Illustration by Liene Magdalena

Confronting the AD in NYUAD

Students reflect on the ways in which the larger context of Abu Dhabi has defined their time here.

The relationship between NYU Abu Dhabi students and the city of Abu Dhabi itself can take a wide variety of forms. “Home,” “change,” “comfort,” and “more than what meets the eye” are just a few of the ways in which students have described what the city means to them.
The comforts and ease of life on campus can sometimes discourage students from getting into the city on a regular basis. “For some reason, the culture that has been built around NYUAD has eliminated the necessity of leaving [campus]...Because of the monetary comfort of being on campus, I think a lot of students — even if they are financially able to — don’t venture out into the city,” said Mira Al Jallaf, Class of 2019.
Many students did not expect how removed Saadiyat Island would be from the rest of Abu Dhabi. Alejandro Gómez, Class of 2021, recalled one of his earliest memories of campus: “When I came for Candidate Weekend and we crossed the bridge to come to Saadiyat Island I thought ‘Oh! Why are we leaving Abu Dhabi?’ So, that was interesting. Not what I was expecting.”
Pavlo Odnonozdriev, Class of 2022, also highlighted the issue of the Saadiyat bubble, referring to NYUAD’s perceived isolation. “When you’re here it feels like there's infrastructure on campus. You see the buildings of A2 or A6 and it feels like you’re in the middle of something. But then once you take a taxi and go out [of Saadiyat] and look back, you realize there's nothing around us but the desert.”
Unlike Saadiyat Island, NYUAD's old Downtown Campus was in the heart of the city on Electra Street. It is understandable that some students would have preferred to continue living there, imbedded in city life.
“When I hear about the old days in Sama Tower it sounds really nice...people back then used to engage with the city way more than we do here,” reflected Gómez.
Despite the difficulty, Gómez has found interesting ways to push himself to leave campus more often.
“One of my friends started this database of cafes, it’s a spreadsheet [that] we update with names of cafes, what they sell, the price and we rate it. So that’s kind of what's been pushing us to go out more — filling our cafe spreadsheet.”
While there are students who delve into the city regularly, there are also those on campus who do not explore Abu Dhabi in a meaningful way. “Some people think they explore but it's more of the tourism side of it. They [only] visit the popular places,” explained Theodore Tenev, Class of 2019. “If you’ve lived here for three years already I think you need to need to have a better understanding [of the place] and push yourself out of the touristic [to be] more comfortable in the city.”
“I notice that people go to malls [a lot] when they go out”, added Odnonozdriev. “Malls are not really important; it’s not appreciating or respecting the culture you’re in. You’re not learning anything new. You’re not [really] exploring.”
Only two hours away from Abu Dhabi is the glitz and glam of Dubai. Home to the tallest skyscrapers, including the tallest building in the world, Abu Dhabi can seem bland in comparison.
Manahil Qadir, Class of 2022, however, thought otherwise: “Dubai feels like an artificial city [in comparison], it’s so much more fast-paced but Abu Dhabi feels more cultural and cozy, especially when you go into the downtown area.”
For Tenev, it has been vital to integrate with the wider local community: “I really pushed myself to get to know local people and to see how they’re living to see, what they’re experiencing and how they think.”
Tenev’s decision to attend NYUAD was based on precisely what the city had to offer in terms of its balance between tradition and tolerance. “I wanted a good combination [of having a U.S.] American education but being in a Middle Eastern country that is progressive and at the same time traditional.”
For some students, their relationship with the city is still a work in progress. “I’m learning more and more about the city and what it has to offer, realizing it’s not what I realized [from] my first impression of it. It’ll continue to take a bigger role in my student experience as I explore more,” explained Caroline Sullivan, Class of 2021.
With an intensive, challenging curriculum like NYUAD’s, it is also important to venture out for mental relief. Qadir ensures she ventures off campus one or two times a week. “Whenever [I’m] walking by the highline and I see the city it just makes me think if I don’t go out there by Thursday, I’m going to lose it,” she added.
“It gives me a change of environment. Meeting people who are not NYUAD students is so refreshing and an important part of education. Because that’s the point of NYUAD right?”
Elyazyeh Al Falacy is a staff writer. Email her at
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