The birth of a first-class education

Four years ago New York University Abu Dhabi welcomed its first undergraduate cohort. Today, they'll graduate with pride and a few tears. Clare Dight reports.
NYU Abu Dhabi's Downtown Campus. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi
NYU Abu Dhabi's Downtown Campus. Courtesy NYU Abu Dhabi

Wearing preppy clothes and speaking with an unmistakably American accent, Sidak Yntiso could be a newly minted graduate from any affluent US college looking forward to a gilded future.

His course in economics complete, papers marked and final-year presentation delivered, he is all smiles as he reminisces about the past four years and looks forward to being among the first cohort of students to graduate from New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD).

And yet, he is special – or, at least, a bit different – not least because the keynote speaker at today’s commencement ceremony, which is the first event to take place on NYUAD’s Saadiyat campus, is the former US president, Bill Clinton.

It’s also not just about academic success: the 135 students who comprise the NYUAD class of 2014 are going on to postgraduate studies at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Princeton and MIT, have won a Rhodes scholarship and received highly sought-after job offers from the likes of Google, Proctor and Gamble and McKinsey Consulting.

What really marks out Sidak and his classmates is the decision they each made four years ago to move to Abu Dhabi and put their faith in what was essentially a start-up. When NYUAD welcomed its first students four years ago, it bore the prestigious NYU logo and promised to deliver the sort of liberal arts education that is available only to a privileged few, even in the US.

But there was no way of knowing whether that promise would actually be fulfilled. Would they even graduate?

Assistant professor of literature at NYUAD, Paulo Horta, believes that a willingness to go first defines the class of 2014: “We did recruit well,” he says.

“We had a lot of applicants and we had scholarship money that allowed us to pull in very good people. Some members of the class of 2014 had scholarship offers from Amherst, from top liberal arts colleges [but] if we remove the academic side, there is something about choosing to come to a new venture.

“They were particularly risk-taking and adventuresome people,” he says. “The other students refer to them as having big personalities, as being charismatic.”

Originally from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, Sidak knew that he wanted a US-style education with an international twist and although many people back home hadn’t even heard of Abu Dhabi (Dubai yes, but not the capital), he describes NYUAD as the perfect choice. “It was this ideal place for travelling, for getting to meet people,” he says. “It was exciting. That’s the word: exciting.”

Like all NYUAD students he unpacked his bags at Sama Tower on Hamdan Street, which doubled as student accommodation with some teaching and leisure facilities.

“I was on the 10th floor and my room mates were ... one was Taiwanese, one was Indian, one was European and I was African. The international student experience was represented in my room, which was awesome,” he says.

The promise of an international educational experience is one that NYUAD hoped to deliver in the classroom as well as in its halls of residence.

From the start, there has been a conscious refusal to “cut and paste” from the NYU curriculum and elsewhere, Prof Horta says. Take history, for example: “What we had was a sketch of an idea that maybe we should organise the teaching of history around ocean systems – Indian Ocean history, Pacific Ocean history, Atlantic world history.

“So the history of the slave trade across the Atlantic world. For some people it took a little while for them to buy into that, but now you see the programme has come into its own and it is teaching in this way that is unique. It’s a very globalised curriculum.”

In common with all NYUAD students, Emily Eagen, who came to Abu Dhabi from Michigan, spent two terms studying abroad and her experience at NYU and NYU London underlines what sets the university apart.

“I’m a double major in theatre and literature/creative writing and I did one term in London and one in New York,” she says.

“And London was great but in New York, particularly doing theatre training, I found everyone really tended to think the same way and there was not much space for discussion – whether about the arts, interestingly, or politically or religiously or academically.

“Being here in Abu Dhabi, there is a lot more room for diversity of opinion even if some other people’s opinions are ones that you vehemently disagree with. You can have many more constructive conversations and really process through where people are coming from and why.

“And that’s been really good for me because I’ve had certain truths reaffirmed but also things I’ve had to let go of because those were assumptions that I was making not based on anything of real solid value.”

That conscious striving for diversity is set to continue at NYUAD’s new campus on Saadiyat, even as the college, campus-style experience means that the outside world recedes just a little.

The move from the cosy downtown campus, where students are fighting for classroom space and staff are sharing offices, will allow NYUAD to grow its student body from 620 today to more than 2,000, including a far greater number of Emirati students.

“In the same way that we have designed global programmes for a global student body,” Prof Horta says, “it will be a welcome challenge to make sure that we have programmes and activities and events, and a student culture that really welcomes Emiratis as well. It’s something that we cannot take for granted; it’s something that everyone will have to work on in a collaborative way.”

One of the Emirati students graduating today is Shamma Al Mazrui, an economics major who is set to continue her studies at the University of Oxford as a Falcon Scholar under a scheme administered by the prestigious Rhodes Trust. “NYUAD has achieved so much in so little time and I think it is going to produce a lot of world leaders. I can’t wait, 10 years from now, to look at what the alumni of this institution will be like and what they will have achieved.”

For Joseph Gelfand, assistant professor of physics at NYUAD, it will be hard to say goodbye to the class of 2014. “Absolutely, I’m proud. As proud of them as I was in the first year when they were surviving the growing pains of this institution and did so with remarkable skill and understanding and initiative and drive. And they helped in developing NYUAD immensely.”

There is no doubt that there will be tears shed at today’s commencement, not only about leaving NYUAD but also Abu Dhabi. As Katherine James, a literature major, says: “Just having spent so much time here and going through so many different life changes, it feels like my home. And I did not expect that at all. I did not expect I would feel more at home here, really, than I do anywhere else.”

Attilio Rigotti, a theatre major from Chile, neatly sums up the mood of the class of 2014 as they simultaneously look forward and back: “There’s a question of ‘now what?’ Now what with the school, with us, with everything?”

There is a nervousness as to whether their legacy of firsts will survive. “For me and for a lot of us, what was really exciting was the opportunity to build this institution from the ground up and to create our own traditions,” Katherine says.

“Looking back, especially once the move to Saadiyat happens, I think no one will remember anything that we did, especially from the first year. I think NYUAD is going to evolve, in a way, past us and when we come back in 10 years’ time, we won’t recognise the place.”

cdight@thenational.ae

Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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