Illustration by Katie Ferreol.

Fighting First Year FOMO

Perhaps a first year experience should not exclusively revolve around extravagant engagements and travel and we shouldn’t let anything behind a screen influence that.

Apr 10, 2021

It is 8:05 p.m., Wednesday night, spring break 2021. I walk into the dining hall looking for signs of life, but it seems everyone has disappeared to Al Maya Island, Hamdan Street or Yas Mall. It’s a peaceful change from the chaotic scenes of the first few weeks, but I begin to wonder: was I left out? Was there some secret in person orientation I wasn’t a part of? I settled on another chicken burger at grab-and-go.
A year ago, I imagined I would have a spring break trip to Turkey or Jordan, an NYU Abu Dhabi rite of passage. And of course, I imagined the Instagram photos that would accompany such a trip. Social media platforms are designed explicitly to entrap us: to keep us craving likes, seeing other people and comparing ourselves to them, checking whenever we have a spare moment. And at a university where practically everything is communicated through Facebook groups, it becomes even more difficult to reign in its use.
An academic year conducted exclusively through screens and a semester confined to our homes only compels us to look out through the metaphorical windows created by social media. I know I have found myself compulsively checking my Instagram, my messages or even NYUAD Facebook groups on instinct. I built such a strong image of NYUAD and my classmates as something that only existed behind screens, that the physical reality when I arrived created a disconcerting reset.
Living at NYUAD still makes me feel as if I need to be going out constantly and getting something out of my college experience — the new friends and memories that I assume everyone else is making. The goalposts have been moved — Covid-19 disruptions have transformed this from elaborate trips to simple visits to the city — but the pressure is still there.
My preconceived notions of university as this high intensity affair — where I make life changing memories every week — makes me wonder if I am wasting my time. This experience, with all its idiosyncrasies, feels “fake” in a sense.
This is not a problem exclusive to NYUAD. Freshman FOMO – the fear of missing out, is an inescapable part of the experience for many even in normal times, especially this year.
But something about the closeness of NYUAD lends itself to my constant comparisons with my own ideas of a first year. My successful vision of working three assistantships, effortlessly balancing courses, preparing for the future and going out every day collides with my inability to accomplish anything close to this. At the same time, I feel like others are accomplishing those nonetheless.
But these images do not reflect the reality of the struggles we all face — most of us are hours away from all we have ever known and surrounded by a more talented environment than we have ever seen. This year, we have the additional hurdle of housing assignments that prevent us from living surrounded by other first years and the inability to see peers in person. This is a key facet of non-Covid-19 times that is necessary to generate close relationships.
After remembering the strange peace I felt when the Holiday Inn Wi-Fi broke during quarantine, I decided to dedicate a day to myself during spring break by not checking any of my social media platforms. I realized just how ingrained my thought patterns were and had to make a conscious effort to disrupt them.
It is undeniable that we have lost many experiences and we can not know what those would have meant to us. Perhaps a first year experience should not exclusively revolve around extravagant engagements and travel and we shouldn’t let anything behind a screen influence that. If we focus on the question of “are we missing out?,” we let that sense of FOMO dominate our experience.
Freshman year can feel like a blur even in the best of times and starting a new life in a new place is never going to be easy. But the platforms on which we spend our time can make us feel more lost and more empty if we are not careful. Coming to appreciate the NYUAD experience for what it is, with all the limitations and loss of this year, is a complex challenge that I am still attempting to solve. But now is an opportune moment to build the healthy habits that will pay dividends in the “after times” — when mask mandates and group restrictions are just a distant memory.
Ethan Fulton is Columns Editor. Email him at
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