I recently set-out on a spontaneous 3 week expedition across America, with only a single goal in mind. This goal was not to walk through Times Square, to see the Hollywood Sign nor to explore the restaurants of San Francisco. I only wanted one thing – to decide on my College.
Now some may call it extreme, but my College decision has been one of the most difficult choices I have needed to make in my lifetime – not because it represents the next 4 years of one’s life, but because it is the fundamental and influential foundation of the pathway of life that we pursue. Now many are able to choose their college without second thought – and for them that would be fantastic, often we know what we want and what’s on offer. For me – an obstacle stood, one of my primary choices was New York University – Abu Dhabi (NYUAD for short). It is school with only 2 years of history, no graduating class, and by principle, shrouded in mystery.
For those who are unfamiliar with NYUAD, I highly recommend reading the article “Crossroads of the World: 7 Reasons I Chose NYU Abu Dhabi” – before continuing with this article.
Now it may seem strange, because I had already announced to the world that I was going to be part of the Class of 2016; so why all this superfluous effort? In short, because an opportunity was presented, and I was simply not happy with the amount of information I had. So thus began my quest.
Over the time I learnt a great deal about all my schools, my perceptions of them changed constantly, and for a while, I was not sure where I was leaning towards. That is another story in itself, which I will perhaps write about in another post.
However, now I am nearing the end of my search, and the clear image has almost formed completely – and I wish to share some of what I have discovered that has compelled me to see NYUAD in a way that not only meets, but in fact exceeds what I had expected. I wanted to write this exposition to share this image with all – for it is a truly remarkable one. It is intended not only for those who are still deciding on NYUAD only weeks away from the matriculation deadline, but also for future applicants / admits of NYUAD. I hope it will also be of use to anyone who is simply interested in this intriguing and marvellous school.
I have broken this down into the specific issues I inquired about, and what I discovered about each one. This blog will be highly anecdotal – and hopefully be more humanistic rather than objective. So without further ado – let us begin to illustrate
It All Starts With a Plan
The “Novelty” Risk
The primordial question would seem the most apt to begin with. Why, would a young fellow want to base the future of their careers, academia and life on something which no person has done before? I along with everyone else had this question – it is only nature. As humans, we are inertly programmed to fear the unknown – for uncertainty expresses an uncontrolled variable, which could pose a threat in nature. Though on closer inspection – it can be seen that the “newness” of the school is perhaps its single greatest virtue.
A member of the NYU Faculty excellently described it as “We saw it as an opportunity to reimagine education” – and it certainly shows traits of that. This aspect can be seen in many places of the NYUAD education. It is liberal – in the same style Harvard and Princeton tend towards. It culminated in a “Senior Capstone Project” similar to the Caltech and Princeton Senior Thesis. It brings together the best faculty in the world by offering great research incentives. But it is altogether more than a pick and mix of the best universities; it goes to exceed these – bringing together an incomparable “core” which challenges all students to explore a range of schools of thought, within and outside of their major. It has a focus on expanding the perspective of its students, focussing on interdisciplinary links – in fact NYUAD does not distinguish between “departments” of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, etc., they are simply brought together under the umbrella of the “Science” – as in modern society, a great deal of work is done across disciplines.
There is also perhaps romanticism in this “newness”. To be some of the few pioneering students to take the leap, not entirely sure what lies on the other side. There is inherent risk in this – yet with great risk comes great reward. As a consequence of the risk, the school offers a support system unlike any other, with everyone desperately wanting the students to succeed – and with the way this “experiment” is running so far, that even the thought that this experiment could be a “failure” – seems ludicrous. I’d like to draw upon the wisdom of Christopher Reeves in one of my personal favourite quotes: “At first big dreams seem impossible, then improbable, and eventually inevitable”. At this point – the success of NYUAD is without a doubt inevitable.
So although though we don’t have 200 years of successful students to look at in history books, what we do have is hopes of a limitless future. We have no standards or bars, with which we have to meet, what’s left is to simply exceed to whatever extent possible.
