Illustration by Atib Jawad Zion

Is NYUAD The Bad Place?

Marhaba! Everything is fine.

Nov 27, 2022

Remember that sitcom from a few years ago, The Good Place? When it was airing, everyone’s parents, siblings, neighbors and their dogs were talking about it. You might even know one or two old souls who look back to it and say, with a certain dreaminess, “they don’t make them like they used to anymore,” as if they are not referring to a show from 2020. I see where they’re coming from: the characters were witty, and written in a way that appeals to the part of you that believes, deep down, there is good in every human. They had no clue about what they were in for after their passing. When they wake up in the afterlife, a couple of friendly faces and monolithic green letters reading “Welcome! Everything is fine,” induct the group to “The Good Place,” where everything seems more than fine: they are told they can enjoy eternal happiness and be granted every wish.
Despite what the name might suggest, life at “The Good Place” does not go by without trials and tribulations. The first season revolves around the cast’s day to day troubles and conflicts that they course through with utmost humanity, which, for viewers, is difficult not to empathize with. I think that’s what made the show so popular: besides the unique premise for a sitcom, it was just a show about a group of regular people going through their days, without knowledge of anything bigger, like we all do. Until eventually, in the season finale, we find out that The Good Place was all a facade, intricately designed and executed for its residents to torture each other emotionally and psychologically for all of eternity. This is where — bear with me here — might lie an analogy for our own lives at this university.
Everything about New York University Abu Dhabi is perfect — at least on paper. You made it here, on the grounds of your own outstanding merits and after a fierce admissions battle, to be among the top three percent. Immediately you think you should not be here, that you must have ended up here by accident, just like Eleanor and Jason, two of the main characters, who suspect that they were sent to The Good Place by some divine oversight. But now that you are here, the glory is all yours: here is an institution gilded unlike any other, where you are taught by the finest academics, live in spacious dorms furnished generously, and eat at any one of multiple buffets daily. For many of us, the perks are backed by an unmatched financial award package. There’s simply no room for any discomfort, when you have heavily resourced offices to guide you through every unfamiliar terrain, which feels like having your own Janet — the all knowing artificially intelligent robot from the show. These offices are staffed by smooth talking administrators full of affirmations, reminiscent of Michael, the “architect” of the utopia, the first to say, “welcome to The Good Place. Everything is fine.”
But somewhere along the way, you start to notice holes that shouldn’t be there. At first you’re in denial of the small things. You want to eat healthy in college, but dining hall prices are too inflated to fill your plate with a meal swipe. The washing machines flood the laundry rooms regularly while the dryers barely work, and you’re constantly in fear of losing your clothes to petty thefts. You buy essential electronics, but by the time they are delivered to you, the semester is nearly over. You’re going home for the semester break, but you don’t have a storage locker, and so you either have to discard your belongings or cram them in your friends’ lockers. Then eventually, you find yourself up against more serious concerns. The class that you badly needed to take got filled up before you had the chance to register. You’re made to forfeit your financial award to a monopolistic travel agency for essential flight tickets. The emails you sent to admin with the sincerity you don’t spare daily are never replied to. Bryan Waterman announces he’s leaving NYUAD.
I found myself wondering if there was some other way to survive the air of disillusionment on campus, since these analogies weren’t making anything better. In my search for a new perspective on things, the first thing I had to come to terms with was that, unlike in The Good Place, NYUAD was not intricately curated by some divine entity that dictates an ordained course for the life of each individual community member. For starters, our Michael is nowhere near as devilish as Michael the architect of the show’s fictional hell — he’s just a man trying his hardest to do his best by the students, and he can’t even yield supernatural powers. Rather, the space and culture here are products of symbiotic relationships between a broad range of groups and individuals, which means contributions from all sides matter. In the most general terms, by virtue of being here, each of us reserve the power to add or negate something in the community. Either by being in a position of power, as an administrator or a student leader, or by being a student cultivating a narrative on a social platform, we each play a part in the next person’s NYUAD experience.
After recognizing an absence of divine ordinance, the understanding that follows naturally is the existential scope for things to go wrong in any situation. Now that I have a feel for the divorce between this university’s ideal image and the expectations I can realistically have from it, I am less likely to be let down when the state of affairs isn't ideal. It is worth noting that I am not in any way capitulating all my hopes and dreams in one fell swoop. I, just like the next person that worked to earn their place at a liberally funded research institution, am allowed to harbor expectations for things to be the best they can possibly be. However, in the fine prints of my mind, it reads that if at any time things are not the best, that’s not unnatural. The colossal machine that is NYUAD, which consists of countless moving parts, each of them a complex individual with a different personality, set of values, and dynamic abilities, must be credited with space for some turbulence along the way. To borrow from Marx, straying from the ideal is allowed, but if closing this gap means exchanging one’s own personhood for institutional goals, the alienation is dehumanizing. Such alienation from the self “means that each man is alienated from others, and that each of the others is likewise alienated from human life” (1844 Manuscripts, p. 17).
“There is no perfection, only life,” wrote an author I love dearly. In that regard, I must say that NYUAD is just conducive enough for my self actualization, if not a little more. Over my two and a half years here, I’ve learned to reorient my value system, which has led to developing, in my opinion, better yardsticks for judging the quality of my time here. This process would be difficult, if not impossible, to delineate in a clear framework, given that each one of us lives an entirely unique and individual life.
In my own case, what matters to me is that I distance myself from groupthink: I acknowledge the whole of things — the convention and its reverse, stay open to finding connection in unfamiliar spaces, and rarely ever give in to the culture of seeing my progress as a competition. I should reiterate that this article should be read more critically than as a long drawn invitation to “see the brighter side of things.” In other words, here I am in the business of invoking the objective truth that some things here are brighter, and in the cases where they’re not, it's not the worst either. The important knowledge here is that the undergraduate experience, meant to be seen as a passage, doesn’t have to be perfect, and matters regarding its administration should not cost me my peace. If I had to come up with an aphorism for all that I’ve learned, I would gleefully quote Dostoyevsky: “I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.”
Atib Jawad Zion is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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