Welcome to the New Normal

My words to the freshmen on the atypical first day of the semester:

A very warm welcome to all of you for joining The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and congratulations on embarking on a new and exciting journey of your life, even though at this very moment we are all going through a most turbulent time.  COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in every corner of the world, causing the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives and seriously disrupting the lives of many millions.  The education sector has also been gravely affected.  By successfully completing your secondary education and arriving here today, all of you deserve to be applauded for your steadfast resilience and determination.  

A very important part of the university experience, particularly in the first year, is to meet new people. However, as you know, it is a very different experience today, namely we are actually not meeting one another in-person, classes will go online, and many of you are in fact miles or even thousands of miles away from the campus under all the air traffic and border restrictions.  Notwithstanding these highly unusual circumstances, I want to assure you that we see every one of you as a valuable member of the vibrant CUHK community, and we are here to make every effort to give you a learning experience that is fruitful, engaging and inspiring as it should be.  Let us all stay optimistic that normalcy will return to campus one day, when the trees and the ponds, the learning commons and the coffee lounges, the sports courts and the running tracks, and all the memorable sites of CUHK will feature the presence of all of you.   

Today, I would like to share with you my thoughts on 4 relevant and timely topics.

1.  Classes and Campus Life Under Pandemic

Under the threat of the pandemic, schools and universities the world over have been making plans for the new normal.  We at CUHK are ready, thanks to the diligence and devotion of our academic, administrative and support staff.  A majority of classes in the Fall Term will be conducted online, except some essential laboratory or practicum sessions which will be offered in-person, subject to approval based on prudent health and safety considerations.  We have expended considerable effort and resources to ensure that the online teaching and learning activities at CUHK will achieve their educational objectives to the highest standards we have set.  We have upgraded and invested in both hardware and software, and our teachers have developed innovative pedagogical approaches to repeat or even surpass the success we had in online course delivery this past spring.  

The University has also put in place a comprehensive array of precautionary measures and emergency response protocols to ensure a clean, safe and heathy campus environment for academic and non-academic activities.  When the society becomes safe again, our campus will be ready to welcome you back to resume your classes and various other campus activities in a gradual manner.  To build a safe campus together, I call on your cooperation to strictly observe the rules and guidelines of infection control and physical distancing in all of your dealings and interactions within the four corners of our campus.  However, even under these unusual conditions, I can assure you that your university life here is no less real.  You will have meaningful rapport with friends, classmates and people you meet, virtually or in-person, in college activities, clubs and societies or extracurricular activities.  Your university years will be an important time of your life to make friends with different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives and cultivate these friendships into genuine, mutually beneficial and lifelong relationships.  

2.  Virtual Exchange Opportunity

COVID-19 has brought unprecedented changes to the world we know, the impact of which will last for months, if not years, to come.  We must adapt to the times in the face of these challenges now and in the future.  We have to prepare ourselves for the new normal, in the university and in the world at large, in a proactive manner.  Student exchange activities worldwide, a case in point, have been seriously disrupted by the pandemic.  At CUHK, we have not just sat back and closed shop.  Instead, we began to explore new possibilities and new formats in providing experiential learning opportunities to our students.  In response to international travel restrictions, CUHK has advocated a novel Virtual Student Exchange Programme operated on the platform of the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU).  APRU is a network of 55 leading universities in Asia, Australasia and the Americas.  The virtual student exchange programme that we put forward allows students to take academic courses and take part in co-curricular cultural and social programmes through digital platforms even when they are unable to leave their home countries.  It provides students with an immersive exchange experience by creating exposure to new ideas and cultures, and encounters with experts, academics and students from all around the world.  I very much encourage you to take part in this innovative program.   

3.  New Study Scheme on Sustainable Development

You may have learned from the orientation programmes that General Education is a hallmark of the whole-person education at CUHK.  This year, our University General Education (UGE) program also responds to global challenges with a special study scheme: Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)-GE Study Scheme.  The scheme leverages on CUHK being the co-host of the Hong Kong Chapter of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which aims to find practical solutions for the world’s sustainable development.  

Starting this year you can enroll in a list of GE courses, both on the University and the College level, that are related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identified by the United Nations that range from the eradication of poverty and hunger to finding affordable and clean energies.  Students taking these courses will get valuable experience in a voluntary activity related to the SDGs or social engagement.  I am sure that, in addition to acquiring a long view of the global challenges that humanity is facing, you will find the experience extremely helpful in your career planning as well as future development.

4.  Embracing Diversity and Inclusion

Solutions for today’s challenges, even without COVID-19, and many of tomorrow’s must be derived from the collective wisdom and concerted actions of people from different backgrounds, cultures, and disciplines.  In other words, no individual can afford to be or should be an island.  The path forward is always built on interactions and collaborations that are carried out with civility and mutual respect.  Under the new normal, it is important that you learn to take personal responsibility first and then care for and work with other people, people from different backgrounds and of different persuasions.  Openness and empathy are the passports to the new normal. 

Knowledge is never isolated from responsibilities and respect for others, as is encapsulated in the University’s motto: “Bo Wen Yue Li” (“Through Learning and Temperance to Virtue”).  Since the establishment of the University 57 years ago these core values have guided generations of CUHK faculty members, staff, students and alumni in their every action and word.  The humanistic spirit—the CUHK spirit—that we take pride in is about making knowledge-based and people-oriented contributions for the benefit of society and humankind at large.  In pursuing our mission, no effort has ever been, or will be, spared in making our campus an equal opportunity and rights-friendly community where differences are respected and opinions openly and rationally debated.  

These long-held beliefs and values have recently been given renewed emphasis with the introduction of the Diversity and Inclusion Policy which consolidates our many ongoing efforts and initiatives to further promulgate and promote openness, civility and inclusivity in our daily pursuits and interactions.  Yes, physical and geographic borders may be restricted, but we must keep our minds open, and we must not let our empathy be shuttered.

Dear students, as you embark on this once-in-a-life-time journey of your life, be sure to avail yourselves of every opportunity to be exposed to and learn about new things and gain new experience, whether virtual or face-to-face.  Let your every action be guided by your wisdom, goodwill, kindness and compassion, and a sense of community. You will be able to turn menace into meaning and risks into returns, develop solutions for setbacks, find purpose in problems, and bring about meaningful and benevolent impact on the lives of others and the world at large.  

This is what university education in the twenty-first century is about.  This is how you will make your University days both rewarding and relishing.  I have great faith in you, dear students.  Let me once again extend to all of you my hearty welcome to the CUHK family.


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