Photo Courtesy of Malak Abdel Ghaffar.

How NYUAD Brought Over 1100 Students Back to Campus Amid a Pandemic

Facing limited housing capacity and Covid-19 constraints, NYUAD administration shared the obstacles they faced in coordinating the arrival of the large number of returning students.

“It's the biggest lift like this I've seen in 20 years,” said Kyle Farley, Dean of Students, referring to the spring semester arrivals. “I've never seen anything like it.”
With travel restrictions, flight cancellations and visa complications, all amidst a global pandemic, NYU Abu Dhabi welcomed 756 students from all over the world during a whirlwind past few weeks. The total number of students on the Saadiyat campus is now 1147.
Since summer 2020, the administration has been making difficult decisions about which students to invite back to campus. “The number one driver for all decisions is public health,” declared Farley, referring to the primary goals that would ensure a safe fall semester. “Number two is academic progression and seniors have the least amount of time to make up for lost work and capstones are such a driving part of the academic experience.”
Thus in fall 2020, ultimately, it was first year students who largely were relegated to a remote semester based in their respective home countries.
Making the Decision
With around 620 students living on campus during the fall, the focus quickly shifted to the spring semester. Michael Martinez, Associate Dean of Students, credited the students in fall who followed the strict set of guidelines as a prominent reason for being able to drastically increase the prospective number in the spring.
Farley shared that the empathy factor – of realizing how much it meant to some people to be on campus – was crucial in driving the administration to welcome more students in the spring. “[we thought significantly] about first years. They weren't here last semester,” he said. “We also recognize how important it is to be physically together, even if there's distance, even if your courses are online.”
Another key factor was Diversity, Equity and Inclusion which, Farley added, was a driving force for most of the administration’s decisions during this period. “We've thought a lot about passport privilege, internet access, resources, etc.,” he said. “And so this idea of bringing everyone together was about equity and inclusion as well.”
Therefore, over the fall semester, the administration made a radical decision: that any student who wished to return to campus in the spring would be permitted to do so. “I think what was so beautiful is that there was agreement across the board that this is kind of who we are and the costs were outweighed by the potential to support the student community,” concluded Farley, referencing the collective decision with senior leadership and government partners.
Obstacles Along the Way
Realizing this decision however, was far from easy. Understandably, there were numerous difficulties in finalizing the arrangement. “One was the impact it would have on staff,” noted Farley. “Campus Life in particular, but also Global Ed, Public Safety, Immigration procurement: the decision to invite everyone back meant a lot of staff lost their winter break and a lot of those staff didn't have much of a summer break.”
Another major fear was inviting everyone back so far in advance in such a quickly shifting landscape. “What would it mean if we said, here's what we're going to do and then had to pull back and say, oh, actually, we're unable to live up to that?” Farley asked.
But instead of allowing the challenges of the arrival process to be a limiting factor, Martinez described how they focused on relationships with the Ministry of Health to ensure that the university was trusted to facilitate their own quarantine procedures. While in the fall, some students had to spend up to 17 days in a government facility; this spring, just one student was sent to the facility and was able to leave within a few hours, because of the administration's efforts.
Gauging Numbers and Assessing Campus Capacity
For the Spring semester, 1,395 students had initially indicated that they would like to return to campus if able to. This posed a problem, explained Martinez regarding limited housing capacity on campus. Although there are not enough bedrooms on campus to accommodate that number of students, the university was accounting for a significant amount of last minute student drop-offs, similar to what occured in the Fall semester.
“Part of the reason… we had to wait a while to make housing assignments was because we didn't want to assign people to housing and make a plan for off campus housing if we had some reasonable suspicion that the numbers would drop down to the point where we could accommodate them,” explained Martinez. “And of course, they have.”
Nonetheless, the sheer numbers required the university to activate graduate housing as temporary placements for undergraduates, while retaining one building as a designated space for any positive cases to isolate. “Re-configuring that space is no small feat,” said Martinez, describing the moving target throughout the winter of whether the number of returning students would ultimately fit the low density model. By design or by luck, it did.
Beyond residential capacity, there were numerous other outstanding variables that caused last minute changes. When the Ministry of Education changed their guidelines to only one person per bathroom during quarantine, the university was 300 rooms short to host all students in need of quarantine on campus. “That's why we had to basically run four hotels and a campus to run five sites simultaneously,” Farley said. And when a new strain of the virus arose, the border between Emirates closed, requiring students to wait for test results in Dubai.
