Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
Welcome to college. You will most likely learn more in the next four years than you’ve ever learned in your life. You will traverse countries and cultures and politics and rivers and seas and bridges and mistakes and mindsets. In response to all that traversing, you may realize where your feet are actually planted in this world, or where you want them to be: you may sow yourself, and water your roots until you spread a fine network of root-hair through your precise patch of soil on this Earth. Or, you may become terrified of the very prospect of roots: you may shift with the seasons, as we tend to, a seed borne by summer breezes in a constant state of flux. Both options will leave you with a lot of questions, and many of them you will never resolve. Welcome to that.
On the subject of roots, remember that the only plants that take root here are very hardy; take care not to let your cactus spikes grow too sharp, because it is easy to have that happen. It is easy to become defensive and thicken your skin to avoid the sunlight and stares of Abu Dhabi. Try not to let that thick skin become too calloused.
Always remember that you are living in an incredibly unique situation, and when the thought of that or of the glittering city becomes too much, go and stick your toes in the waves and remember that seawater is the same everywhere.
Try to learn by doing, and not by hearing — it’s okay to make the same mistakes as everyone else, since you never know how hot the stove is until you touch it, and nobody can understand your experiences quite like you yourself can.
When you go home for your first winter break, treasure it. Mostly, it’s the first and only time you’ll feel like you’re coming back home after a long holiday. Sometimes people’s welcome-home hugs still stretch right around you, able to fully embrace your new-found growth, but often they do not. Often you will be like a tree trunk whose breadth just eludes a child’s grasping finger-reach, and that will be hard. When you leave home, you tend to realize who your true friends are. They may surprise you; go with your instincts, but also don’t be afraid to let go.
Life is frequently hard to explain, but ours particularly so; you’ll develop an often-required repertoire of vocabulary, a series of flashcards that you can use almost without thinking: “It’s-hot/no-I-don’t-wear-a-burka/yes-there-are-women/no-they’re-not-oppressed/10%/abu-dhabi-not-abu-dubai”, etc, etc. People often have the same curiosities, which means you’ll need more or less the same answers, but take the chance to surprise them and be honest. You’ll probably turn into an avid anti-Orientalist within a few months anyways.
At some point during college, you’ll realize that you no longer live at home. It took me a year. Then, you will start to wonder a whole bunch of other things and you’ll be surrounded by hundreds of other people all questioning the same sorts of questions and there’ll be a kind of exhilarating delight in that bewildering climate of existential confusion. Don’t get too caught up in the existentialism question though, unless you genuinely want to study it. Our life is complicated enough without confronting the question of whether the world has meaning.