the last six weeks as their neighbor, I was literally moved to tears at one moment, when I was shown a WeChat dialogue between a foreman worker and a student. In this dialogue, the student pleaded for a chance for him and his classmates to help the ayis who have been delivering meals since the beginning of the lockdown by taking over one day’s deliveries: “for you and the ayis who have chosen to stay with us during this difficult period to help us,” he said, “we haven’t been able to do anything to show our gratitude; but today is Mother’s Day, and we really want to do something today so ayis can have a moment to relax.”
I’m proud of the fact that our students, students of NYU Shanghai, have learnt, as Sandel said following the passage quoted above, to tell the difference between “the money we make” and the “value of our contribution to the common good.” Compared with other achievements you have made in the last four years, my dear students, the fact that you ask the essential question of 'What can I do for others?' rather than 'What can I get from others?' makes me proud to be your Chancellor.
“How to contribute more to the common good,” in my view, is not only an essential question in our individual lives, but also an essential question for a school like NYU Shanghai. Since its establishment ten years ago, NYU Shanghai has worked very hard to prepare its students for their future social role not only as national citizens, but also as patriotic world citizens.
In order for you to be better prepared for the task of contributing more to the common good of the whole world, my dear students, NYU Shanghai’s faculty, staff, and your parents together have done so many things in the last four years that you perhaps cannot be too grateful to them for their love and care. But you also have so many reasons to be proud of yourselves, for during your undergraduate period, especially in its second half, you had to overcome so many unusual difficulties in our natural and social surroundings.
To say that we can learn a lot more from our experiences in the times of pandemic, of course, is not to say that we should celebrate our bad luck. If we were to choose from multiple ways of cultivating virtues such as resilience and solidarity, I’m afraid, none of us would prefer disasters and tragedies to those events and activities that help increase human wellness and human dignity. Many of us, I guess, would rather take Ms. Yang Yang as our role model, trying to learn a lot more from enduring unusual physical and mental challenges in athletic training and sports competitions.
But it is my sincere hope that from now on, not only the e-learning skills that you’ve gained, but also the moral and personal virtues that you have shown and you have cultivated in these challenging semesters, will be your most cherished assets along your personal journey in the future. Along with all the academic progress you’ve made at NYU Shanghai, these skills and virtues will hopefully provide you with tremendous advantages as you navigate the world as NYU alumni.
I would like to conclude my speech with the following sincere wish, then: May the achievements you will make in the future be clear evidence of the essential values taught and practiced at NYU Shanghai, and may your life in the future be empowered and enriched by those virtues that have been cultivated by your efforts to increase, rather than reduce, human wellness and human dignity.