Managing Travel and Visas
A large burden of the preparation for the arrival window also fell on the Office of Global Education.
Global Education was continuously monitoring the rapidly changing travel regulations in each country with team member Denver Mazumdar, Student Mobility Specialist, and working alongside a travel agency to communicate with students facing airline cancellations just a few hours before they were set to travel. “That is the rollercoaster of processes that we have that we have always been able to predict, protocols that we've been able to control, all thrown up in the air because we are not in control of airlines, governments and unfortunately, how the virus is moving and developing,” added Katya Grim, Assistant Vice Provost, Global Education Administration.
One of the students who faced an onslaught of challenges was Mari Soler, Class of 2022, who attempted to board three different flights and spent hundreds of dollars on PCR testing. Although communicating back and forth with the university and the travel agency, Soler was discouraged by canned responses and a lack of assistance she received from those helping to coordinate her travel.
“I was excited to make the journey back to campus,” explained Soler, who was flying from Puerto Rico. “That journey has always meant so much… It also felt like, even if [the university] said they were welcoming all students, just having that lack of support during the flight felt like they weren’t welcoming us.”
Throughout, flight scheduling depended on visa validity. In April, the UAE Government extended current visas until the end of December. Global Ed liaised with the Immigration team to ensure that visa processes were running smoothly and determined the process of bringing first year students to Abu Dhabi with the regular entry permit system currently suspended. After the government made a handful of policy shifts — and Global Ed shifted their plans three times as well — first year students were able to receive entry permits.
Arrivals and Quarantines
“It was decided basically right before winter break that really the best way to leverage these active visas is to create an arrival window for students who have them,” Martinez said, explaining the reasoning for inviting students with active visas back to campus before Dec. 31.
This smaller wave of arrivals, including the 14 students in December who transited through Dubai, provided a test run for the much larger process that would take place a few weeks later.
As of Jan. 25, there were eight students who were still in the process of completing their quarantine. “The last person here will complete their quarantine on Jan. 30. We opened this hotel on Jan. 7. And so that gives you some sense of how long we've had to have staff coverage here,” explained Martinez, who was himself video calling in from the Holiday Inn.
“It wasn't mandatory for any Campus Life staff member to do, but we were asked to volunteer, given that this was just such a big production,” explained Sara Amjad, Assistant Director of Student Activities and First Year Experience, who spent a week overseeing quarantine at a hotel in Dubai. “There wasn't enough time to figure out all the pieces, so we needed people on the ground who could actually help connect the dots: Nirvana, testing center, hotel and Finance.”
In total, 21 staff members across university departments have spent a collective 107 nights in hotels in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
For Gladys Tarisai Mwedzi, Class of 2020 and Dean's Fellow, who spent 17 days living and working in Centro Yas Island Hotel, the exertion was non stop: “You work around the clock, it is not a nine to five. Students arrive at any time.” From ensuring that the hotel reception was prepared to receive the students to answering questions in an informal Whatsapp group, Mwedzi described the process as tiring, but consistent.
On day eight, the staff members stationed at the hotel would organize PCR testing, coordinating with nurses to go to the correct hotel rooms, door by door. On day 10, Mwedzi described how the students would take university transportation to get government trackers removed before packing up their rooms and heading to campus.
While this did not feel like Marhaba programming, Amjad recalled that it was wonderful to be around other staff members and to at least get to see the students. “I haven't felt that kind of high energy in a really long time, just because I think the Zoom energy is not the same as the high energy that I would feel from an in-person meeting,” she said. “I got to see many first year students for the first time.”
“This whole three week period really blew my mind,” said Mwedzi. “You see people working 24/7, which is just impressive.”
For Amjad, this whole enterprise was an example of different departments working together to accomplish a shared mission: student safety and comfort. “I think it kind of reminds you why you do what you do, like being on a team that feels so driven towards that shared goal and the shared goal is student focused,” she reflected.
Farley reiterated the importance of sacrifice and patience in testing moments like these, when not every outcome can be ideal for every student. “I think we fell short in communicating to students just how much was going on in order to make it happen,” reflected Martinez. “Not as a way of asking for gratitude, but as a way of showing them how important it is to us that they're here and how far we're willing to go to bring them here. That, to me, is the piece of the story that's still missing.”
Kaashif Hajee is Editor-in-Chief. Caroline Sullivan is Senior Features Editor. Email them at
gazelle logo