Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

The Global Citizen’s Glossary: A First Year Edition

There is something remarkably ordinary about the day before your life changes forever. It was mid-August, and we were packing. Well, my mother was. I ...

May 7, 2016

Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel
There is something remarkably ordinary about the day before your life changes forever.
It was mid-August, and we were packing. Well, my mother was. I was sprawled out on my bed, soaking in its familiarity and comfort. In my limited understanding of university life, I pictured dorm residences as foster homes from the Victorian Era, with their cold, hard beds and frightening children.
I watched as my mother prepared my suitcase for every sort of event. Who knows what you might need for half a year in a foreign land? A shipment of aspirin. A salt shaker. A Philips electric iron.
“I’m sure they have irons in Abu Dhabi, Mama.”
“But you won’t know how to use those.”
I didn’t point out that I didn’t, in fact, know how to use any electric iron.
But I was lucky — compared to friends who didn’t have the privilege of something similar to a Candidate Weekend, I knew a lot more about the university where I would spend four years of my life. There was some concrete information: free Starbucks, Olympic-sized pool, 85 different nationalities. And then there were words that existed only conceptually, the words I couldn’t really grasp: global leaders, pioneers, interconnectedness.
So over the past year, I’ve been trying to give these words some color, to ground them in things that I’ve experienced, to make them less intimidating. What did these words really mean? The following is by no means a comprehensive list but rather a collection of my impressions on the ideas that dominate discourse about NYU Abu Dhabi, accumulated over the past year.

The Idea of the Global Leader

When NYUAD admissions representatives visited my school and told us that they were looking for global leaders, I was convinced that there was no way I would get in. Firstly, I was not global. I was born in India, and I’d lived there all my life. In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I could speak a little French. I knew words like baguette, beret and crème brûlée.
Secondly, I was hardly a leader. Did leading a group of two for a class presentation count? My mother, in a heartwarming attempt characteristic of mothers, tried to convince me that I was a leader. She googled the word leader, discovered something obscure called The Thought Leader, and then decided that I was one. If only the Office of Admissions accepted recommendation letters by mothers.
I was also concerned by the emphasis on global leadership because the prospect of a student body filled with global leaders sounded strange. If everyone’s leading, who’s following? I could picture students elbowing each other and having staring contests and yelling at palm trees in a quest to be the Leader of the Leaders. How could I ever do that? I’ve never won a staring contest in my life.
Throughout Candidate Weekend, this was my deep, dark secret. Without really knowing what a global leader does, I pretended to be one. I asked questions. I ate sushi. I said the word global too much, in an attempt at subliminal advertising. I got in.
One year on, I realize that my mother may not have been far off with her idea about being a  thought leader. Not all leaders have to push, speak assertively or be aggressive. Not all leaders have to address global issues. All you need is the spark of an idea, and then the motivation to carry it through. You find a way to address the issue of illiteracy, implement it — and you are a global leader. You realise that people want pasta, and you work toward getting a pasta counter — you are a global leader. You decide that we need to advocate for cats on campus, so you make campus cats t-shirts — you are a global leader.
Global and leader are two big words, but there’s no shame in starting small — even if it’s just leading a group of two for a class presentation.

Diversity, Diversity Everywhere

Speaking of global leaders, let’s talk about global citizens. The word diversity has been repeated so much that by now, it’s a nonsensical word. It means nothing. We have students coming from over 85 countries, and this number will inevitably grow. But will it matter? Have we reached our diversity saturation point?
This question gains significance in light of the fact that we cannot deny the existence of nationality or ethnicity-based cliques on campus. Before coming here, many of us thought we’d have a best friend from every continent — ambitiously, perhaps, every country — and we’d sit together and trade recipes, exchange global humor and be generally intercultural. Maybe we’d pose to be on the front page of university brochures.
Of course, some of us do have that. Some of us don’t.
But being comfortable with members of one’s nationality is natural, and does not imply a lack of global citizenship or a lack of intercultural understanding. The negative connotation of the word clique is unwarranted; it implies a Mean Girls-like exclusive group. Regardless of who you spend your free time with, you can collaborate or hang out with anyone from any one of our 85 countries, and you’ll be able to interact like two regular people having a regular conversation about how cute the cats on campus are.
Being a global citizen doesn’t mean ticking boxes off a checklist. Russian friend? Check. Mexican friend? Check. Vietnamese friend? Nope, need to get myself one of those. It doesn’t work that way. Being a global citizen simply means that nationality is no barrier to dialogue, or more simply, a conversation. The ability to converse casually with anyone from anywhere seems so natural that it hardly seems sufficient to call oneself a global citizen. But for most of us, this ability is not inherent — it is a consequence of being here, and it is something that many students in many other universities do not have.

A Game of Dirhams and Privilege

The motto Free Starbucks, while quite true, is only a part of the story. Not everything is free, of course. I can’t claim to have the economic know-how to understand #budgetcuts, but I do understand that if you want something, you have to work hard for it, unless you’ve memorized your friend’s N number. There is no such thing as a free meal. You have to be able to budget, write the best internship funding essays, resist the instant gratification that would come from spending your entire stipend on an armchair and so on. You need to maintain your GPA, and you need to be wise when you choose between Campus Dirhams or meal plan swipes.
Some people I know back home tend to think that full financial aid with a stipend is synonymous with an all-expenses-paid staycation, i.e., unchecked, unsolicited privilege. I’ll admit, before I got here, the thought crossed my mind too. After all, we do live in the vicinity of the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Beach Resort, not to mention the fact that we have a food delivery system for a dining hall within a 500-meter radius. But judging by the amount of sleep I’ve had over the past year, I realize that the money isn’t free — it’s incentive to work. While it is a free ride for me, that ride is a tandem bicycle; you need to sweat a bit too.

The Saadiyat Island Bubble

We are a very small university, and we inhabit a desert island.
The flip side of this, as many point out, is that gossip spreads like wildfire. Everybody knows who did what last Friday night. You see your ex-significant-other every time you go to the Convenience Store. Each time I deviate from my regular order of a cappuccino and feta and roast vegetable sandwich at Go Deli, the server gasps and I have to explain what prompted this shocking decision.
And yes, this is a place where I step out at 3 p.m. and see absolutely no one anywhere. Just complete, eerie silence.
But when someone suddenly materializes from behind a palm tree or the SuperLab, I know exactly who they are. I’ve seen them in the dining hall. I know that they like caramelized onions on their sandwich and that they asked for lemons on the Room of Requirement a few hours ago. On that note, it seems crazy that there are universities in the world without a Room of Requirement. What do they do when they lose their ID cards? When they drop their phone in a puddle, who will tell them to put it in a bag of rice?
And then, there’s the class of 2016. I know very few people in the class of 2016, but you know what? I’ll miss them, their wisdom, their inside jokes that I don’t understand, their radio shows, their active presence on NYUAD social media and their fond childhood memories of Sama Tower. They are weird and wonderful.
But the thing is, everyone here is weird and wonderful and makes me laugh. We’re one big bunch of weird culturally-sensitive global leaders in one giant bubble in the middle of the world.
And today, I am sprawled out on my bed in my dorm, soaking in its familiarity and comfort. Today, there are only two weeks left till the end of one academic year here, on Happiness Island.
Today, I think I finally understand.
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