ABU DHABI // Darwish Al Marar has always wanted to study abroad.
His dream came a step closer to fulfilment when he was accepted into the Sheikh Mohammed Scholars programme, which is grooming its first 24 high school pupils for the world's top universities.
Darwish was nominated for the summer programme, which is run by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), by his teachers at the American International School.
"I thought it would be a challenge and it has," he said. "But I've learnt so much in these two weeks which I wouldn't have in school, like handling the SAT exam, and I've improved my English."
So far this summer, the programme's first batch has spent three weeks at the Abu Dhabi campus learning skills such as critical thinking, debating and public speaking, and is now spending two more in the NYU campus in Florence. Next year the 24 high achievers will go to New York.
The eldest of five siblings, Darwish, 15, has not travelled without his family before.
"Going away without my family will be an experience but I'll be doing that in two years anyway," he said.
Diane Yu, the programme director, said Darwish and the others had already grown in confidence.
"All but a few of them were shy and cautious," Ms Yu said. "Within a day or two, Darwish was actively participating in class and has been an outstanding student."
The programme had 67 applicants, mostly boys, aged between 15 and 17 from eight public and private schools.
Ms Yu hopes to involve an even larger pool of candidates next year, aiming for excellent pupils with ambitions to travel to top international universities.
Applicants had to write a paper on why they should be considered, submit letters of recommendation and have two interviews.
Ms Yu said the programme aimed to make pupils aware of what they needed to do to get into good universities in the US or Europe.
"It's to get them thinking and planning a bit so it won't be a crisis decision, but a thoughtful process," she said.
Noor Al Mehairbi, 16, admits she was nervous about the programme.
One of four girls taking part, she had never been in a classroom with boys before. She also attends the American International School, where boys and girls are separated.
"When I heard there were so few girls I was a bit scared," Noor said. "I thought I'd be too shy in the classroom but I've interacted really well. It's given me a good idea as to how it would be at university.
"It's been good to interact with the opposite sex and new people, especially as we're going to a foreign country where the culture will be very different."