NYU Abu Dhabi: A Student’s View

Now that I’ve graduated from NYU Abu Dhabi, people often ask me, “How was it?” I never know how to answer this question: Good? Strange? Wonderful? Difficult? Sweaty—there is not one absolute answer I can give. But sometimes, particularly in the United States, people ask another version of this question that I find much easier to answer:

“NYU in Abu Dhabi? Why would you go there?”

There isn’t any one answer to this either, but I do at least have my answer:
It was an accident.

I checked a box on an NYU (New York University) application without understanding what the box was for and wound up on a plane bound for three days in Abu Dhabi—a “candidate weekend,” where selected applicants can meet each other and scrutinize the university and where the university can do the same to them. In that one weekend, there were 42 students from 39 countries speaking 37 languages. Before that weekend, I had no intention of attending NYU Abu Dhabi. Afterward, I knew that if I was offered a place, I’d take it.

I took it.

It was all so unlikely. I was an aspiring actor and having been born and raised in the United States, I had my sights set on New York City. I wasn’t considering studying abroad. I had never even heard of the United Arab Emirates. But this marvelous improbability proved to be the defining characteristic of my experience at NYU Abu Dhabi. How unlikely that students of a range of disciplines from over 100 countries would share a single apartment building. That their studies would take them together to cities all over the world. How strange that in pursuit of a theater degree I would be in turn be a computer programmer, a cosmologist, a constitutional scholar. That I’d take Tuvan throat singing lessons in a stairwell, Kalaripayattu with martial artists in Southern India and study clowning on the canals of Amsterdam.

I think it would be fair to say that few things about NYU Abu Dhabi were mild. Imagine joining a university campus peopled entirely by freshmen, in a city that’s entirely new to you and unlike anywhere you’ve ever been. Courses were intense. No one was sure where to buy toothpaste. Everyone was aware they were in the middle of a large academic experiment. The first few months were something like entering a dark and crowded room and finding all of the furniture using only your shins.

Moving Between Extremes

The place seemed to vacillate between extremes of exciting opportunities and stubborn challenges. My peers were and remain some of the most remarkable people I have ever met: Writers, founders of academic journals, world-class musicians and frighteningly talented chefs. They were brilliant and at times startlingly compassionate.

But in a small community, brilliance doesn’t prevent conflict or mutual annoyance. NYU Abu Dhabi is an insular place in an infinitely insular city—a bubble surrounded by bubbles. Eighty five percent of the residents are expatriates. I studied Arabic for two years, but found the streets full of people speaking Urdu, Hindi and Tagalog (and overwhelmingly English). It takes an applied effort to engage below the surface of the city. You have to reach out, ask for help. In the Emirati community in particular I met many people eager to lend a hand—to talk over tea or share a meal or drive me back from a wedding without knowing my name—but these moments were not automatic. It takes considerable and consistent energy to connect.

NYU Abu Dhabi was also full of high achievers. “The vast majority of you were in the top 10 percent of your classes,” said one professor during the one-week freshman orientation program: “Obviously, you can’t all be that here.”

We began to adjust, but it was a slow process, and without anything to compare our experience to, we couldn’t be sure we were on the right path. We were stressed. We reached breaking points. We found relief. One late November night, students opened their windows and discovered it was raining. Realization quickly spread that had not rained even once in the past three months and soon over a hundred students poured out of the back entrance of our building and flooded the street. We danced in the faint drizzle and traded rain songs in different languages and shouted and whooped for over an hour. This was the pendulum swing of things for me—from being immobilized by the stress of it all to laughing in the streets amid the company of so much implausible fortune.

The Price of Privilege

The price of all of this great privilege was remarkable in its own right. For four years of university, housing and food and enough long-haul commuting to circumnavigate the globe, I was asked to make no financial contribution whatsoever. Many students in my class were in the same position. All received financial aid and none graduated with debt.
So now, having graduated, I spend my time not still paying for my education, but trying to earn it—an incredible blessing. Rather than being asked to invest in my education, NYU and its government partners made an investment in me. But the cost of my education was not solely financial. At the creation of this university a set of ambitious labor standards was established, which independent assessments confirmed were upheld for the employees NYU employed directly.

But as recent reports have revealed, sub-contractors of NYU and its government partners failed to uphold these standards for the full duration of the construction of the new Saadiyat Island campus. The depth of this failure remains to be seen, as it depends in part on the response of the university and the government, which has been promised to be swift and thorough. But what am I to do? I am still not sure—my debt in that case is not so clear.

“Was NYU Abu Dhabi worth it?”

I believe so. The class of 2014 was the first to ever graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi and we are now split 137 ways across the globe; 137 different trajectories that may intersect but will rarely coincide—and perhaps never again all align. But this separation is a part of the greatest treasure granted to me after these four years: A profound sense of absence.

I have often heard it said that college is meant to be where we learn to think. I’m not sure I can say I’ve learned that yet—how do we trust a brain’s assurances to itself of its own value? But I have learned to feel, to hear the buzzing absence of questions unanswered. And I think with that, perhaps, the thinking may come. I hope so. And I’ll try my best to make it so.

I have learned that I do not know most of the things there are to know and of that I do know I know far less than expected. NYU Abu Dhabi showed me a glimpse of the world, and that passing glance is not the kind of thing that can be forgotten. My horizon has widened, my map is full of questions. What else haven’t I seen? What else don’t I know?

As I watch the news, I hear more and more of the screaming silence of absence. Where are the voices of everyday Gazans? Where are the Israelis desperate for peace and an end to the conflict? Why don’t I know what debates are being held in Ukraine right now? I know those opinions exist—I have met these people. Where are they now? What do they say? Why aren’t we listening?

Yannick Trapman-O’Brien is an actor, writer, and director currently living in New York City, where he is doing documentary work as a Lisa Ellen Goldberg Fellow. In the near future he plans to move to Amsterdam, where he will learn Dutch, make theater and eat very good cheese.

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