Illustration by Clara Juong

Drowning at NYUAD: Finding Space in a Ceaseless Work Culture

Life at NYUAD never turns off — work seems to bleed interminably into weekends, holidays, and other free time. How do we find space for ourselves in this system?

Nov 13, 2022

Welcome to NYU Abu Dhabi. It is time you get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable because you are about to get hit by a firehose of assignments, events, social expectations, and extracurricular activities.
Personally, I have found that life at NYUAD feels a bit like treading water: it is a continual, day-to-day battle to keep going and keep pushing yourself through the semester. No matter how hard your feet are pedaling to keep you above water, it is never quite enough to allow you to relax for more than one or two days at best. Worse, when life throws you a curveball — be it mental health, natural disasters back home, or family emergencies — you are expected, for the most part, to keep pedaling and not drown.
No matter how hard you work, it may always feel like you never have enough time and that you are always rushing at the last minute to finish assignments or find one free hour to study for that midterm. Even though you want to get ahead and quit that procrastination game, it feels impossible to think about what you have next week if you are up all night finishing what is due tomorrow. On one hand, I can count the number of days this semester that I have successfully completed my daily to-do list.
Most of these expectations don’t even let up after class periods end or on the weekends. I’ve spent hours following along in mandatory office hours until 11:30 p.m. Professors constantly assign projects, readings, and videos for you to watch during your scarce and limited holidays and breaks. This semester, I’ve seen my weekend free time slashed in half as I cram GEPS summaries and Cyberwarfare readings before Monday mornings.
How are we supposed to survive in such a ceaselessly demanding environment? After a lot of stress and frustration, I’ve begun to find comfort in embracing the struggle. I’ve looked around and talked to enough people that I know I’m not the only one who feels like they’re barely staying on top of things. I’ve had to recognize that that is simply how life is here: you are constantly cramming to stay caught up, and that is okay. College is supposed to challenge you, and if it doesn’t, then it’s probably not worth your time. Looking around further, what’s particularly unintuitive and striking is the hustle culture that thrives in the NYUAD community. While most students, including myself, can barely keep up with their academic expectations in the first place, many of those same students sign up to do so many more extracurriculars. The Gazelle team, for example, starts at 4:00 PM every Sunday and works until the wee hours of Monday morning to publish a paper for which they don’t even get paid. What’s with all this self-hatred and desire to stress ourselves out more than we already are? Where is it coming from?
From what I’ve observed, a lot of us, to an extent, “collect” extracurriculars and “wear” them around campus, almost like the pins that you collect and wear on your jacket. You get one pin for your SIG, one for being in student government, and another for your overload class. Your extra responsibilities play into your social status and the respect others give you.
The NYUAD community is unique. I think that, at some level, underneath a lot of pain and stress, there is fulfillment and contentment in doing difficult things and making an impact. We take pride, rightfully so, in what we achieve through our hard-fought blood, sweat, and tears. After all, we’re only here for four years… we might as well make the most of it, right?
In the process of figuring out how much you can take on, though, too many of these seemingly great pins can weigh you down until you’re completely drowning and unable to breathe. Being in this position, some students try to do it all, which often leads to all of their work turning into a quantity-over-quality game. If you find yourself here, you’ll quickly find your motivation, pride, and fulfillment in your work diminishing as you turn into a jack of all trades and yet a master of none who is never able to catch a full breath of air. For others, the stress can be consuming and paralyzing — forcing them to take a leave of absence or withdraw from a class. These are just two reactions, neither of which is right or wrong. Both are completely valid and part of a bigger process of coming to a larger realization.
Understanding this dichotomy between knowing what you can handle and pushing yourself to your highest potential is crucial to surviving at NYUAD. There’s no perfect solution or formula to getting this right, but one thing that’s helped me is learning how to say no. You’re not a superhero, and you can’t be expected to do everything or make everyone happy. Practice saying no if you can’t do something or don’t have the time. Another tool is not pretending to be thriving when you’re not. Nobody is happy all the time; pretending that you are creates an image for others to try and fail to live up to.
For me, embracing the fact that we are all supposed to be treading water has allowed me to release my guilt for not being able to finish every reading or do every assignment as well as I might want to if I had unlimited time. We are all only human, and there’s only so much we can do in 24 hours. Prioritize what’s most important, do what you can, and don’t spend time feeling bad about what you couldn’t do.
Turning back to treading water, it’s difficult to see how far you’ve actually progressed when you’re too busy keeping yourself above the water to be noticed. This university will likely push you further than you’ve been pushed before. But in doing so, it will make you realize that you’re far more capable than what you recognized before you came to the university. If you start drowning, recognize that it’s okay to pull back on an extracurricular or withdraw from a class in order to preserve your own health. Above everything else, taking care of yourself should always be your first priority.
Corban Villa is Web Chief and Opinion Editor. Email him at
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