Abu Dhabi Sorbonne is Paris in the desert

The university's new Dh1.6bn campus conjures up the romance of the Parisian original.

The modern university replicates the spirit of the French institution and even features an identical dome to the one in Paris. Andrew Henderson / The National
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ABU DHABI // The romance of the journey taken by the students of Abu Dhabi Sorbonne before they arrive at their new campus was described with the eloquence that perhaps only a French man could pull off with aplomb.

"The new Quartier Latin, the one being built in Abu Dhabi, forces more admiration, being an invitation to travel between knowledge and culture as you move from one island to another, from mainland, to Al Reem island to Saadiyat, a clear transition from economic power, to open cultural horizons to education," Alan Azouaou, the French ambassador to the UAE, said.

Mr Azouaou's stirring rhetoric was matched by Chanael Brivoal, a second-year law and political science student who came from Paris to study at the Abu Dhabi campus. "When I walked into the new campus and saw the dome, I felt that I was in Paris, I felt at home," she said.

The 18-year-old French student said she prefers the Abu Dhabi campus to the original. "First of all, we have everything imaginable on campus: there is a big library open until 10 pm, everybody is helpful and friendly, there are many activities, for instance, last year I took dancing classes," she said. "It is like we are living in our own city, I don't care that we are on an island and I don't have a car, because I don't feel that I need to go off campus."

She said even academically she prefers the Abu Dhabi Sorbonne. "Over there [in Paris] the instructor will walk into a class of 300 students. The teacher will give the lecture without knowing any of the students' names or interacting with them," she said. "But here, the same instructor walks in to a class of 12 students, which leaves more room for interaction and questions. I think it is amazing to study at an old university but in a modern place and culture," she said.

On Sunday, Abu Dhabi Sorbonne students attended the first day of class at their new Dh1.6bn campus for the first time since construction finished. The fifth academic year for the campus will include more programmes, events and students, officials said yesterday.

The 93,000 square-metre facility can accommodate up to 2,000 students, a number that administrators expect to hit soon as students continue to enrol. This year 600 students from more than 60 countries have registered, compared with 486 last year, said Professor Jean Yves de Cara, executive director of the campus.

Features of the new buildings include a library that can fit 200,000 books, an auditorium that seats 700 and dormitories that can house 500 students. The most significant landmark is the Sorbonne dome, which is identical to the one in Paris. "I think big changes will take place this year," Prof de Cara said. For example, the main auditorium will allow theatrical, musical and cinematic productions. The university will hold a conference on art history in March, focusing on the connection between Islamic and Western art.

"In November, we are also holding another major event for the first time: an academy of international law, for a week. There are 20 participants from the UAE, and international diplomats and lawyers, who will be enjoying lectures and classes," Prof de Cara said.

"Those are two major events that we could not have held without a new campus." The university will also add new majors and master's programmes. By the end of October, the art history and museum protection master's programmes will open, and 18 students are already registered for them.

Prof de Cara said the interest in the programmes was high because internships will be held at the Louvre in Paris. "We also have in mind developing research activity in cooperation with government agencies and universities, local and international," Prof de Cara added. The diversity is what attracted the Emirati student Sara al Tamimi to enrol. "I was in a school that was all locals, and my dad wanted to enrol me in Zayed University, which is also all locals," said the 18-year-old International Business and Languages student. "I came from a very easy school, so when I came to uni, I was like, 'I had my fun, now it is time to study', so I wanted something much harder."

She said she was limited to universities within the UAE, so she chose Sorbonne, even though she did not speak any French when she applied, because she believed it was the highest quality and offered the international experience she was looking for. hdajani@thenational.ae