ABU DHABI // Students from as far afield as the US, France and Morocco were among the new cohort at the Paris Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi this week.
In spite of the cultural differences some of the students face, they were all eager to explore their new home and discover the UAE’s traditions and religion.
“I’ve been around Christians my whole life so it’s nice to see how similar we are to Muslims, our beliefs, our values, all the things we share,” said Jacqueline Leach, 29, from Flordia who is embarking on a masters degree in international business and language.
“People have asked me about being Christian and people are very open and very understanding of me and what I believe.”
For Sofia Omrani, the move to Abu Dhabi was a chance to reconnect with her roots. The 19-year-old grew up in Paris with her Algerian family but does not speak Arabic.
“I wanted to stay in the French system and wanted to travel as well so when I discovered there was a French university in Abu Dhabi, it sounded like my best choice,” she said. “I want to learn Arabic and speak with my family.”
The French university branch campus opened in 2006 in a temporary building and now has 70 nationalities on its campus on Reem Island.
Although living in the capital of the UAE will be very different to the capital of France, Sofia is determined to adapt quickly to life in the Gulf. “I don’t see coming here as a challenge but as an opportunity.”
The chance to live in a multi-cultural society and to see how people co-exist peacefully was what inspired Moroccan Karim Mkamal to study in the UAE.
“The opportunity to see how people co-exist and is a chance to learn from each other,” said the 19-year-old from Casablanca.
Not all of the students had so far to travel to start their classes at the Paris Sorbonne University.
Tima Rehawi took the short flight from Lebanon and was keen to mix with students from different backgrounds and nationalities.
“The message of the Sorbonne about being a bridge between civilisations is really intriguing, said the 19-year-old. “Once you’re here you realise that all these people gravitated together at this university.
“It’s the students who are making these steps to gravitate together and unit to learn more about each other and want to be part of this international society. It’s more international to study here than in Lebanon.”
On Thursday the students were given a lecture by the university’s cultural advisor, Ali Al Saloom, who explained the history of the UAE and what life here had in store.
“Our own identity is embedded in tribalism,” said the Emirati. “You have to understand religion plays a role.”
Mr Al Saloom said the subject of national dress can “create a gap between you and other people”.
“When you don’t know the symbolism of our dress code, you might have some misjudgements. It is part of the custom. Before you judge, ask ‘there are reasons why things are done the way they are’?”
One of the university’s academics, Dr Francois Xavier Romanacce, addressed the students at Thursday’s orientation event and encouraged them to make the most out of their time in the capital.
“Here you have the chance to meet a different culture.”