NYU Abu Dhabi: learning to walk, fall and change since 2010

As the first class prepares to graduate from the capital's newest university, Deborah Lindsay Williams reflects on commencement.

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When I graduated from college, in 1986, Nelson Mandela was still in prison. My friends and I were passionate about the anti-apartheid movement and we decorated our graduation robes with “divest now” buttons. Our graduation speaker that year was Gloria Steinem and although we were graduating from a women’s college, my friends and I were underwhelmed. “She’s so old,” we thought, perched on the threshold of our 20s. After years of female empowerment rhetoric, we believed that the battle for gender equality had been won. Nelson Mandela and apartheid seemed much more pressing. Steinem’s cause seemed quaint, almost vestigial.

Mandela was freed and changed the face of South Africa. But women in the US still earn only about 77 per cent of their male counterparts, according to a recent US Census report. Similar discrepancies exist the world over.

I doubt that my “divest now” button helped free Nelson Mandela and I don’t mean to suggest that the South African political system is now perfect or that women have not made great strides in the past 20 years. But in both instances, change has been slow in coming: fits and starts, leaps forward and slides backward.

Change was in the air when I was in Manhattan last week because it’s graduation season: excited youngsters roamed the streets in their robes while proud relatives snapped endless photos. And in a few days, NYU Abu Dhabi will host its first class of graduates, students who became pioneers of change because they decided, with all the fervour of youth, to tackle the challenge of creating something new rather than following more conventional paths.

I could fill the rest of this column with a list of the ways in which NYUAD students have brought their creative energies, social activism and analytical skills to bear on these challenges. I could list the many prizes they’ve won and their ambitious plans for life after college. But those lists already exist elsewhere, so instead I will say only that these past four years have been marked by brilliant successes and, equally importantly, powerful failures. One of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education is the ability to fail and recover. In failure, rests the potential to learn important lessons: as infants, we learn to walk by falling down.

Wasn’t it just last week, in fact, that my own children were hauling themselves up on chubby bowed legs and staggering across the living room? Sometimes I look at my teenage son in disbelief: how can that wobbly toddler be this graceful young man? I imagine that parents sitting in commencement audiences around the world are asking themselves a version of the same question: how can their babies already be walking up to receive a diploma?

Unlike students at other institutions, the NYUAD students will graduate from an institution that is itself still learning to walk, as it were. Perhaps all students should attend fledgling institutions, for how better to understand that stumbles and mistakes are an integral part of learning, of creating change? At 20, I’d thought that change happened in a smooth unbroken arc: Steinem was a guest of honour, Mandela was still in prison, and ergo, gender equality was no longer an issue but apartheid still was. My view was simplistic, but comforting, as simplicity often is.

I think, however, that as a result of studying the liberal arts here – in Abu Dhabi, in a brand-new institution – NYUAD students have a clearer, if more complicated and less comforting, understanding of how change happens, how growth occurs.

Walt Whitman’s poem The Noiseless Patient Spider, offers us another lesson in the ways that change can occur. Whitman makes an analogy between a spider, which sends “filament, filament, filament” out of itself, and the poet himself, who is “ceaselessly musing, venturing, seeking the spheres to connect them”. Undaunted by the attempts that fail, the poet and the spider persist “till the bridge [they] need be form’d – till the ductile anchor hold; till the gossamer thread [they] fling catch somewhere”.

Change does not usually happen with a shazam-like thunderclap, as satisfying as that would be. Instead, we send out gossamer threads, again and again, searching for anchor points. And when we find those anchors, we build bridges and invite change to walk across.

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her novel The Time Locket (written as Deborah Quinn) is now available on Amazon