NYU Washington, DC Student Jeffrey Ngo on Activism and Academics in the Nation’s Capital

Jeffrey Ngo
What is your school affiliation and what year are you? What is your major?
I am an undergrad junior at the College of Arts and Science, double majoring in History and Journalism.
What inspired you to study in Washington, DC?
NYU currently has 13 global academic centers and campuses, so it is definitely worth grabbing an opportunity to study away. As an international student, Washington, D.C. is the perfect choice for me, because I can experience a different city while staying in America. New York and D.C. are two important cities in their own ways. As a journalism major, it is especially nice to explore different environments: New York is more like an economic and cultural hub, whereas D.C. is place for politicians and policy-makers. The two are also very close to each other, so I travel between them frequently.
How has your experience been thus far?
D.C. may be the most vibrant place many people will ever live in their entire life, but I come from Hong Kong and study at NYU, so D.C. in comparison is really calm and quiet to me. During the weekdays it is quite nice actually, but once it gets dark and during the weekends, it becomes a ghost town. A semester away from the super-busy urban life is great, and D.C. indeed has a lot to offer. My favorite class here is Investigating Journalism; my professor, Dan Vergano, really takes advantage of our being in Washington. In the context of All the President’s Men — one of the course’s required readings — he has taken us to the headquarters of the Washington Post, the White House, and right outside of the Watergate complex, where the political scandal of Richard Nixon all began. Seeing these places enables us to get more out of the class than we otherwise would have if we were taking the class back in New York.
Where are you interning and how have you found the internship experience?
I intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History where I work for the Division and Home and Community Life. I found the internship with assistance from NYU D.C. I study 20th century Chicago, with a research focus on popular music history and intellectual history. I think the work at the museum matches perfectly with my two majors: I can apply my knowledge in History as well as my passion in Journalism to make complex ideas accessible to the general public. I am enjoying it a lot so far.
I understand that you are from Hong Kong. How has it felt to observe the political upheaval in your home from the political heart of the United States? I also understand you have organized a solidarity movement, can you tell us about that?
This year, many core democratic values that Hong Kongers pride themselves on have been threatened. When I applied to study in D.C. back in February, not much had happened. Beginning with the assault on Kevin Lau — the former chief editor of Ming Pao, a pro-democratic newspaper in Hong Kong — so much has gone on. The ongoing occupy movement was sparked by Beijing’s decision on August 31, which states that candidates wishing to stand for the Chief Executive election of 2017 must first gain approval from half of the nominating committee, comprised mostly of tycoons and social elites in favor of the government. This process will allow China to screen out any opposition, and hence, is undemocratic.
Had I known about these things happening now, I would definitely have applied to the D.C. program in another semester; but of course, none of these were predictable. There is more going on in New York related to Hong Kong as it has a much larger Chinese community. They invited me to speak at a press conference on September 1 immediately following Beijing’s announcement, and I literally booked my bus ticket to New York just hours before the trip, with no time to think or plan. It was a pretty crazy experience. Since then, I have been involved in co-organizing several protests both in D.C. and New York. Through social media, we also formed a strong network of overseas Hong Kongers from all across the world in solidarity with the protests back home. We decided that on October 1 — China’s National Day — we would each lead a rally and over 50 cities ended up joining.
Here in D.C., our protest was originally going to be held outside of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. We applied for a permit last minute to gather right outside of the White House, and it was approved! It was even more significant on that day because the Obama Administration just issued a statement earlier in response to the online petition that had received 100,000 signatures, urging America to “support Hong Kong democracy and prevent a second Tiananmen Massacre.” The White House’s response clearly conveyed that message.
I played the guitar and led the protesters to sing several Cantonese theme songs of the Umbrella Revolution outside of the White House. Organizing this has been one of the most interesting things I have ever done; the experience with, for example, communicating and negotiating with the police department, is unique and invaluable. Washington, D.C. itself is the product of a winning war for freedom and democracy, while the White House is its heart. So when a similar struggle for freedom and democracy is has broken out in my hometown, this protest was significant in the sense that we were able to be there and spread our message.
Jeffrey Ngo 2
What has happened since the rally?
Later that night, I got a call from a representative of the Wei Jingsheng Foundation, founded and named after the famous activist, who fought for democracy in China during the 1970s and was imprisoned for 18 years. I was informed about a Congressional event taking place the next day, which they wanted to add Hong Kong to the agenda because of the ongoing events. Our group of students, most of us who just met each other, decided to go. Among others in Congress, we met and addressed Hong Kong’s situation to Representative Frank Wolf, who has been a long-term advocate for human rights in China.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time in DC?
I spoke at Newsday, a BBC news show, back in mid-September when the class boycotts first broke out in Hong Kong. I am a Journalism major so I am familiar with the newsroom and with interviewing people, but being interviewed felt completely different. I was experiencing news production at a truly international level: I spoke at the Washington, D.C. bureau, the anchor who asked me questions was in Singapore, and the control room was in London. After the show, they told me that I just spoke in front of a couple million people, who, from every corner around the world, watched it live from the BBC World News channel. It is still unimaginable even now when I think back.
I have to admit it is difficult at times to keep up with my academic work while simultaneously having to do so many other things, especially with everything going on back home. I sincerely thank some of my professors who are very helpful and understanding of what I am going through. I admire Americans, because they are born with free speech and a democratic system — something they can rightfully take for granted — which the people before them have fought hard for. Unfortunately, many often fail to notice that this is not the case in other parts of the world. As I would argue, something akin to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or more recently, to Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights Movement, is being staged in my hometown now: people are standing up to say, “This is enough”; people are standing up to show that they no longer wish to live their life confined by an unjust.
I try to do whatever I can overseas to support them, because I consider Hong Kong home. When I return there one day after I graduate, I wish to return to a land free from oppression. At the end of the day, I am confident that what I am doing is correct, because I genuinely care about my hometown and my country.
I came to Washington, D.C. since I have a strong interest in politics and that I believe freedom and democracy are universal values. Martin Luther King is one of the people I respect the most. He dedicated his life to leading massive civil disobedience movements to fight for what he believed was correct. I visited the Lincoln Memorial a while ago and stood in the exact spot where Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech urging an end to racism 51 years ago. Today, civil disobedience is the model that Hong Kong protesters have adopted in their fight for universal suffrage and a clean government. This is not an easy path, but just like every Hong Konger out there in the streets, I will do anything I can, so later generations can live in a freer and brighter future.
Jeffrey Ngo with sign supporting HK

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