Image 1

NYU Accra Dormitories. Image courtesy of Zhong Chen (Zack) Tan

Why NYU Accra? Why Not?

With only 15 students in total — and just three from NYUAD — at the site this semester, it seems as though NYU Accra the site hardly crosses most students’ minds. I can only hope more students come to find a second home here in the future.

“You’re in Ghana? Why?”
I’ve answered this question many times over the past three months as more and more of my friends have realized I’m spending the semester studying at NYU Accra. Somehow, my friends from NYU Abu Dhabi studying away at other NYU global sites in Europe and the United States never seem to get asked this question. With only 15 students in total — just three from NYUAD — at the site this semester, it seems as though NYU Accra hardly crosses most students’ minds. The potential deep-seated subconscious prejudices that prize Western countries as top travel destinations notwithstanding, it may still be a valid question: why NYU Accra?
Where do I begin?
Let’s start with the formal reasons, the ones that got many students and myself approved to study away here. Accra is one of the best sites to spend a semester if you’re interested in fields like international development, public health and history. Admittedly, the course selection can be limited to my major Social Research and Public Policy, affording me the flexibility to have many of my courses double count towards my academic progress. However, in future semesters, this will hopefully be mitigated by a greater range of courses available at the University of Ghana, unavailable to NYU students for the current academic year due to COVID-19 concerns and changes in the University of Ghana’s academic calendar.
There are also many opportunities to gain tangible fieldwork experience. My classmates are involved in supporting the fast-growing social entrepreneurship sector, researching and distributing treatments for neglected tropical diseases and assisting local trailblazers in the nascent theatre and visual arts industries. Personally, I’ve learned so much more from my fieldwork experiences than from any course I’ve ever taken, and they have been invaluable in understanding where I want life to take me after my time at NYUAD.
Deepening my understanding of the field of international development has meant consciously working to meet people involved in the complex work of development and public health in often resource strained contexts. LinkedIn has been my best friend this semester — people have been willing to meet up and talk about their work, with a stranger like me. If you’re like me and asking for an informational interview feels awkward, I’ve found that people are equally receptive to participating in interview-based research. For one of my classes on African feminism this semester, my final project involved interviewing Ghanaian women working in the development sector to counteract stereotypes of African women as passive beneficiaries of local development. It has enabled me to have conversations with them and to understand their highly impactful work in Ghana.
Accra has also been a great place for me to reflect on the motivation behind my interest in international development and public health. Both fields have very colonial roots and it’s easy to assume the West has figured them all out and the rest of the world just needs more time to catch up. Seeing the situation in Accra firsthand opened my eyes to how things play out in reality and has helped me internalize how theorizing can only get one so far in cutting through the complexity of development.
Still, I wondered if I had been falling prey to the reductive seduction of other people's problems, of coming from a position of privilege and wanting to save people. Had I been subconsciously seeing my semester in Accra as a voluntourism trip influenced by popular international representations of Africa and Ghana as a place of need, catastrophe and deprivation? Experiencing the relatively luxurious neighborhood of Labone did not come as a surprise to me, unlike my friends back home, who replied to my Instagram stories with statements like “this doesn’t look like Africa”. Still, that seems to be a low standard to attain. I’ve had the chance to reflect on my ideals, and how they can, at times, translate to patronizing feelings of pity rather than empathy.
Image 2
Students from NYUAD, NYU New York, and NYU Shanghai at NYU Accra this semester. Image courtesy of NYU Accra.
Ghana is a great place for adventures. One of the only other articles written about NYU Accra in The Gazelle [covered] ( the hidden gems Ghana provides. Ghana has no shortage of beautiful natural expanses, including Kakum National Park, Mole National Park and Mountain Afadja. The school organizes trips to many of these locales for students, and it’s been relatively easy to plan our own trips to other places.
Image 3
Trip to Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, planned by a local tour company. Image courtesy of Yenkor Kyin
Within the urban environment of Accra, leisure spots typically include beach resorts and hotels, along with eateries providing local foods (jollof rice has been my absolute favorite, as all my friends know by now) as well as a variety of international cuisines.
Image 5
Jollof Rice. Image courtesy of Zhong Chen (Zack) Tan
The nightlife has also been a highlight, speaking as someone who typically hardly enjoys going out to clubs and bars. In fact, I have made some of my closest friends outside of NYU — a group of University of Ghana exchange students — after meeting them at a bar during our second week in Accra.
Image 4
Zen Garden, a restaurant/bar within walking distance of the NYU Accra dormitories. Image courtesy of Zhong Chen (Zack) Tan
Navigating the culture has been an exciting experience. While most people speak English, learning the local dialect of Twi — which comes from a completely different language family than the languages I’ve learned so far, such as Chinese, French and Arabic — has been very fruitful. People here have generally reacted with much joy and surprise hearing me say things like “Maakye. Ɛtɛ sɛn?”, i.e., “Good morning. How are you?” to them.
I chose Accra for the same reason I chose NYUAD — I wanted to immerse myself in environments radically different from my upbringing in the highly urbanized, relatively wealthy country of Singapore. In many ways, my experiences at both NYU Accra and NYUAD have lived up to expectations, but they have also shown how much of those expectations of radical difference have been shaped by how the Middle East and Africa are exoticized in the rest of the world. We aren’t as different as the world has made us feel. I’ve grown so much in the past few months, and I’m glad to say I mostly feel as though I’ve made the most of my time here.
I can only hope more students come to find a second home here in the future. As for me, I feel right at home here in Accra.
Zhong Chen (Zack) Tan is a contributing writer. Email them
gazelle logo