5 January 2016: A cosmopolitan exchange to NYU Abu Dhabi

In early December 2015, the Dean of Students office led an exchange trip to New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi. The group comprised 18 students and eight staff members, and the trip aimed to encourage learning across institutions between the two young institutions. Three students who were a part of the trip penned their thoughts and reflections in this joint article. 

Written by Clin Lai, Al Tirapon and Keith Tong (Class of 2018) | Images by Andrew McGeehan

NYUAD Exchange Dec 2015 - Grp cultural
Yale-NUS students visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. 

“Wow,” was the only response that sufficiently captured our amazement while touring New York University’s Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) campus with its multiple performance spaces, Olympic-sized swimming pool, Egyptian palm trees and indoor running track.

The tour was the first thing our contingent from Yale-NUS College did on an exchange from 6 to 10 December to NYUAD. We represented INK: Literary Collective, and engaged with the writing and arts scene in NYUAD to learn and share our journeys.

As two global institutions that have a combined history of less than ten years, we spent the week learning a great deal from the students, staff and faculty and we look forward to maintaining the bridges and friendships formed.

NYUAD Exchange Dec 15 - Group
A group shot of Yale-NUS students in Abu Dhabi.

As we arrived at the NYUAD Campus, it felt much like stepping into a convex mirrored reflection of Yale-NUS. Similarities range from the diversity of the student body, which hails from over 110 countries, to the college’s mission of providing an interdisciplinary education. The drive towards creating a ‘community of learning’ is also evident in NYUAD’s Residential Assistants (RAs), who are like Yale-NUS’ Dean’s Fellows (DFs), and Hall Councils who are entrusted as the first point of contact for students and which implement activities that bring students closer.

At Yale-NUS, many of our student organisations are still young, and with the oldest at only three years old, it is no wonder that we are still in the midst of finding our feet. No doubt, as our school matures, we will find new opportunities for partnerships and establishing standard operating procedures across student groups.

Much of what we wanted to achieve through this exchange was to discuss with our NYUAD peers how they tackle issues of establishing a presence and forming bridges, and creating a legacy on and off-campus.

Unequivocally cosmopolitan, NYUAD’s student population faces a different kind of situation when it comes to building up a strong sense of community and attachment compared to Yale-NUS.

NYU students are firstly intellectual nomads, picking themselves up and travelling the globe to best suit their academic interests across the six-year-old NYU Global Network. Meeting them during our candid – albeit intense – sessions, we learned that many students spent only a few semesters in Abu Dhabi, and this transience is reflected in their perspective towards student organisations.

For instance, many students subscribe to events rather than organisations. We attended one of these events, a spoken word event called Hekayah that commemorates the UAE’s National Day, organised by the Arts Center with local students and overseas artists. This event appealed to an audience beyond the campus, engaging the Abu Dhabi residents as well.

While this event-based system makes perfect sense in NYUAD’s context, the issue of legacy comes to mind for us, as many student organisations rise and fall depending on their core group, especially when they leave the campus for semesters abroad for one of the many opportunities NYU offers.

In light of this transient nature, NYUAD has employed a more systematic approach to foster the sense of community.

For example, Electra Street is a journal of the Arts and Humanities published at NYUAD that works closely with faculty and staff to maintain online and physical publications.

The art facilities on campus are also mature and expansive, with whole rooms dedicated to students and Global Academic Fellows (GAFs) for installations both beautiful and bizarre, and concept boards that stretched from floor to ceiling – it was lovingly haphazard.

Efforts such as this create spaces, physical or not, where the community in engaged and thrives in; indeed a community of learning, the NYUAD version.

NYUAD Exchange Dec 2015 - Wall art
A wall scene from the Marketplace, a large gathering and eating area for staff, faculty and students. ‘NYUAD’ is spelled out using landmarks found in the United Arab Emirates.

Overall, it was the differences that made the trip a worthwhile learning experience.

Both NYUAD and Yale-NUS are small institutions that are still young despite strong ties to older, more established institutions. Highlighting our differences isn’t so much a comparison of which college is doing things the ‘right’ way, but instead is an important lesson that there are alternative and equally valid ways of doing things.

As the proverbial saying goes, “one cannot judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree”, so are our two colleges still defining their paths.