Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle

Tackling National Cliques on Campus

Cliques are generally seen as a common feature of high schools, where Mean Girl-esque maps rule cafeterias and social interactions are pooled into ...

Graphic by Megan Eloise/The Gazelle
Cliques are generally seen as a common feature of high schools, where Mean Girl-esque maps rule cafeterias and social interactions are pooled into exclusive groups. Still, is it possible to hear the phrase, “You can’t sit with us” at NYU Abu Dhabi? And do nationally- or culturally-based Student Interest Groups play a role in determining whom we spend our free time with?
Last year, the existence of cultural SIGs came under close scrutiny when members of Student Government proposed a referendum that, if passed, would create guidelines to prevent certain SIGs from forming if their activities were too specific or exclusive. The authors of the referendum were Yuqi Sun, class of 2015, and junior Patrick Sheldon Wee.
“The Student Government is allocated a certain amount of funds each year," wrote Sun to The Gazelle. "It is more efficient for us to allocate funds to a number of SIGs that can most efficiently use them, without providing activities that overlap with others or do not serve the missions of the club.”
The logic goes that, if many students from the same country already spend time together in informal settings, the creation of national SIGs would only formalize these interactions and may also lead to cultural silos that exclude others.
According to sophomore Chloe Shaw, the Chinese Cultural Club was heavily criticized in its first years, with non-Chinese nationals saying they felt excluded or unwelcome. Yet Shaw, who is now the SIG's president, has made efforts to open up the Club to the general student body.
“Recently, we collaborated with the Culinary Society and the Korean SIG to organize the Mid-Autumn Festival at NYUAD,” said Shaw. “It was open to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis and there were more non-Chinese students than Chinese.”
For the first time since its creation, the club has a non-Chinese student holding a leadership position — the treasurer of the SIG is Singaporean.
Yet Shaw noted that beyond the frameworks of SIGs, bonds among students from the same country can begin to form even before students arrive on campus.
“Chinese students became close because of WeChat,” said Shaw, referring to the messenger system popular in China. “We all knew each other before coming to Abu Dhabi, since everyone was added to the group prior to arriving.”
Creating an educational group that celebrates a heritage or culture while avoiding exclusivity is a difficult balance to strike. However, according to sophomore and president of the Arab Cultural Club Daniah Kheetan, it is not impossible.
“The main focus of our SIG is to represent Arab culture,” said Kheetan. “Our Arab members create the sense of an Arab home, and through displaying our traditions to the outside community, [we] invite non-Arabs to enter that same home."
"Cultural SIGs serve two ends — creating a platform for people of a certain culture and creating opportunities for the outside community to get to know a culture they are interested in,” she added.
The SIG focuses heavily on language instruction and weekly tutoring sessions for non-Arabic speaking members.
“It is also important to avoid national segregation within our SIG; we have to make sure that all the Arab cultures are represented equally,” said Kheetan. “For example, we did not have many events centered around Egyptian culture, so we are organizing a Kushari cooking session with the Egyptian guys soon.”
Marie-Claude Hykpo, the treasurer of both the Francophone Society and Africa Global, agreed that it is important for NYUAD to confront the segregation and isolation that can result from narrowly-targeted cultural SIGs.
“People are clustering by their nationalities,” said Hypko. “I do not approve of it, yet I understand it. It is normal to stick with the familiar and it’s hard to break that habit afterwards. However, NYUAD is not experienced as it should be, if only seen through the eyes of one culture.”
Sophomore Carlos Escobar, the vice president of the Latinoamérica SIG, echoed this sentiment.
“Speaking one’s native language diminishes the sense of homesickness,” said Escobar. “Regardless of where you go, you will find your people.”
For Escobar, the Latinoamérica SIG is not just about creating a group for Latinos. It is about representing Latino culture to other students and taking pride in the customs associated with it.
“We always need more cultural sharing,” said Escobar. “Our events are of course Latino-centered, but attract the outside community nevertheless. For example, 50 people came to our Karaoke night and only around 20 of them were Latin American.”
The cultural segregation at NYUAD is not just related to cultural SIGs; small choices such as whom one sits next to during a lecture or eats dinner with are equally relevant. Some students choose to room with students from their region as well.
“I do not think that people stick together because of their nationalities, but because of common interests that overlap with their background,” said Kheetan. “Personally, I wanted to live with Jordanians because it is comfortable to — I want my Arabic coffee in the morning, and other small pleasures shared between those who grew up in the same way.”
gazelle logo