Illustration by Shenuka Corea
During the last few months of high school, I learned to expect various newspaper clippings on my desk about NYU Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi and the UAE as a whole. The articles covered topics like labor rights abuses or professors being denied entry. They were left by my dad to make sure I understood the context of the country I would be living in and could think critically about it.
This is the same person who would shock the Parent Marhaba group by asking the academic deans why their gender representation was so unequal.
There is no doubt that my dad has rubbed off on me. Yet, these news stories often left me with a biting feeling of guilt: did I want to go to a university whose workers were so mistreated? Did I feel comfortable living in a country in which Israeli citizenship is not recognized and acts of homosexuality are illegal? I had to work through these moral dilemmas before accepting my offer, but still struggled with them well into my first few weeks here. Many other students express similar concerns with their decision to attend NYUAD.
“When you tell people that you are coming to Abu Dhabi, the first thing people ask you is, Why would you want to go there, that institution is based off of slavery,” said Daniela Rivera, Class of 2019, a study away student from the New York campus.
The notion that NYUAD was built off slavery is the most obvious moral dilemma students face, especially following the coverage by The New York Times, and students all deal with it in different ways. As for me, I had to believe that an institution as liberal as NYUAD would put further pressure on bettering the rights and conditions of workers and I wanted to address the issue more when I arrived on campus.
Once I arrived, however, the issue sometimes appeared more muddled.
Gábor Csapó, Class of 2018, remembers being able to see a labor camp on the island from his room. “I was hearing two perspectives,” said Csapó. “The school was telling us that everything is perfect, but we were also hearing stories about how the workers were treated. Once I walked to the labor camp, and it was just fenced off completely and we didn’t see anybody there.”
Sara Pan Algarra, Class of 2020, noted that she wanted to learn more about the situation but felt dismayed after arriving. “When you are here, you can make observations, but it is very difficult to know anything more.”
Other issues became clearer to students after they arrived. One of Rivera’s major preparations was in figuring out what she could wear in order to be respectfully dressed, but four weeks into the semester, she seemed less worried.
This does not mean that the issue does not exist for her. “From the very beginning I knew that I was very willing to look away from the fact that women have [fewer] rights, the fact that there is a different sense of oppression than in the western world, mostly because I am very interested in this region,” said Rivera.
The state of women’s rights is sometimes a major deterrent for prospective female students, but not for Tiril Høye Rahn, Class of 2020. “It is a challenge I took on straight-on with open arms, and it was maybe a little more challenging than I thought,” admitted Høye Rahn.
She remembered the guilt of having to fly in for Candidate Weekend, and continues to criticize NYUAD’s sustainability. “You come here and you see that the lights are on all the time, there’s the AC, the crazy amount that people fly and you think, leaders of tomorrow? That is [not] promising for the environment.’”
The debates surrounding NYUAD’s green initiatives have continued on Facebook, but one that is often not addressed as widely is the UAE’s overwhelming wealth.
Pan Algarra spoke about the clash she felt with the economic system of the UAE
“People would ask me if I was sure I would feel comfortable in a place with so much wealth, because of who I am and how I behave, and how I see the world.”
For many students here, including myself, these issues still linger in varying forms in our minds and day to day life. Yet, many other students did not have the same experience while considering their decision to attend.
“It’s just not typical for people from Kenya to come to Abu Dhabi,” said Dhruvi Joshi, Class of 2020, in response to the question about difficulties she faced in choosing to attend NYUAD.
For those who did feel the moral weight of attending NYUAD, working to balance their values and their decision to come was a process that proved informative.
“I feel grateful that people questioned those things and it made me think about my decisions,” said Pan Algarra. “It helped me to never forget about why I came here, because I felt during my Candidate Weekend that we actually have an opportunity in the university to change things.”
Initiatives for students and often by students are designed to spark that change. Member groups like ADvocacy work to volunteer with migrant workers from the community, including working with the contract staff on campus. Ecoherence worked with administration to eliminate small plastic bottles and the Office of Community Outreach is constantly supporting social change efforts by the students to volunteer and give back to the community.
Høye Rahn highlights the opportunities for conversation as being a factor that attracted her to NYUAD. “If I get these perspectives, then I can better negotiate in the future,” she said. “I cannot be like, No, I am not going to talk to people who don’t care about the climate, I am not going to talk to people who don’t value me as an equal. When I have those conversations, I learn so much.”
The idea of challenging assumptions was important to Rivera as well. “I do not trust the way the media portrays different regions,” she said, drawing on her experience of the media’s representation of her home in Latin America. “They cannot understand that our reality is different, but that doesn’t mean that we are backward.”
The idea of using the resources that are available — from the more concrete full scholarship and access to education to the more abstract chance to get to experience other perspectives — to later make a difference in the world seems to be the key factor for all students in reconciling their beliefs.
But Høye Rahn still does not feel completely settled. “Did I come here to try and change stuff, or to learn?” she asked. “I tell myself I came to learn, but the activist side of me wants to change things.”
“NYUAD is a very progressive move in the context of the UAE,” she acknowledges, “but we shouldn’t applaud a fish for swimming.”
This piece is a part of a larger series on some students' initial perceptions of the NYUAD and their integration into the UAE. Next week's article will talk about how difficult cultural situations can be navigated, and resolved.
Katarina Holzapple is Video Editor. Email her at [email protected]