When the NYUAD Life Ends

Travel is the defining feature of our university. With up to two semesters and two January Terms abroad built into our degrees, travel is an inevitable ...

Nov 15, 2014

Travel is the defining feature of our university. With up to two semesters and two January Terms abroad built into our degrees, travel is an inevitable part of our lives. With generous summer internship grants, international class trips and, for those who get them, stipends that allow students to travel overseas during semester breaks, there are always multiple NYU Abu Dhabi students soaring in the stratosphere.
Coming from a middle class Australian family that preferred to go camping in the bush over getting on a plane, I had only left my home country once before coming to NYUAD. Since arriving in the dusty desert however, I have travelled to over 20 countries, at times free of charge, courtesy of my debate team and class trips, as well as self-funded travel. Every so often on this crazy adventure, I stop for a moment and try to comprehend how lucky I am and how utterly unlikely it is that I happen to be where I am. I am so unfathomably ignorant, so mind-blowing average and immensely undeserving. Deep down, I’m still that clumsy suburban kid with the Velcro wallet that goes to football practice after school and works at KFC on the weekends.
But travel does change you, and this is something that we should all be aware of.  Reflecting on his own experiences, junior Andres Rodriguez in his article Travelling is Insufficient for Cultural Understanding discusses how travelling makes us think that we’re becoming smarter and more cultured, when this is not always true. He claims that true learning comes through much more active engagement like reading, whereas travelling, especially for short periods of time, can only really be a supplement. In a similar vein, sophomore Sam Ball, in his article Unpack your Travel Privilege examines how travel with NYUAD makes us develop a false sense of security.
We will often travel “to a place that is known for its instability,” Ball claims, “and expect to be protected by a certain, cosmopolitan accepting safety bubble.”
Beyond NYUAD, Harvard researchers found that having extraordinary experiences like overseas travel can have a large social cost.
The researchers found that, “when people socialize, those who had the same experience, no matter how mundane, enjoyed chatting about it together” and that “those same people might well exclude the person who thought others couldn’t wait to hear all about his or her most unusual one.”
This research parallels some of my own observations. When I Skype my mother every one or two weeks, for example, she doesn’t really care that I went hiking in the Simian Mountains or met Gordon Brown. In fact most of our conversations are about my neighborhood, how the roses need pruning and how my brother is doing at school. When I come home briefly for the Christmas holidays and I see my old friends from high school, I find it really difficult to talk about my experiences abroad — I can’t help but feel like I’m being pretentious or arrogant. At times, it feels like my whole life is a collection of “you had to be there” moments, but I was the only one there.
Indeed, the only people that do understand what its like to be an NYUAD student are other NYUAD students. When I talk to my friends who I travelled to Sri Lanka with for spring break in freshman year, I don’t feel pretentious or arrogant and I don’t feel like I have to explain everything to them. They understand why we went there, what we learned and what we felt. The same is true for the other extraordinary experiences NYUAD offers. I feel like I can only talk about it with other NYUAD students. I am sure that other students here feel the same way.
The result of this is that the bonding at our university is like that of a fraternity. Fraternities create bizarre, extraordinary rituals that they require new members to participate in, commonly known as pledging. Pledging creates a shared experience that can only be shared by those in the fraternity, something that only members will understand. This shared experience certainly creates group cohesion, but it also separates new members from the outside. Other relationships, like those with family or friends outside the fraternity, often fall away. Before long, an individual’s identity becomes that of the fraternity. I argue that similarly, at our extraordinary university, our identity becomes that of our university. When I go home now, I feel more like an NYUAD student than that clumsy boy who works at KFC.
The worrying part about this however is that I will not always be an NYUAD student.  Having passed the halfway mark of my career at this university, I can now see the end point. Indeed, I can see the day when I can no longer get on an airplane every second weekend to a destination chosen through the whimsical spinning of a globe. I can see the day that my friends will be scattered again all over the world, too far away for my post-college budget to afford.
This reality is terrifying for me because it feels like going backwards. Being an NYUAD student and having the ability to travel has become such a strong part of my life and my identity. When I think back over the last two years, in my mind, my NYUAD journey is clearly sectioned into locations. Places symbolize periods in my life and the journeys between them symbolize transitions. I feel like my life only jumps forward when I travel to a new continent or a new city. Indeed, platonic and romantic relationships have began and ended because of places and my dreams and goals have been created and abandoned because of where I’ve been or where I’m going.
What I fear exactly, when it all ends, is that I become stuck, both geographically and in my own life narrative. If I end up going back to Adelaide, I feel like I will go back to who I was when I was there. I’m scared that the hostels and the hikes and the international debate competitions will mean nothing because I’ll still have this Velcro wallet and I still have these KFC burns.  Soon, I will have to come to terms with that clumsy suburban kid deep down that is itching to come out.
Daniel Brown is a contributing writer. Email him at
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