national cliques

Graphic by Nisala Sathyajith Saheed

National Cliques: Contradicting the Global University

National cliques are antithetical to NYUAD. They are exclusionary in an institution founded on inclusionary principles.

Sep 25, 2016

Naturally, people of the same nationality migrate towards each other in search of acceptance, comfort, security and support. As a university with one of the most diverse student bodies in the world, the formation of national cliques at NYU Abu Dhabi is an inevitable social feature that sorts out students according to language and nationality.
This occurs because inside of a national clique, in my experience, no one is ruled out, and the pecking order is not based on popularity or power. Compatriots hold on tight to their relationships and take pride in sharing similar mindsets. Student Interest Groups, events or regular outings are all expressions of a national identity that create long-lasting bonds within the cliques. However, if diversity may reinforce division, how should we deal with national feelings as part of an international identity?
National cliques are antithetical to the point of NYUAD. They are exclusionary in an institution founded on inclusionary principles. While these cliques can provide some form of security or comfort in a new environment, I believe that we won't grow as open-minded people if we come to this university only to build borders. Talking behind an individual’s back using languages other than English or segregating as a national group from the rest of community are examples of reluctance to adjusting to an intercultural environment. These issues obviously damage the equity we should be promoting and instill a lack of social uniformity. Luckily, our academic and social backgrounds offer us all the support to break the barriers by creating connections through teamwork, debates on global issues and study abroad programs.
You don’t need to be particularly observant to notice the national groups in our university, which pull together students of the same nationality or who speak the same language in an attempt to revel in their unique culture. More prevalent among freshmen who search for familiarity, these cliques create warmth in the absence of a family. Members click with each other because they easily find common interests and passions. Moreover, the mindset created by speaking the same language strengthens a group’s bond.
Abu Dhabi is a modern-day Tower of Babel. NYUAD’s campus is a place where I can overhear daily conversations, greetings or exclamations in a mixture of totally alien sounds. Harsh, ragged, shrill or soft — it doesn’t faze me anymore. I have become tone-deaf to the amount of unknown sounds. Yet, the national cliques are obvious: a tight-knit group of two or more students that stroll around the Highline and speak their own language, suddenly switching to English to greet you as you pass by them, with a stilted, Hey! It can be an awkward elevator conversation coated in giggles and eyebrow raises that leave you unsettled about the subject that made them crack up.
With many students being bilingual or trilingual, speaking another language besides English may be an advantage when you want to whisper or gossip without being understood. However, the undercover chatterers should pay more attention to the body language and voice pitch that may betray their intentions. Non-verbal features fit into an archetypal code that doesn’t need translation, making a third person aware of what the discussion may be pointing to.
In the face of such divisiveness, one can struggle to find a place at a university like NYUAD. Social life can be overwhelming sometimes and finding a group to go to lunch or dinner with can turn into a major problem. As soon as one enters the dining hall, one can spot the isles of vivid students that laugh, speak loudly and binge on food cluttered on their big trays. One sees the U.S. American cluster, the Latino squad and the Pakistani group. Around these continental groups there are adrift islands, lonely individuals who stick out of the cliques. You can spot them as shy students sporting a goofy smile with a visible desire to enjoy the company of a group. The sad part is that they end up putting themselves in the comfort of an unoccupied table, in the farthest corner of the hall.
The saddest part is that some national cliques value their identity up to the point of exclusivity. Truth be told, no one will take your cultural identity away if you take the plunge and say hello or shoot your hand up to ask your peer who doesn’t share your culture to join at your table. A phrase like, Come and join us — as simple as it may be — can make someone's day. Put the discussion about the national elections on hold for a minute and turn to a shared subject, such as classes.
There are two sides of the transition to a new, on-campus life that can be dealt with or without the help of national groups. While I try to recreate the notion of home and at the same time blend into the mixture of cultures, others prefer the company of their compatriots for recreating a sense of home. Whatever side you want to take, remember that sometimes by sticking to a sole picture, you may overlook the great panorama. Value your experience as an international student and cherish your network of global interactions, but preserve your national heritage in the face of diversity.
Daria Zahaleanu is a staff writer. Email her at
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