NYU Shanghai Student Affairs Division

Transitioning from a Chinese Advisor to a U.S. Assistant Dean:  A Conversation with Judy Li

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Ariel Guicheng Tan

January 11, 2019

In the summer of 2018, I interned at New York University, Shanghai (NYUSH) working for their student life team. Working in a Sino-American university expanded my understanding of the “internationalization of higher education.” This experience gave me a chance to better understand and reflect on student affairs practices and philosophies with practitioners experienced in both U.S. and Chinese higher education contexts.

Judy Li serves as the current Assistant Dean of Students at NYU Shanghai.  She was one of many insightful people I’ve connected with. As a former university advisor at the East China Normal University (ECNU), Judy had been at NYU Shanghai since it opened in 2011. I wanted to capture the discussions that I was fortunate enough to have with Judy and wanted to share them with graduate students and new professionals.  Understanding how student affairs practices are viewed and practiced on an international level has been a great opportunity for me. The following informational interview is a chance to share the international implementation of student affairs from a comparative perspective.

Can you tell me more about yourself and how did you begin your career in student affairs?

I graduated from the East China Normal University (ECNU) with a B.A. in Law and continued to pursue my M.A. in International Relations and Politics. As a very involved student leader, I became familiar with the departmental administration and operation. An opportunity came up as I was finishing up my degree to work at the School of Design, and I ended up staying at the ECNU as an advisor for approximately 160 students.

Because advisors manage academic advising and academic resources, it requires them to have some experiences working with school’s faculty and academic affairs. This means that many advisors stay within the schools and departments they’ve graduated from since school needs their insights to guide students. Most student affairs practitioners in China are recruited based on aligning skill sets from different majors.  Since student affairs as an academic discipline was and still is a new concept in China, many practitioners do not have a major related to this field. However, some schools have started to offer it as a concentration.

What about NYU Shanghai? How did you stumble across this position?

Because NYUSH aimed to be a Sino-American university, it recruited staff from both countries for better implementation and integration of practices. When the initial collaboration first took place in 2011, there were some visiting opportunities for ECNU staff to come to the New York campus and exchange practices. I picked up one of these opportunities and everything just happened naturally since then.

You’ve briefly discussed your role as an advisor in terms of academic advising, can you share with us more on what was your responsibilities as an advisor?

Chinese college students are organized in a cohort model, and advisors follow their assigned students for all 4 years until they graduate. Throughout my professional career, I have followed 160 students between 2007 through 2011 and created very meaningful relationships with them. When I was at ECNU, I was responsible for planning orientations for my class, organizing student activities, advising and overseeing student leaders, providing career-related information, mediating roommate conflict, giving financial aid guidance, awarding scholarships, managing crisis, giving basic counseling to students, teaching a class about current events or "adulting 101-like series”, and ultimately connecting students to the right resources if needed. So, in short, advisors in China are responsible for almost everything that a U.S. student affairs division would do.

What would be a comparable U.S. student affairs position?

I guess in a way we are like RAs because we are always available to be a point of contact for students and the time we spend with students. In addition to being a resource and service provider, Chinese advisors are also responsible for giving out recommendations, scholarships, and awards, which is a very significant responsibility. For example, some corporations will contact advisors directly for student recommendations for career opportunities instead of doing an open call for applications. While some of the school awards are voted by students, others are purely based on the discretion of advisors. With that being said, I think being an advisor in China demands you to have high moral standards because you hear stories about unethical practices. One thing my colleague and I have implemented was a formula that determines a student’s eligibility for different awards based on their year-round performances and improvements, which was very well-received by the community.

Besides all the responsibilities, I think Chinese advisors also receive a lot more respect from students due to the nature of their position and the student-administrator power dynamic. Since students know advisors will provide them with so many resources and opportunities, they are also more motivated to build these connections with their respective advisors.

What were some of the biggest differences working for ECNU and NYUSH? Any experiences that stand out between the two campuses?

The first thing I noticed is that professionals within U.S. student affairs follow a more office-oriented model, in which students seek a service by going to that particular office or department. In Chinese higher education, although there are offices responsible for school-wide events and major services like admission or financial aid, the advisors are the first person to connect with and provide services for students. In another word, advisors in Chinese colleges are the bridge between students and school administrations that manages everything. All advisors are on-call staff because we are the primary contact person for students.

I definitely see advantages and room for improvement for both U.S.-based schools and Chinese-based schools. At ECNU, students and advisors developed close to family relationships. Because of this, I could provide more personalized services and suggestions for my students. Since information was centralized through advisors, it increased service efficiency for students because there were no hidden loops or runarounds. But because advisors managed everything, it was a very energy-consuming and demanding position. As a Chinese advisor, I needed strong interpersonal skills and self-learning abilities. This required me to take initiative in learning about students’ needs and personalities, along with new policies and information from the school so I could support students better. Because I was always covering all areas, I didn’t have the time or resources to really build expertise in a particular functional area.

