Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

From Serbia to Saadiyat: NYU Abu Dhabi sets student numbers record

Many students receive generous financial support - but still face the challenge of being far from home

Dusan Popov , from Serbia, Victoria Marcano, from Venezuela, and Daniel Fairfield, from Spain, are enjoying being part of a diverse international contingent at New York University Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh /The National 
Dusan Popov , from Serbia, Victoria Marcano, from Venezuela, and Daniel Fairfield, from Spain, are enjoying being part of a diverse international contingent at New York University Abu Dhabi. Pawan Singh /The National 

They come from more than 80 countries and speak 65 languages between them.

New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) has just welcomed its largest ever intake of new students – joining a campus that is among the most diverse in the world.

For the first time, students from Eritrea, Niger and Mauritius have joined the Saadiyat Island institution, with the 429 first-years chosen from more than 14,000 applicants.

And while a typical university can mean dingy rooms, a basic diet and a mountain of debt, many NYUAD students receive financial support packages that cover fees, accommodation, food and two flights home a year. Even a stipend and all-expenses paid trips to study abroad can be included.

“This is a whole new universe for me,” said Victoria Marcano, from Caracas in Venezuela, who has just begun her major in psychology, with a minor in history of art.

“This was the only university I applied to, and it has exceeded expectations. I knew we had a lot of resources, in terms of support, and spaces to develop academic interests and hobbies. But you come here and you realise it’s so much more, it’s overwhelming, in a positive way.”

The 19-year-old studied for her International Baccalaureate in Germany after winning a place on a scheme run by United World Colleges, an educational body which seems to promote co-existence and peace by sending students from different countries to study together. She was back in Caracas over the summer, moving to Abu Dhabi two months ago.

She admitted she had mixed feelings about being so far from home, at a time when her home country is in economic and political turmoil.

“My friends and immediate family are still there, I’m still in WhatsApp and Facebook groups with them,” she said. “I read their conversations, about finding whatever food item in a supermarket, or that there’s a protest on and not to go out. And I’m walking out of a class, walking to my room or going out.

“I feel guilty for being in peace and I feel guilty for being safe. Because they are not and there is nothing I can do to help them.

“The last set of protests we had, I was trying to contact people and see what was happening. But it was like 5am there, so it was too early and it turned out I knew more than they did. It’s very complicated.”

I feel like I’ve found myself here

Dusan Popov

Securing a place is not easy. Students are required to make it through a tough selection process.

The admissions process for overseas students involves being flown to Abu Dhabi for a “candidate weekend” where applicants are interviewed while learning more about the university and the UAE.

This year, 14 per cent of new students are the first members of their immediate families to enter higher education.

Dusan Popov went to a state school in Serbia, but took his International Baccalaureate in Singapore, also under the United World Colleges scheme.

NYUAD celebrated its biggest ever incoming class - who will graduate in 2023 - made up of 429 students from more than 80 countries. Courtesy NYUAD  
NYUAD celebrated its biggest ever incoming class - who will graduate in 2023 - made up of 429 students from more than 80 countries. Courtesy NYUAD  

“I feel like I’ve found myself here,” the political science student, who hopes to become a diplomat, said. “Abu Dhabi is a melting pot of cultures, the UAE has tried to promote this very international spirit within the country and that is something I’m very attracted to.”

At the university itself, barriers are also being broken down. The 19-year-old said students from across the Balkans got on well, despite some older generations and politicians still harbouring resentment and rivalries from 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia.

“There are a lot of people from former Yugoslav countries here,” he said. “They are my closest friends - we have so much common history, common popular culture. You realise you have so much more in common than what sets us apart.

“Even when we discuss the conflicts that happened, we talk openly and everyone has a very understanding attitude to the opinions of others. It shows we’re moving on from the conflicts of the 90s.”

All of the students The National spoke to received bursaries, and said they could not have afforded to attend otherwise. Tuition fees alone are set at about Dh186,000 per year. NYU Abu Dhabi did not disclose what proportion get an full or partial exemption, but they are applied widely.

Of the new cohort, Emiratis are the largest group, although they make up only 14 per cent of the intake. Americans make up 12 per cent, with the next largest groups from South Korea, China, Pakistan, India and Egypt.

Daniel Fairfield, 18, is from Barcelona. He said the flexibility of the curriculum on offer had allowed him to study two of his passions – maths and theatre. The university is also funding a three week trip to Prague in January, so he can study an intensive course about the future of liberalism.

“If anything it’s exceeded expectations because I keep discovering new things about the university,” he said. “The mental health awareness is definitely where it needs to be. I feel that often gets neglected in a lot of situations.

“The main thing that attracted me was how international it is and I keep discovering new things. There are so many opportunities to learn and travel abroad."

Updated: October 10, 2019 01:40 PM

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