A couple of days ago it occurred to me that, at this time last year, I was taking the exams for my IB Diploma. Today I am sitting in my dorm room going through the final readings, problem sets and essays of my freshman year in college. I try to make sense of everything that has happened this past year; I try putting together snapshots of the places I’ve been, passages from the books I’ve read, faces of the people I’ve met and thoughts about those I’ve missed while away from home. The image is blurry, but a collection of blurred lines is perhaps the best way to describe what this first year after graduation has been for me.
When I first arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi, I felt confident that I was an open-minded, well-informed individual. Only two weeks into my first semester, I started questioning those assumptions. That might sound strange to those who know me back home. I am very liberal and relatively aware of the world around me. So why would I question my values in a university with a student body coming from over a hundred countries, where a myriad of languages are spoken in every hallway and where there are people with whom to discuss almost every issue under the sun? Many would think that there is no better place for me. But a couple of days after my arrival in Abu Dhabi, I realized that, although I had advocated for the acceptance of difference my whole life, I had not yet coexisted with that very difference. And it is when you have to eat, sleep and mingle with difference that things get tough.
I had never encountered a religion so integrated into daily life and encompassing such a wide variety of interpretations as Islam, nor come across environmental advocates so committed to their cause as to consider the environmental implications of every aspect of their consumption. These examples detail only a few of the countless examples of diversity that can be found here. Living with such diversity entailed reconsidering my stance on these issues — and many more — on a daily basis, an endeavor I had never undertaken before. This was because most of the conversations I held during the last nineteen years occurred in a self-contained environment that allowed little room for difference. I know this is a big statement, and of course I cherish and appreciate those conversations, but the issue remains: I was not really prepared to be confronted by worldviews radically opposed to mine. However, I brought that upon myself when I accepted NYUAD’s offer. By coming here I chose to expose myself to heated debates, contentious issues and tough questions.
Faced with this situation and on the verge of despair, I looked into the toolkit I had collected over 14 years of formal education in Colombia. I must admit that the outcome of this search didn’t make me all that hopeful. My Social Science and History curriculum did not include anything about networks of migration across the Indian Ocean. In Philosophy class they never told us about Confucius and the approach of Oriental philosophies to the self and society. My literature assignments never prepared me to construct complex critiques of the travel accounts of the first European colonizers. I was a lost freshman wondering how to navigate an ocean of possibility and conflict. But then I remembered perhaps the most elemental thing I learned at school. I remembered to listen, and to listen carefully.
Since remembering to listen, I’ve been to seven countries, from Europe to the Middle East to Southeast Asia. I have overheard and engaged in more conversations than I can remember. I have prayed to gods I didn’t know existed in places I never thought I’d see. I have failed to learn Arabic. I have tasted things I thought would kill me, and I’ve seen some things that I’d rather not see again.
Through all of this, I have realized that listening does not make issues less contentious or questions less difficult. I will continue to grapple with the conflict between my prejudices and new contexts. I will continue to feel unconformable with certain topics. I will continue to feel puzzled by certain ideas and beliefs. I will continue to be confused, and I will continue to try to make sense of all that has happened and all that will happen. But in that sustained effort, I will also remember that self-contained environment with little room for difference that I call home, and I will listen. And with every time I listen, I will be one step closer to understanding.
Sebastián Rojas Cabal is the deputy news editor. Email him at email@example.com.