Moving home: the brave new world of New York University Abu Dhabi’s new Saadiyat campus

The campus may seem far away, for now. But NYUAD’s students are determined to enjoy life on Saadiyat and are already forging their own traditions.

The High Line of the New York University Abu Dhabi campus on Saadiyat Island, named after a park in New York City. Courtesy NYU
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Some things never change. The temporary convenience store on New York University Abu Dhabi’s newly opened campus on Saadiyat is fully stocked with student staples. Crisps, pot noodles, chewing gum, Coco Pops and industrial-sized jars of Nutella vie for attention. Healthy living is represented by two wicker baskets of fruit in a small fridge that also appears to sell eggs in single units. A few tins of foul medames, stacked next to the Heinz baked beans, are the only clue that this is NYU’s Middle Eastern counterpart.

Outside, by midday, the temperature hits 39 degrees but students are walking – and skateboarding – to lunch along the pedestrian strip that runs through the centre of the campus. A few loll on the grass and American accents join the more unexpected chorus of birdsong and nosily flowing water.

At 9.30am, too early for students to be out of bed, the bulbuls hopping from palm to palm are so riotous I look around for speakers. No, the birds are singing live and obviously enjoying themselves.

Saadiyat’s Marina District is a short drive but a world away from the university’s former campus in downtown Abu Dhabi, just behind the Corniche. One day in the not-too distant future, the university will be surrounded by expensive residential neighbourhoods, with cafes and boutiques lining the harbour front; however, for the time being, the campus appears adrift, cut off in a wasteland of sand.

Reem Island sits on the horizon but construction on the road that will eventually lead to the main entrance has barely begun. Instead, I’ve driven past the green landscaping around the Saadiyat hotels, Cranleigh School and Manarat Al Saadiyat exhibition centre and turned right following the road as it bends, looping past the unfinished sports stadium and around the back of the building complex. Look up and you’ll see the university’s triumphant burning torch logo.

For the class of 2015 who first made the downtown campus (DTC) their home, the change is somewhat unsettling. “Surreal,” is how Kimi Rodriguez, a senior from the Philippines whose major is political science, describes it. “When I first came to NYUAD for Candidate Weekend, and they showed us [around] DTC, it was a cute and cosy campus. They were like, one day we will have this huge, grand campus on Saadiyat ­Island, and for the longest time it seemed far away.

“It’s a bit unbelievable that we are finally here and we are going to be able to make this place our home and start our own ­traditions.”

Old habits can be hard to break, however. There are regular shuttle buses to take students to Al Wahda Mall and the World Trade Center Mall and to shop at Waitrose supermarket on Al Reem on weekends, but some are evidently missing just stepping out into the city. A few enterprising students who loved being able to pop into Foodlands to pick up shawarma on a whim, arranged for the local restaurant to deliver to the new campus on the proviso that the order was worth at least Dh200. A Facebook page and a campaign tellingly entitled “No Shawarma Left Behind” quickly raised sufficient orders, leaving some disappointed. “We want happiness on the island of happiness,” senior student Rock Zou is reported to have said.

As well as a Starbucks cafe, there are two canteens on campus, the largest of which is buzzing with hungry customers by lunchtime. In exchange for cash or meal vouchers – a mechanism that reminds me of school – students can take their pick from a huge selection of vegetarian, Italian and Asian hot foods, sandwiches and salads for around Dh35 per head. Servings are generous and everyone tucks in with enthusiasm. With a library cafe and another smaller restaurant near completion, students will soon feel more spoilt for choice. And food is clearly important – on the many flyers and bill posters I see advertising campus events, the promise of snacks features prominently.

Over lunch I speak to Layla Al Neyadi, who graduated in psychology last year and now works full-time as the assistant director for residential education counselling and programming services. Al Neyadi lives on campus and it’s part of her role to make sure that Emirati students who live off campus feel fully involved with university life. In doing so she draws on her own student experience: as a freshman she lived at home in Abu Dhabi and gradually moved into student accommodation in Sama Tower over the course of her studies.

“Sometimes, when I felt like I was at home more than at university, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of things [like] building relationships,” she says. “It’s not just going to class. If you just go to class you don’t necessarily become as connected as if you were in any programming activities that happen.

“At first, I felt like I was struggling between making sure that I was spending enough time with my family, and to actually make new friends and feel like I was as active as anyone else.”

As an alumna, her perspective on how everyone is settling in is perhaps unique: “I feel like there is that concern with being disconnected and ‘stuck’ on campus. And I imagine that can cause a lot of frustration, because students are adapting to the new place, but they are stuck with a new place,” she says. “There is still the transitionary period going on. We are not quite there yet.”

There’s also lots to feel good about, as Al Neyadi says. “I really like that the campus is so open. To be able to walk around on the High Line and see students skateboarding, sitting on the lawns and to be able to walk to places and feel like you are outside … One thing that I missed downtown was that I did not really hear nature and now you do. It feels more like a campus … I imagine in the winter it will be gorgeous.”

A series of landscaped walkways that link student and staff accommodation above ground level is modelled on the the High Line, a public park in Manhattan, New York, that runs along the old elevated railway line. All around, there’s further evidence of thoughtful touches designed to ensure that there are places for students to congregate: atriums provide light and a place to sit in the different faculty buildings, the shaded public walkways are lined with falaj and bubbling water features to add to the cooling effect. The entire campus has been positioned to channel prevailing breezes.

There’s little doubt in the mind of people I speak to that the new – and very definitely open – campus will eventually be a place that everyone can call home. And that includes the general public. The impressive Arts Center has already held a recital by the Czech pianist Martin Hršel in the undulating, birch-lined recital hall and, while an audience has yet to be seated in the largest auditorium, with its acoustic panelling and orchestra pit, public programming should start early next year. The versatile “black box” performance space has already been road-tested by students.

Opposite, the conference centre is also home to NYU Abu Dhabi Institute and its public discussion programme of almost weekly events. Fans of the institute’s talks at the Inter­Continental Hotel will be pleased to know that a catered reception is still a fixture. “It’s all food for the mind,” says Philip Kennedy, the institute’s faculty director. “It allows people to stay on and meet and talk about the lecture, and perhaps even engage with the speaker. Friends meet each other to discuss what they’ve heard and learnt – and other things, of course.”

Being somewhat remote has the added benefit of fostering a greater community spirit and encouraging home-grown initiative – traits that these bright young things should possess in spades. Foot-high red letters spelling out Tedx are sitting outside the front door of the main campus building and students are currently auditioning to tell their stories in the mould of the TED Talks. There have been parades of students waving national flags, and a do-it-yourself, tie-dye gathering was so oversubscribed students rushed to grab their bedsheets when the T-shirts ran out.

The recently elected student government is busy organising get-togethers, according to its president and senior, Hamel Al Qubaisi. He cannot help but enthuse about the new campus, particularly the decision to have staff and students living at close quarters. Student dorms consist of apartments with communal living and kitchen areas and either four single or shared bedrooms. An academic staff member lives in each student block and most live on campus in staff-only apartment blocks.

Later Al Qubaisi gives me a tour of the university's sports facilities and we stop at his office. Above three volumes of the 11th edition of Robert's Rules of Order, the wall is plastered in yellow Post-it notes. Among serious requests to "commission a school song", "fix the school spirit problem" and "help people to get to know each other", one reads: "Nap time … Circus tricks learning session". A reminder that NYUAD students are still just students after all – hanging out in their trackpants and eating Nutella with a teaspoon.

Clare Dight is the editor of The ­Review.