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Illustration Courtesy of Jam Moreno

Centering First Generation Students at NYU Abu Dhabi: There’s Still Progress to be Made

Recently, we have seen positive and explicit institutional acknowledgments of first generation students and their experiences at NYUAD. While these are deeply welcome, we must also drive community conversations in tandem with institutional advocacy.

Dec 12, 2021

“I prepared myself to deal with everything alone,” said Ruqayyah Irshadeen, Class of 2025 when The Gazelle spoke to her about her experience of being a first-generation student at NYU Abu Dhabi.
Traditionally, U.S. higher education institutions have defined first-generation college students as those whose parents do not hold a four year college degree. However, more recently, many higher education institutions, for instance Brown and Harvard Business School, have resorted to broader — and consequentially, more inclusive — definitions. To illustrate this, Brown welcomes “any student who self-identifies as having had limited exposure to the college application and college-going experience” to be a part of their first-generation community.
At NYUAD, with the introduction of the Department of Student Success and Well-being this year, we have seen a more direct and structural approach to supporting first-generation students. The department recognized First-Generation College celebration day on Nov. 8th to raise awareness about the traditional and non-traditional first-generation college experiences for the first time. One of the ways in which this structural approach has manifested is through the expansion of the traditional definition of first-generation college students.
“The U.S. is not the gatekeeper [of] higher education, nor is it that standard of excellence in terms of how we value degrees from the United States versus how we value degrees from other countries,” commented Fatiah Touray, Senior Director of the Office of Inclusion and Equity at NYUAD.
In line with this reasoning, NYUAD has redefined and expanded upon the existing definition for first generation students. “This Western definition [of being first-generation] fails to encompass the experiences of students at NYUAD whose parents have completed a four-year degree, however, their curriculum, structure and/or college experience was very different from the student’s lived experience at NYUAD,” shared Tina Wadhwa, the Director of Department of Student Success and Wellbeing.
The department, under Wadhwa’s leadership, has taken up the task to build tailored support structures for first-generation students at NYUAD, with an ambitious focus on academic coaching. The expanded definition highlights some of the key characteristics of the first-generation college student experience as being confused surrounding how to navigate institutional policies and procedure, feeling unfamiliar with existing structures of support or not feeling comfortable accessing said structures and experiencing impostor syndrome or feeling alienated.
The Gazelle spoke to numerous self-identified first-generation students to better understand their experience at NYUAD. We found that for many first-generation college students, navigating academic structures and professional-development resources, such as the Career Development Center (despite CDC offering programming that is oriented toward first-generation students) can be a daunting prospect.
“To CDC, I have never reached out partly because I am scared of having my CV judged and because I [haven’t had] a lot of highschool experience… and I don’t have a lot of assistantships under my belt,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous, hereon identified as Clair Zane. Zane further shared that while professors and academic mentors had been immensely supportive in her undergraduate academic career thus far, she had yet to tap into more structural and formal institutional resources such as CDC or the Department of Student Success and Wellbeing.
While first-generation students may not always be quick to access resources and make use of support structures available to them, this does not necessarily imply that these structures and resources are intrinsically inaccessible.
“I’m still figuring out the ropes so I haven’t turned to many academic institutions. I haven’t needed [them] as of yet, but I have a feeling that when I do need [them], I can access [them]…” commented Gaya Menon, Class of 2025. “I know where to go and I have the faith that when I go there and [even if] I’m not in the right place, they will direct me to the right department.”
While Menon — a Political Science and Literature & Creative Writing double-major — is comfortable accessing many of the existing support structures (whether that be CDC, academic mentors, academic coaching at Student Success etc.), she still often cannot help but feel like she is piecing together what a liberal arts education really looks like and has to occasionally struggle with impostor syndrome.
On a similar note, Irshadeen, shared with The Gazelle: “...even here I haven’t [attended] any office hour[s] yet, because it’s not something I thought I could do at university and honestly I think I’m a bit scared to.”
When probed on what had sparked this fear for Irshadeen, she elaborated: “My parents kind of always looked at authorities in education as people [one] should respect but stay away from.”
On the academic front, to address some of the obstacles discussed above, Senior Director Touray has been working to build trainings in partnership with the Hilary Ballon Center for Teaching and Learning that make the classroom a more comfortable setting for first generation students. Come next fall, these trainings — with their focus on diversity and equity — will be administered to all incoming faculty. To this end, Touray shared: “I think it's important for our faculties [to know what the] educational system [is] like in India or Pakistan… or in the United States or even in China. What is the knowledge base in the classroom structure that students are used to and coming from all of these different kind[s] of high schools around the world.”