Here at NYUSH, everyone is very knowledgeable in their respective functional area. I think the division of functional areas allows us to spend 100% energy in perfecting our responsibilities. Because we operate like a system, we can support students with the highest quality of service. Students don’t have to only rely on one person to receive the help they need. I feel that the “system” practice makes orientation a crucial process because we must inform students about our offices to help them navigate and acclimate in this new environment. It is also important for us to connect them with the right resources to reduce additional loops and potential runaround. This type of practice relies on students to initiate the interaction and reach out. Whereas working as an ECNU advisor, the responsibilities were on me to reach out and initiate check-ins.

What are some differences between Chinese student affairs practices and those of U.S. practices?

I think the core difference is the concept of “heart-to-heart” that’s rooted in Chinese student affairs practice. Chinese advisors are required to have casual check-ins with all of their students frequently throughout the school year. This process is in place because our practice considers that people need to establish a relationship and trust prior to the discussion of school matters. Many students really do consider us as family members. We share a level of understanding with students that allows us to play key roles in crisis management: we can be more efficient and helpful than police or medical personnel in resolving issues due to our existing trust and relationship. Within Chinese higher education, we are starting to establish different offices for different functional areas similar to the U.S. model; however, advisors are still the core of the Chinese student affairs division.

In U.S. higher education practices, I think everything is established and systematic, and there are guidelines and standards for us to follow. Because different functional areas have defined responsibilities, I think in a way it protects these professionals from being overworked-because they only have to focus on one area. I also feel like there’s a better work-life balance (awareness) within U.S. higher education.

How did you modify your approach to your work and understanding of student affairs when you started working at NYUSH?

I exercised a level of reservation in the beginning. In my previous advisor role, because there were limited guidelines, I often used “gut feelings” and common practices to make decisions. We also focused more on the results instead of the procedure because different students might need me to utilize different tactics. However, because of U.S. guideline followed by NYUSH, I had to remind myself to refer to procedures and guidelines when dealing with various issues. I also became more aware of the intent vs. impact principle because there were lots of common practices that didn’t fit into the new regulations. For example, in helping with a student in crisis, my initial reaction would be to give crying students a hug first to calm them, a very common practice for a Chinese advisor especially since we know each other very well. However, at NYUSH, body contact isn’t a part of the crisis protocol and can have a deeper implication, therefore I would refrain myself from wanting to hug the student at the moment.

Besides new procedures, compliances to the U.S. regulation is another big difference from my previous practice. For example, FERPA is built on a very different philosophy from Chinese higher education: in China, there is an emphasis on “the school-family co-education” experience. In a nutshell, we consider family a part of a student’s education system, so we want there to be a collaboration between parents and the school. Chinese advisors communicate with parents about students’ current experiences, and parents provide important information for advisors to learn more about the student. This allows us to create the most informed decision and assistance for students. But at NYUSH, FERPA is the complete opposite as my previous practice, which can face challenges in the actual implementation due to cultural differences. For example, some partnered local authorities expect parents to be involved in resolving a student’s issue. This can lead to complication due to FERPA compliances. 

What do you enjoy the most about your job? Which part do you find it challenging?

When I was at ECNU, I loved the personal connections I built with my students. It was 4 years of relationship building with each student! It is a very validating feeling when students visit you, tell you about their new experiences, and share with you their new life events. I haven’t been able to have the same connection with students at NYUSH, mostly due to different structures and practices we have here. For challenges, students would just call about the silliest thing--WiFi connection issue at 3 AM, not having a good day at 9 PM. The blurred line between work and life was really challenging for me.

Here at NYUSH, I enjoy that every day I’m learning something new and I’m able to build expertise in different areas. I also love how there are more professional opportunities for me, such as taking part in the diversity education and learning more about related issues. I can be more detailed oriented and innovative in my daily work, also achieving an ideal work-life balance. In terms of challenges, we have to follow two different systems and guidelines, which could be difficult in actual practice. I also think as our freshman class keeps growing, we experience limited resources and high student expectations.

Ariel Guicheng Tan is a member of the 2018-19 NASPA Graduate Associate Program (GAP) and is a Master's Canditate at New York University studying Higher Education and Student Affairs. Ariel has worked as a in residence life, interned at NYU Shanghai, and has received several professional awards and recognition for her work on campus.  You can learn more about Ariel at www.arielgtan.com.

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