When we describe it to others, we often link the acronym UWC to a superlative: the best, most challenging, craziest time of your life.
If not, we relate it to some personal first that became a life-changing memory or experience: your first time being away from home, or seeing snow, or falling in love.
Those of us from United World Colleges who have tried conveying our experiences know that making others see precisely what we are talking about is nearly impossible.
How do you sum up an experience that not only changed your life but, in many cases, was your whole life for two years? Because we fail to articulate how we feel about UWC, we often struggle to move on and to immerse ourselves fully in our new university environment.
When we came to UWC, we were between 16 and 18 years old, and convinced that we were mature enough for the next chapter in our lives. We had an infectious hunger for knowledge and new experiences; we wanted to grasp the world and learn how it functions, and we swapped our comfort zones for the uncertainty of early adulthood.
We will perhaps never be as vulnerable as we were in the early stages of our time at UWC. The intimate bonds of friendship we made will remain unique because we shared our transformations as a community; our flaws and strengths were fully exposed, 24/7.
We grew together intellectually, emotionally and socially. We cannot forget the emotional rollercoaster ride we all embarked on, but we must come to terms with a difficult truth: that ride has now ended.
The ways people react after graduation vary, and you might feel anything from deep sadness and nostalgia to gratitude and peace.
No one expects you to stop reminiscing about your UWC experience, but living with the notion that nothing can ever be as good as your UWC time is both defeatist and wrong. Recall an old-but-classic proverb: the first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.
If you could live in UWC forever you’d probably do so. But since you can’t, you have to start making your new environment a home.
We expected that a couple of things would appear strange when we arrived on Saadiyat Island. We were not used to being spoiled. The first time I entered my Saadiyat room, I was shocked: it was three times the size of my UWC dorm, and it hosted one less person. In the beginning, the sheer wealth that NYU students are exposed to can be overwhelming for UWC-ers, and at points it can even feel wrong.
The possibility of having free lobster for lunch will make you question the ideals that you learned at UWC. Also, since university staff members take care of everything that students usually take care of at UWC, you might feel that NYU Abu Dhabi needs more student initiative.
It is ironic that last year, we ended up having less student leadership at NYUAD than in UWC, where organizing something is always troublesome. Yet this proved to be the case last year. Our advice is to change that. If you see something you can improve, work for it, because the faculty and students are more than open to negotiating.
For example, last year students used styrofoam containers for take-away food at the dining halls. Members of the Student Interest Group Ecoherence had the idea to distribute reusable plastic boxes instead, and they worked with administration to turn their proposal into a reality.
NYUAD is a school that tailors its policies to fit the needs of students, so don’t be passive about implementing change. Instead of getting used to being pampered, show your UWC spirit and get involved in improving the community.
At a certain point, you will start looking at the pictures of your co-years having fun at their own universities. (It will probably happen when you’re falling behind your deadlines, trying to roll the Arabic “ra” in front of the mirror and hoping that your roommate won’t think you’re a complete weirdo.) Other people’s lives will sometimes look more fun than your own, but that shouldn’t be a reason for jealousy — it should make you more proactive in your own life.
Also, you’ll probably want to be in the U.S. when your co-years reunite for Thanksgiving, and you’ll feel separated from the rest of them. Remember that real friendships will endure the distance, and acknowledge that you will have to let go of some other friendships nonetheless.
Don’t compare your current state of happiness to your time at UWC — you are not competing with yourself. You are on yet another journey that has its ups and downs. It is easy to idealize the past, so remember that UWC was not always ideal; you missed home, you were overwhelmed by the academic stress, you fought with your roommates. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t ideal.
UWC comes hand in hand with first loves and first heartbreaks, and you might be holding onto your relationship from that time. We understand that it isn’t easy, but you must accept that life always moves on, no matter how sad it sounds.
The only way to win against the past is to convince yourself that you must move at the same pace as the life you now lead. Moving on doesn’t have to equate to loss; if someone is the one, they will still be the one even 10 years later.
But in the meantime, you must live your life as well. Freedom can only be a good thing, even if that person was right for you. Don’t close your heart to everyone just because they are not your UWC sweetheart. Don’t expect a greater or smaller love; just think of it as a different one.
Remember how much you changed at UWC, and just try to imagine how much more you will change at NYUAD. If you’re not sure that you and your partner can put a lot of time and effort into changing in the same direction, maybe it is time to turn that page.
A little advice on choosing your group of friends at NYUAD: it is normal to start college feeling like you relate best to UWC people and wanting to spend all of your time with them. It’s understandable, given the similarity in our mindsets.
But we must not become an exclusive group; that would be very anti-UWC. Other people at NYUAD are equally interesting, and sometimes it is much more fun to find someone completely different from you rather than someone who makes you feel at home.
Finally, don’t push away your UWC memories. You must remember them and cherish them, but also let them empower you. They should never bring you down. Letting go is not the same as forgetting. You can change history, but it won't stay changed; you can bury it, but it rises from the grave.
The only way to deal with a beautiful past is to confront it as honestly as you can and let it make your present even more beautiful. May your best times begin today.