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Illustration by Dhabia AlMansoori

NYUAD, Let’s Talk Low-Income

We like to believe that landing a full scholarship is a golden ticket for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we tend to think less critically about what happens next.

Dec 7, 2019

In a corner of our sun-lit dorm room hangs a whiteboard calendar. It is filled with college-like reminders to do the dishes, to fill a housing application, turn in a final paper and to study for a test. Reminders change with the seasons, but towards the bottom, on the 30th of every month, the word “salary” is the only one that never gets erased.
Three months ago, reading my contract before starting a job that I love, in the midst of a combination of excitement and confusion, I searched “What does it mean to be paid in arrears?” It meant, as I would later come to understand, that months would pass by before I could see the product of endless hours of work reflected in my bank account. It felt unfair, but at the time the gratitude of having a meaningful job surpassed any discomfort about money.
While at NYU’s Washington Square campus, students get paid every two weeks via a web-based payroll system called NYU myTime, at NYUAD getting paid in arrears continues to hurt those for whom a stipend is the only source of income, leaving many with no other choice but to wait, stuck with a system that is arguably too difficult to change.
However, even in a perfect world with more progressive payroll systems and no delayed payments, one where professors and employers approve timesheets on time, on campus, income would still remain largely unacknowledged in our everyday diversity efforts.
For many of us, NYU Abu Dhabi came somewhat as a miracle, a promise of endless possibilities and of a life that otherwise pertained to daydreams and distant aspirations. It is a world of full-ride scholarships and more than generous funding and advancement opportunities; a world where unlike 40 percent of undergraduates in the United States, no one experiences food or housing insecurity on campus, and few deal with crippling college debt.
But we have forgotten that hidden under the life-altering numbers in our financial aid award letters hide gaps and complexities, and moments where this university has fallen painfully short. At NYUAD, our relationship with money is as complex as the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and diverse landscape that surrounds us. We like to believe that landing a full scholarship is a golden ticket for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we tend to think less critically about what happens next. Somehow we also ended up in a community sanitized and quiet about the struggles that remain.
We don’t talk about those who send their stipends back home often enough. We provide no real space to discuss what it feels like to receive more money on our Wirecards than our parents make back home. And NYUAD has lagged behind in the way many U.S American universities have started to form low-income and first-generation advisory boards, where students themselves work to reveal the blind spots among administrators, faculty and staff. Rice University, for example, offers first-generation students’ parents the opportunity to take part, free of charge, in a special orientation aimed at helping them decode academic language and equipping them to support their children as they navigate a space that had been inaccessible for far too long.
More than in any other American institution abroad, we come from places plagued with violence, instability and lack of social protections. In our microcosm of the world, we see posts on Room of Requirement desperately asking for resources to deal with domestic violence. Our counselors and health promotion entities are constantly trained and equipped to address academic stress, burnout, anxiety and eating disorders. But whom can students turn to when they get those 2 a.m. calls bringing news of family evictions and unpaid medical bills?
At NYUAD, more often than not, equity is mistaken for fairness, leaving many to bear the brunt of the tension that exists between good intentions and practice. Students who have never owned a coat in their lives receive the same stipend to go to New York as someone for whom snowy winters have been a fact of life. Students from low-income backgrounds have the same level of access and opportunity to apply for Career Development Internship grants as students who belong to higher class backgrounds, with special considerations for income given only towards the end of the awarding process.
We exist in a space where it is not possible to stay on campus over the Winter break, and where the syllabus for my Wealth & Inequality class somehow missed the topic of the lasting intergenerational trauma that results from scarcity and instability.
I grew up in a household where financial stability came in the form of rare months of peace, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Years later and in college, long gone are the days of wondering whether we would have enough to pay school fees this month, or whether our credit card would again mysteriously stop working in the supermarket line, shopping cart already full. But when the Office of Global Education asks me to “simply” use my stipend to pay more than $700 for my U.S immigration fees until the transfer comes, a similar feeling hits my stomach. There isn’t enough in the card. And there is no calling home to ask.
So we rely on each other. And we do the best we can; we ask our suitemates for help and we ask our friends. But the truth is, we shouldn’t have to.
As we explore the ten year legacy of this institution, I think about all those students who have lived quietly through the moments where intent didn’t meet outcome.
Institutional change takes time, and requires avenues for advocacy and an administration willing to listen, all of which we have at NYUAD. In the future, sustained partnerships with low-income student groups and open lines of communication could pave the path towards a university that takes further responsibility for the problems that diverse groups of students bring with them from home to campus.
Emotions overwhelm me as I think of the ways in which NYUAD has already broken all conventional metrics of accessibility, from accepting all national examinations in substitution of the SATs and ACTs, to providing a Writing Center equipped to support those for whom English isn’t their first language, to funding opportunities to travel for job interviews and to bring our family members to Abu Dhabi to see us graduate. But out of the same gratitude and love, I also can’t help but think about the long way that we still have to go.
For now, it starts with us and the conversations we choose to have. It starts with the practice of radical vulnerability, and allowing ourselves to share, without shame, the grimmer parts of life.
So here goes: growing up, there were days I wondered whether I could continue going to school. I have struggled to buy books and weekly groceries. NYUAD changed my life, and yet, I still struggle.
Laura Assanmal is Senior Features Editor. Email her
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