For some upper-class students, a consistent theme that emerged was a need for support in making important academic decisions during their undergraduate career. Whether this be selecting courses or pursuing a particular major, applying for graduate school or professional opportunities, students desired support in making these decisions: especially when their parents had been unable to fill this deficit adequately. For others, it can be daunting to think about building a professional network with no safety-net, with no one to fall back on: in relation to resources, information and connections.
“One of the main areas that I am very concerned about is graduate school because I have to — for legal and safety reasons — go to graduate school so that I can have a place to go to,” shared Zane, a junior. For Zane, being first-generation has meant independently making tough academic decisions like pursuing literature despite her parents disapproval: “Them [Zane’s parents] not having experience in a liberal arts college or a university where you can pick and choose your major based on your interest and not on what people pick out for you affects how they view and value what you’re doing: your work, your study, and you as a human being…”
There was also an expression of dissonance that first-generation students often face during their time on campus and when they go back home during breaks. This dissonance in turn, and the experience of being a first-generation, can alter students’ relationships with their parents.
“I don’t think people understand how our relationship with our parents change[s] because we’re first gen[eration]… just the fact [that] we have to think about our career… build our own financial stability because our parents can’t provide that to us,” said Bruna Pereira, Class of 2025. “The expectations our parents put on us are a bit different, not more harsh or anything, but different.”
While NYUAD’s financial aid can go a long way in alleviating economic disparities on campus and can often increase access to opportunities, off-campus, however, these disparities remain intact — serving as an unwelcome reminder at the end of each semester when low income first-generation students return to home. And when combined with the post-graduation pressures of finding employment, inequities are only cemented and students’ experience on campus can feel a bit like a bubble of escapism, about to burst at any moment.
“It also means that the financial situation back home is not very healthy. For example, in my case I work 2-3 jobs in addition to my studies because I have to send money back home for my younger siblings to study…and that also applies to graduate school. How do I go about saving money for that? What will the finances look like? Can I even afford to go to graduate school?” Zane articulated. Whether it be the financial burden of having to support their families back at home, home insecurity, or unstable familial environments, first-generation students are more likely to be vulnerable in a variety of ways. This is a challenge that becomes difficult to grapple with institutionally.
As per the Campus Climate Assessment Report, conducted by the Center for Diversity and Inclusion in Higher Education this semester, first-generation students make up for 16.5 percent of the student body. For the Class of 2025, according to recent infographics released by the instituton, that number is as high as 20 percent. Clearly, even based on conservative estimates, first-generation students are a key stakeholder in the community.
However, despite this, for quite some time, as a community we have struggled to adequately foster conversation surrounding the experiences of first generation students. This can be seen on two major fronts: students’ hesitation to self-identify as first generation and the lack of such conversations in both intimate settings as well as at a community-wide level.
When asked if he would self-identify as first-generation, Dylan Herman, Class of 2024, responded: “I would never go around and call myself a first generation student…but I think I fit the definition based on those checkmarks [that comprise the definition of non-traditional first generation students as outlined by Student Success.] ”
Wadhwa told The Gazelle that this is a common obstacle in working around the first-generation experience: “From my experience and conversations with students over the years, a few things were very clear. Firstly, many students who are considered ‘first-generation college students' at NYUAD are not aware of this, nor do they know how this might impact them in navigating University-life.”
This is a finding that was only restrengthened when The Gazelle spoke to students. There’s a hesitation to identify as first generation: many seem to feel that adopting this broader definition of non-traditional first generation students may minimize the experiences of their peers that fit more traditional categories. On this note, it is important to remark that labels can be both empowering and self-defeating — and this is something that must be taken into careful consideration in dialogue around first generation students and building tailored support for them.
On the other hand, there’s a need to embed many of these conversations within our community and a need to power these conversations at a peer-to-peer level. When The Gazelle asked Zane if her experiences were something she felt comfortable sharing with those close to her, she commented: “When I see people that take for granted the fact that their parents are wealthy, or that their parents are educated or that their parents know what it is like to be in college… I cannot help but feel like they are bragging…” explained Zane. “There’s no space for someone like me to speak up. Even if I do, there’s some kind of unwritten judgment.”
As we push the institution to build more structures of support, as a community, we too must do better ourselves. It is our responsibility to construct safer spaces that can foster community conversations surrounding the experiences of first generation students and to center first generation students in our advocacy.
Vatsa Singh is Managing Editor and Sara Vuksanovic is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at
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