Illustration by Jiwon Shin/The Gazelle

What we Lose in Leaving: Study Away Hinders Community Building

For many of us, NYU Abu Dhabi’s appeal lay in the dynamic, global nature of its education. It was exciting to envision a semester here and another ...

Nov 14, 2015

Illustration by Jiwon Shin/The Gazelle
For many of us, NYU Abu Dhabi’s appeal lay in the dynamic, global nature of its education. It was exciting to envision a semester here and another there. A January Term close, then one far away. Summer internships at home, in the UAE or anywhere else you can imagine. With most students back home in the U.S. fighting hard to study abroad once, I believed that I had uncovered the Holy Grail of experiential learning.
It wasn’t just the promise of studying in different locations that enticed me. Rather, it was also the promise of a close and thriving community life at NYUAD. It was the best of both worlds – excitement when away, and a feeling of familial closeness when on Saadiyat.
Upon arrival, Student Interest Groups were showcased as the ultimate examples of student interest and engagement. Having supposedly joined 50 SIGs in my first semester, though rarely attending any meetings and certainly not feeling like a part of any tight-knit SIG community, I wondered if it was me or the ecosystem of involvement that was broken.
At its peak, NYUAD had over 70 SIGs. Currently, that number has fallen to 56. In any given school year, between five to 10 new SIGs are created, while another five to 10 become inactive or dissolve. Reasons for SIGs dying out include insufficient leadership progression, inconsistent membership and a general lack of commitment to sustaining the initiatives despite continued student interest. We have all experienced the ways that a SIG can wax and wane as leadership shifts through study abroad sites. Some SIGs which were the most active and effective during my first semester had completely lost visibility during the second. Once the leaders returned this semester, those SIGs recovered somewhat, but what will happen in the spring?
Quite counterintuitively, freshmen are most logistically suited for SIG leadership positions at NYUAD. If freshmen were able to integrate into a group quickly, upperclassmen leaders could shift the responsibility to them by the second semester or the first of the following academic year. Most freshmen would then have two full semesters in which they can lead the SIG, before passing it back to returning leaders or down to the next generation. While this type of cyclical progression is necessary in order to maintain the integrity of SIGs and prevent them from fading in and out of existence, no one really expects freshmen to identify their areas of interest and commitment to the point of SIG leadership by their second semester.
It wouldn’t be fair to ask freshmen to specialize so quickly when the typical advice given is to explore as much as possible. The same conundrum becomes relevant in other leadership positions. Being a Residential Assistant or running for Student Government requires a year-long commitment, something that is inhibited by the study-away model.
We are then left at an impasse; those with the experience and expertise to really commit to NYUAD’s community building are gone just as often as they are here, and when they are here, being gone is most certainly on their minds. I fear that in time there may not be much community structure left for freshmen to explore, and that which is present will be scattered and not fulfilling.
This inconsistency of student commitment, largely driven by circumstance, hinders community building in that it makes it impossible for students to stay involved in one thing throughout their NYUAD career. Even if you really find a group or initiative you love, it’s hard to shake the idea that you’ll lose touch with it as soon as you leave.
This rings true personally; when I decided not to be a part of Attitude, the dance SIG, this semester, it was easy to justify my decision with the fact that I wouldn’t be here next spring. Before coming to NYUAD, however, I never had a problem committing despite an always busy schedule. I had been on the same dance and volleyball teams for four years, ascending to leadership positions in a natural manner over time.
In some ways, our transient NYUAD experience teaches us to be noncommittal. Finding a group of close friends to grow and share experiences with is a cornerstone of college experiences, but here the thought always lingers in the back of your mind: how long will this last? This semi-nervous apprehension manifests itself in endless conversations about how much you’ll miss your friends next semester, and what you will do without them.
The truth, we all know, is that we’ll be fine. We’ll move on in typical NYUAD fashion. But is that a good thing? Don’t get me started on dating; there’s nothing less romantic than planning Skype dates a week in advance. This one-foot-out-the-door mentality can go beyond being a defense mechanism to turn into a personality trait, one which I fear may inhibit forming interpersonal and community bonds.
While I know that it will feel comforting and familiar to return to NYUAD next fall, it is not guaranteed that the groups and people I was invested in — or maybe never fully invested in — will still be here upon my arrival. It seems more and more that NYUAD cannot have the best of both worlds; students cannot be both constantly leaving and truly at home in the NYUAD community. We have to ask ourselves: is it worth what we lose in leaving?
I don’t think that the study away model and NYUAD community building are necessarily mutually prohibitive. Though I cannot claim to offer any answers for how to face the community-building conundrum, I do think it takes a very direct effort to cultivate both meaningful experiences here and away. If SIG leaders make it clear from the beginning of the semester that they expect active engagement and that those who really commit will be eligible for leadership positions, maybe people will approach their involvement differently. There also needs to be a stronger sense of obligation to keep in touch with your activities from abroad, such as a system of regular Skype check-ins with SIG leaders and mentors to hold everyone accountable and encourage SIG members to support one another even across the Global Network University.
The mentality of not just being away, but being really away — being checked out of all things NYUAD — needs to shift. With that, continuity of and commitment to activities can be fostered.
We are offered amazing opportunities to see and experience a vast variety of things, which introduces a new challenge on how to commit properly to a seemingly transient community. To make the ties that bind us less transient, we need to be more creative and certainly more purposeful when we engage with one another, our shared interests and our home campus. We must fight to retain what can be lost in leaving.
gazelle logo