As the first class of NYU Abu Dhabi prepares for its final year, students talk about the experience of studying in a foreign land.
New York University's Abu Dhabi students in final stretch
ABU DHABI // Attilio Rigotti is proud of the role he is playing in the early history of the New York University's campus in Abu Dhabi.
Mr Rigotti, from Chile, is entering the final of four years before becoming part of NYUAD's first graduating class.
As a pioneer at the overseas campus, he says he and his fellow students had to help build their education and campus.
"It was a challenge we were all happy to take and in a way it was our greatest surprise," Mr Rigotti said. "We all had a part in building our university."
He was one of many students contemplating the final stage of an education that brought them from all over the world to the UAE's capital.
Rafael Scharan, a senior from Brazil, said the school had surpassed his expectations.
"The liberal arts curriculum has been stimulating and engaging," Mr Scharan said.
"Opportunities for travel and cultural exploration have been abundant. Above all, support for student-led initiatives and leadership opportunities have been dreamlike. NYUAD was an extraordinary opportunity I simply could not miss out on."
His classmate, Juan Felipe Beltran from Colombia, said the experience led to "a perspective on other cultures that doesn't quite sink in when you read about them".
The first class, from 39 countries and fluent in 43 languages, helped to distinguish the university, which has drawn attention for its generous financial aid, intimate class sizes and global outlook.
The university plans to move to Saadiyat Island to be at the centre of the city's growing cultural scene in time for its first commencement ceremony in spring next year.
Its success was unpredictable, but although the small campus was bolstered by NYU's reputation at home, its first students have built a solid foundation.
Engineers from the class of 2014 won US$1 million (Dh3.67m) in last year's Clinton Global Initiative Hult Case Challenge. This year a student won the Truman Scholarship, for college juniors interested in public service. Mr Beltran spoke at this year's TEDx in New York.
All of this comes on top of founding clubs, sports teams, publications, and volunteer and student programmes.
To Dr Paulo Horta, NYUAD professor of literature, the students' material achievements were less remarkable than their attitudes.
"One could emphasise SAT scores but I think the more important quality was the self selection of students to come to Abu Dhabi, and their remarkable openness and curiosity towards other places, ideas and cultures," Dr Horta said.
Linda Gordon, a political-science professor who was sent to Abu Dhabi on temporary assignment, said: "The students were the highlight of my experience. I suspect that because of their diversity they learnt more from each other than from me."
But not all students found the university a good match.
Wesley Stubenbord transferred back to NYU New York after his first semester in Abu Dhabi.
"I was thousands of miles from home for one of the first times in my life," he said. "When I found out I could transfer to the Washington Square campus, graduate a year early with advanced credits while double-majoring, and be closer to home, loved ones and friends, the decision became a lot easier."
The school has faced some hostility in New York from those who complain that the administration neglects Washington Square to pursue an impossible ideal.
Because of a distance both physical and ideological - NYU's main campus has almost 40,000 students, while Abu Dhabi's will not hit its projected 2,000 for a few years - establishing cross-campus partnerships has been challenging.
In March, the faculty of NYU's College of Arts and Sciences narrowly passed a vote of no confidence in university president John Sexton - who led NYU's move to the UAE - identifying the university's global expansion as part of the problem.
But despite initial hiccups, the school has retained its contagious optimism.
Post-graduation, seniors speak of opportunities in medicine, law, graduate studies, entrepreneurship and travel.
"Thanks to NYUAD the whole world has opened up," Mr Rigotti said.
Some have considered staying in the UAE once their studies finish.
"Abu Dhabi has become my new home," said Mr Scharan.
* Sachi Leith is an intern at The National and a student at NYUAD