cover image

Illustration Courtesy of Zelalem Waritu.

“What’s In A Major? Understanding Arab Crossroads Studies at NYUAD”

Arab Crossroads Studies is NYUAD’s flagship major that intersects Social Sciences and Humanities, yet it has one of the smallest number of students. In a conversation with students and faculty, this piece explores all that ACS has to offer.

Dec 12, 2021

When I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi from Moldova, I had been determined to pursue Political Science as my major. However, after spending a couple of weeks engaging with my courses, specifically Feminism and Islamism in the MENA, I realized how much I had yet to discover about the university as well as the UAE. Through the course, I got acquainted with a major I had previously heard nothing about — Arab Crossroads Studies. I started peeling off the layers of the ACS’s curriculum, and the closer I got to the core, the more excited I became at the prospect of studying ACS.
I joined the ACS group chat, excited to meet other people pursuing the major, only to find that there are 17 of us. To put it in perspective, there are approximately 120 students majoring in Political Science at NYUAD. This prompted me to question why, given our geographical position, there is a small number of students interested in majoring in ACS. Does the ACS curriculum lack flexibility? Am I choosing something that is captivating only at a surface level?
To my relief, Ania Rygielska, Class of 2024, shared that as a current ACS student, she is able to take courses in various fields while still focusing on the MENA region. “I feel like I am receiving a very holistic, humanistic education,” she said.
Melissa Levinson, Class of 2018, agreed that versatility is a key advantage of the ACS program. “I know it sounds cliché but [the advantage of the major] is the multidisciplinary approach that it takes. You can take classes that focus on economics, anthropology, politics, history, and each one of them approaches the region from a different perspective,” Levinson shared. “Through your capstone and the electives that you get to take, you are able to combine different approaches to address a variety of topics in a much more holistic way than you would within other majors.”
Maurice Pomerantz, Program Head of Arab Crossroads Studies and Associate Professor of Literature, reinforced the idea that ACS students are not limited to one field of study and touched on the Arabic proficiency requirement of those pursuing the major. “Knowing a language is important, thinking about culture as you read texts, as you do an ethnography being able to communicate and understand subtleties —we know these things instinctively… so, why can’t we [various departments] also be interdisciplinary, why can’t we see beyond the narrowness of our chosen lens?”
Furthermore, Dr. Pomerantz commented on how the multidisciplinarity of ACS is also reflected through its faculty composition. “It is a pleasure to be in a program with anthropologists, people within the Social Sciences, historians,” he shared. “I find it very enriching to have colleagues who do not necessarily share the same disciplinary background as I do.”
Through conversations with ACS faculty members, who have been part of the program since its beginning, there is a sense of pride in the vision of both the university and the major. The mission of cultivating an understanding of interdisciplinarity and the importance of going beyond theoretical knowledge and out into the world seems intrinsic to the foundational bricks of both NYUAD and Arab Crossroads Studies.
Erin Pettigrew, Assistant Professor of History and Arab Crossroads Studies and Global Network Assistant Professor of History, commented on the ACS faculty members’ variety of geographic areas of study, such as Morocco, Yemen and the UAE. This accentuated the ways in which diverse areas of study complement the multidimensional and atypical major.
However, a unique yet problematic aspect of ACS is its name. Almost all interviewees noted the major name as one of the leading causes for the small number of students pursuing it. There is a sense of confusion and worry, that students expressed, of having to explain what Arab Crossroads Studies represents to future employers. They feared that the name would be unclear to suggest the major as an in-depth exploration of the Middle East.
Sofia Delgado, Class of 2022 and current ACS representative, said that although she appreciates the department trying to establish some distance between the orientalist perspective many US institutions present alongside their Middle Eastern Studies programs, students are still trying to find effective ways to encapsulate the meaning of Arab Crossroads Studies for their graduate school applications.
Nathalie Peutz, Associate Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies and Anthropology and Network Associate Professor of Anthropology, addressed these concerns: “I understand that some students wanted us to change the name to Middle East Studies, but we thought that would be a step back.” Instead, she mentioned the future possibility of forming a center for Arab Crossroads Studies in which students would be able to pursue a Middle Eastern Studies major.
“What students may want for a diploma is different from what we’re trying to do as an intellectual project. I love the name as an intellectual project, but it might be a little less legible for students as a degree granting program,” she explained.
The discussions with students and faculty showcased a need for maintaining a stronger dialogue between the two. Considering the small department size, fostering a discussion between faculty members and current students may yield benefits in terms of shaping the curriculum, expressing concerns regarding the representation of ACS by the university and exchanging thoughts on how to bolster the interest of applicants to major in ACS.
When asked about how she sees the future of ACS, Dr. Pettigrew said, “I think all of this needs to be done in conversation with students. Even if we're teaching students, we don't always have moments to reflect. I think, from a faculty point of view, we always want to grow, and it's really hard to do so with an administration that says ‘We're only going to allow you to hire more faculty if you show enrollment numbers.’”
While ACS is a small program, it does not lack potential for growth and development. “We should have one of the preeminent centers of the study of the Arab world, and that would ideally mean engaging more students, maybe having a master's program at a certain point and building up faculty so that we are producing a crucial amount of research that would draw attention to the department,” said Dr. Erin Pettigrew.
It seems clear that students and professors alike share the same passion for ACS as it stands and a vivid interest in expanding its vision and reach. With its mission of nurturing an appreciation for interdisciplinarity and curiosity, Arab Crossroads Studies has been and will continue to be a flagship of this institution.
Amina Rotari is a Staff Writer. Email her at
gazelle logo