NYU Abu Dhabi: a very ‘special incubator’ in a unique city

As graduation day approaches, student Shamma S F Al Mazrui reflects on the value of education and the path ahead.

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When Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, his “giant leap for mankind” didn’t just mark a victory for the US in the space race, his words brought the world together. Education can have a similarly unifying effect.

In our own way, as the first group of students to attend a new type of global college, the Class of 2014 at NYU Abu Dhabi were also pioneers. As I prepare to graduate with 140 of my classmates on Sunday, I find myself remembering the excitement we shared four years ago when we approached this new and unknown frontier ahead of us.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that my four years at NYUAD would be as rewarding as they have been. While some of us were understandably apprehensive about the risk of attending a new university, four years later we are graduating with no uncertainty about our undergraduate experience.

As students, we travelled the globe in search of knowledge, gaining a great depth of experience – and much of what I learnt at NYUAD was outside of the classroom.

I’ll never forget travelling to India, where I experienced the sheer beauty and tranquillity of ancient Mughal gardens. We were mesmerised by the precise layout and aesthetics of their design. They made us contemplate this world as one larger garden filled with people of different skills, abilities and talents who have an inherent capacity for creating beauty and harmony regardless of where they may be located.

It was a stunning realisation that it does not require great effort on the part of any individual to give shape to a new idea, but it does take the determination of many to make it real.

My liberal arts education at NYUAD produced so many moments of intellectual discovery that it is hard to remember them all. I had no idea, for instance, that an experiment could use cupcakes and milk to demonstrate the economic theory of revealed preference through observation of consumer choices.

Similarly, in a course called Microbes, Meals and Metagenomics, we learnt about genetic engineering: DNA isolation, gel electrophoresis, and polymerase chain reactions. The final heated debate over which microbes on Earth are the strongest provided an unexpected, animated experience none of us will ever forget. These were the kind of lessons that hooked us on the thrill of uncovering knowledge in ways we could not have previously imagined.

The success of this educational approach can be measured in the activities my classmates will be doing after we graduate. Some have been admitted for postgraduate education at top-tier universities and have received job offers from world-renowned global institutions. Some will stay in the UAE to work, and others will return home to government jobs and advocacy. Later this year I will join two of my classmates to study as scholars at Oxford under programmes administered by the Rhodes Trust.

To me, NYUAD is a very special incubator in a very special city. My classmates came to Abu Dhabi from nearly 50 countries, and arrived with their own sets of beliefs, languages and prejudices. But, when we graduate together, we do so with a shared understanding of the complexities of the world, and of each other.

No, we did not travel through space to reach the end of our undergraduate studies. But we did collectively take a giant leap of faith, and as the first group of students to leave NYUAD, we head out into the world well prepared for the complexities and unique challenges that a globalised planet demands of its newest graduates.

Shamma Sohail Faris Al Mazrui, from Abu Dhabi, graduates from NYU Abu Dhabi on Sunday with a degree in ­economics