Illustration by Joaquín Kunkel
The Class of 2017 was the last Sama Class. The Class of 2018 is the first class to have lived on NYUAD’s Saadiyat Campus for all four years and the last class to have their Candidate Weekend in Sama Tower. Once they graduate, all direct student ties to Sama will not exist.
For the first time in NYU Abu Dhabi’s history, there is no complete class of students who experienced living in Sama Tower. While alumni, the Class of 2018, select students from prior classes who took leaves of absence and some professors are well-acquainted with Sama Tower, most underclassmen are not. Sama is an important piece of NYUAD history, but we have since moved on.
So what is Sama?
Prior to 2014, NYUAD consisted of just two buildings – Sama Tower and the Downtown Campus. Sama Tower is located at the intersection of Airport Road and Electra Street — now known as Zayed the First Street and Sheikh Rasheed Bin Saeed Street — and is 50 floors high.
The Gazelle interviewed several alumni and a professor about their experiences living in Sama and the move to Saadiyat.
Sofia Gomez-Doyle, Class of 2017, believes that the formative years for prior classes felt different.
“For my class, we ate in Sama, we had class in Sama, the gym was in Sama, there’s a student common ground in Sama so the building was a place that we created memories and built friendships in,” Gomez-Doyle said.
Even faculty offices were located in Sama. Being condensed into the same space as everyone else meant that you ran into other people frequently — much more so than on Saadiyat.
Professor Bryan Waterman observed that the level of engagement was sometimes higher than what it is on Saadiyat because of the nature of the university at that point.
“It was hard not to be involved in the things that were happening because there was only one common space where things were happening. If you didn’t want to be in your dorm room or out in the city, you were probably going to be at the same cultural night as everyone else. We have to fight now to preserve that so that people don’t just pull in separate directions and forget that we all belong to the same community,” Professor Waterman continued. Samia Meziane, Class of 2016, spent half of her NYUAD years in Sama.
“There was a certain construction about [Sama] that meant that people had to interact in certain ways, [even if] that meant being squished up against your professor in the elevator,” Samia said. This meant that the community was much more familiar with each other. Of course, for students that also meant that unless they wanted to climb 14 floors of stairs, they could run into professors in the elevator when they hadn’t written their essays, done their homework or skipped class.
Waterman believes that the culture cultivated in Sama is an important part of the NYUAD legacy today.
“It’s important in the sense [that] you know where you came from. The university used to fit inside a building. It didn’t just house all of us, it had faculty offices, and classrooms and common ground — big common space that everybody would use for community events, that’s where we had all of the SIG events, the cultural nights and those are all parts, things developed in an incubator there, and part of that experience was living in very close quarters. To have that experience for the first years meant that Sama was an incubator for some of the things that we still enjoy today,” Waterman said. Gomez-Doyle agreed that the formative years felt different. “At the beginning there was a sense of we’re a part of something new. We knew that Sama was temporary, because there was a sense of we’re growing and we’re contributing to its development. That also created this culture of what are we going to build together, how are we going to create and what is our responsibility to make things happen if they previously didn’t exist. I definitely feel the innovative spirit [on Saadiyat] but it functions differently because this is our permanent home and this is where all the activities take place whereas in Sama Tower, it was much smaller, it was so close to the beginning of NYUAD,” Gomez-Doyle said. Even more importantly, Sama was home.
“Sama was central to my NYUAD experience. It was where I came for Candidate Weekend but it also defined my first year of college. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to separate Sama from NYUAD,” Gomez-Doyle said.
Something else that differentiates the experience on Saadiyat Island from that of Sama is campus proximity to the city. Sama was centrally located in the city so residents felt a higher engagement with the city.
“Maybe you had a coffee shop or rituals that were attached to your own daily life. We had a butcher in our neighborhood who was our regular butcher, we had a kitchen where we could go and buy bread fresh from the oven for [one] dirham just through a little window, there was a chai shop that you could go to at 4:30 or 5:00 in the afternoon and kinda feel like you belonged to a group of people who were finishing their day. Those are kind of urban rituals that were idiosyncratic and not dependent on the university,” Waterman said.
He added that he felt a sense of the history in the city. In fact, the address of DTC used to be the old fish market.
Different people have different memories based on their personalities. For Iryna Nadyukova, Class of 2016, music and sounds were important.
“There was this one practice room that has a window and you could see the city outside…Call to prayer [was] something I definitely missed when I came back from [New York] and I was on Saadiyat and we couldn’t hear it. It was such a big part of being in Abu Dhabi. The first time I went back into the city, I even went outside of the mall to listen to it. It’s something very beautiful and something that’s a big characteristic of this place,” Nadyukova said.
Everyone seemed to agree that living in Sama was less of a bubble. Shawarma, one dirham chai, one- dirham bread and a variety of restaurants were available close to them. Al Safa, the supermarket located next to Sama, seems to have become a very fond memory for everyone who lived there. It stayed open 24/7 because of the demand from NYUAD students who would often stop by for midnight snacks in the middle of a study break or hangout.
The Class of 2018 will tell you that during their first semester, Sama was a word that they heard a lot. Everyone seemed to be talking about how they missed Sama, how great it was and how Saadiyat felt like a bubble.
“In the beginning we used to go back and visit DTC although it was no longer DTC and Sama was no longer our dorm,” Nadyukova said.
“So for my senior year Ma’salama had an event where they took … us back to DTC. We were roaming around and were so excited to be back in the building and for us, it was amazing, it was super moving, to be in a space that we used to be,” Meziane added.
In fact, some professors never moved out of Sama, and a significant amount of alumni who returned to work in NYUAD or in Abu Dhabi now live in Sama.
Nadyukova is currently looking for apartments in the city and Sama is on her list.
“I want to go home. Sama is home … I feel a lot more connected to that part of the city,” Nadyukova said. The change was always expected, since it was common knowledge that DTC was only temporary.
“During Marhaba, they would drive us past Saadiyat, and someone would point out, You see that little spot way down there and that’s your campus, and there was nothing down there,” Nadyukova said.
During Candidate Weekend, the Class of 2018 were driven towards the site where they were permitted to get off the bus and take a picture of the campus in the distance. There were no highways or proper roads, only the campus surrounded by the desert. Half a year later, the campus was functional.
Of course, being on a new, more spread out campus felt different. Even though they weren’t new to the concept of NYUAD, professors and students experienced a new NYUAD on Saadiyat Island.
“Just two years ago, I pretty much knew everyone by their face: this person is [part of administration], this person is a [Global Academic Fellow], this person is a professor, this person is a student. When I got to Saadiyat that was blown,” Meziane said. “We also had things you took for granted like being able to order Burger King at 2 a.m. Turns out you needed massive orders and that created things like the NYUAD Hungry group which we could not have foreseen.”
While many may feel nostalgic for Sama, the move to Saadiyat reflects the continued growth of the student body and culture. NYUAD, just like Abu Dhabi, is still transitioning.
The NYUAD legacy, our legacy, was built in Sama and continues to progress on Saadiyat. Traditions like Open Mic have always been a part of NYUAD. The names of NYUAD publications Airport Road and Electra Street were inspired by roads near Sama. Ever wondered why Foodlands remains one of the places most frequented by NYUAD students?
“The only reason they’re doing that is because we told them to go there and the only reason that we went there was because it was close to Sama,” Meziane said. Sama will always be a part of the NYUAD legacy. It housed the foundational years of this university. Traditions that future classes will carry on stemmed from the community that originated in Sama.
Thirangie Jayatilake is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at [email protected]