Abu Dhabi from New York Perspective

Every semester brings about a change in our student body, some students departing, some returning and some arriving for the first time. Among this ebb ...

Nov 2, 2013

Every semester brings about a change in our student body, some students departing, some returning and some arriving for the first time. Among this ebb and flow are the New York study abroad students, traveling from Washington Square to an environment that is at once familiar and incredibly foreign.
Reasons behind choosing NYU Abu Dhabi
NYU junior Serena Adlerstein said her decision to come to Abu Dhabi was based on classes, faculty and academic opportunities.
“It was for the school itself, not for Abu Dhabi,” Adlerstein said. “When I was coming here, I knew that it would be a much more academic semester,” she said.
For juniors Kyleigh Johnson and Alexa Singh, academics were also the primary appeal. Singh cited the UAE as a considerable force in global politics, an area that interests her as a political science major.
"I am studying Arabic, and I came here because of Arabic," said Singh. "This is an up-and-coming region ... of political importance."
For Johnson, academic plans that were unfulfilled in New York provided an incentive to look elsewhere in the GNU.
"I wanted an academic challenge; I wanted to be able to take classes that NYU restricted me from," she said. "I felt academically limited in [New York]. I wanted to take something that interested me and was advanced."
Junior Julie Yoon said that, as a New York student, she was interested in the community and the learning opportunities that arise from very small classes.
“The location itself didn’t really draw me into coming here; it was more the program … how classes are really small, and all the attention you will get as a student,” she said.
The reality of the workload
Despite their intentions to use their Abu Dhabi semester to augment their academic record, students do not see the workload at NYUAD as being noticeably different from that of New York.
“I think I just got really lucky with my course load,” said Adlerstein, “[But] everyone’s surprised when I say that I don’t think classes are particularly harder here than they are in New York.”
Adlerstein believes that it may, in fact, be the opposite.
“I even think that New York is more challenging in a way … the classes will be equally challenging, and then you have all this other stuff going on that you have to say no to in order to do your work,” she said. “It took me over a semester to figure out how to balance work with New York [as a city].”
Outside perceptions of the UAE
Singh laughed as she remembered receiving her acceptance email from NYUAD and her roommate’s subsequent reaction.
“She was like, ‘why do you want to be in a desert for the whole semester?’ She has basically no idea, which is really funny,” said Singh.
Sophomore Thiago Fernandes said that people tended not to distinguish Abu Dhabi from its surroundings.
“Most of the reactions I got were people bundling the UAE with their perceptions of the Middle East,” he said.
Yoon had a similar experience, remarking that many people would tie Abu Dhabi to their perceptions of Dubai.
“I think on the surface level, people think Abu Dhabi is such an exotic place … people instantly think of Dubai and all the commercial stuff,” she said.
The real Abu Dhabi
“I’ve had the advantage of having a roommate who’s [an NYUAD student] and she’s taken me to a lot of places in the city,” said Johnson, adding that she was grateful to have some degree of insider knowledge instead of being forced to navigate the city on her own.
Johnson also spoke about the difficulty of finding the real Abu Dhabi, but she mentioned that her experience volunteering at the local Rosary School has been instrumental in allowing her to feel connected to the community.
“I had a cool opportunity of being inside [someone from the Rosary School’s] home … there are small moments like that where I do feel like I’m in a different country,” she said.
Her students are also helping her with her Arabic class.
“They get so excited any time I ask them about my Arabic,” she said. “The coolest thing about learning Arabic here is that people … are so excited every time you [speak it].”
Adlerstein was informed before arriving to Abu Dhabi that there was not as much to do in the city as there is in the bustling hub of New York and was therefore expecting to focus on her studies. In a way, it was a relief, she said.
“The nice thing here, and sometimes not so nice, is that there’s no distractions for homework … that’s kind of why I don’t feel bad about not searching for what Abu Dhabi holds because [New York] holds so much, I don’t feel the need to be in a city this semester,” she said.
Yoon noticed a significant difference in terms of gender dynamics.
"You just don't see women anywhere," she said. "The first time when I was just walking around... I didn't feel unsafe or anything, [but] to be objectified is just not comfortable, so that was an experience."
“It’s hard to label with adjectives,” Yoon added. “I guess I’m still trying to figure out what it’s like.”
Integrating into NYUAD
The response from the New York students was overwhelmingly positive.
“As soon as the classes start … you just naturally get to know different people, and I think it was very easy integrating into NYUAD,” said Yoon. “It was much easier than I expected.”
Johnson enjoys the closeness of the relationships that arise from small class sizes.
“Being a person who loves small communities, I’ve really gotten that from NYUAD,” she said. “I felt really warmly welcomed.”
Fernandez and Singh offered a critique of the way Marhaba orientation was run separately for the freshmen and the New Yorkers.
“We knew that [our welcome week] was running parallel with a different Marhaba. That was a little odd,” said Fernandez.
“[Marhaba] gave off an impression that’s not indicative of the experience I’m having now,” Singh added.
On the whole, students spoke highly of the NYUAD community and the experiences the city had to offer. Johnson has found Abu Dhabi to be instrumental in helping her to realize what she is passionate about.
“Had I not left [New York], I probably wouldn’t have switched majors," she said. "Coming here made me feel capable of exploring and confident of my capabilities."
“I feel like a college student for the first time … I really like it here.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Thiago Fernandes. 
Tessa Ayson is a staff writer. Email her at
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