It’s Hard to Get Lost in a Small World
Now I’ve already spoken of the great support offered at NYUAD, but it seems that it was leagues beyond what I thought a school would pragmatically offer. Whereas in the myriads of other schools, I get automatic / generic replies, as well as various forwards and deflections down the administration hierarchy – from NYUAD I always receive rapid personalised reply from whom I contacted, always with a tone which shows genuine care – a quality so unfortunately rare in many modern college administrations.
The community outreach officer personally emailed me and called me to congratulate me on my acceptance. I mentioned in passing that it would be helpful to talk to a current engineering student there, and within a few days, somehow this information got passed onto admissions and onto a current student, who contacted me via Facebook and later Skype. This student then passed on our chat to an admissions officer who contacted me and kept in the loop throughout the entire decision process with frequent emails.
When I mentioned I was coming to New York, he set up a meet with me with Linda Mills, Senior Vice Provost of NYU – who I had lunch and a great discussion with. She then introduced me to Gerard Ben Arous, Director of the Courant Institute, ranked #1 in the world for Mathematics. Afterwards, he introduced me to Denis, one of the Computer Science Faculty members of NYU. It was amazing that I was able to have such personalised, interesting meeting with the highest levels of administration, one on one, before even declaring as a student of NYU.
Unfortunately some of the faculty were unavailable on the day I visited, and on their day in New York, I unfortunately would be in Boston. NYU actually helped me acquire a round trip flight from Boston to New York so I would be able to meet these faculty members, and throughout the entire process have been completely helpful and friendly.
And it doesn’t stop there. Gerard, who is one of the leading mathematicians in the world, encountered a student who was in his class who had never done Calculus in High School. Whilst in any other college, this student would perhaps be told to seek tuition, at NYUAD he personally taught this student one on one, from fundamental calculus to the level required to the class, in 8 hours. In another instance, a student which had never taken Physics at high school was taught fundamental physics by one of the leading physicists at NYU in the same vein.
In contrast, on asking the administration of another school to put me in touch with a student – they simply played a game of dodging responsibility, forwarding the email to another who himself/herself only passed me the emails of other students. At another school, I am still awaiting a reply 1 week later…
On a recent tour of Princeton, the junior leading me around stated “To be invited to dine with faculty is a huge honour, one which I have not yet received, but hope to in the near future”. At NYUAD, this could not be any further from the truth.
And so it can be seen that the level of support offered at NYUAD truly sets it on another platform in and of itself – where students who are perceived to be those with potential to be the leaders of tomorrow are given the individual attention and support required to thrive in a challenging and stimulating environment that is NYUAD.
Always Looking Deeper
Research Opportunities / Internships
One of my primary concerns about attending NYUAD was that there would be a lack of opportunities for research and internships seeing as there were no programs established. My concerns turned out to be unfounded – there are over 180 internships/research positions for NYUAD students in just this upcoming summer alone. Every student who wanted one got one – a remarkable indicator of the desire to perpetuate success from each student.
I will speak mostly within the realm of Computer Science – as that is where my intended major is. All 5 of the students got internships/research positions over the summer, many with leading NYU faculty doing research in New York and in Abu Dhabi. To be able to work with these professor’s on their projects from Freshman / Sophomore year would normally be a great honour, but is rather seen as the norm at NYUAD.
Furthermore – the United States is sometimes seen as the “platform” of opportunity, a location in which abundant jobs, internships, research and more lay – though NYUAD has proven to be truly a school without borders. A significant proportion of the students travel overseas for their summer research/internships, and there is no perceived barrier prohibiting opportunities due to being in the UAE.
As NYUAD itself is a research institution with generous grants, it attracts some of the top faculty in the world. Presenting in itself, an opportunity to do research projects with leaders in the field. Even from freshman year, many of the students at NYUAD had opportunities that ordinarily, seniors would compete for. These opportunities present more than just boasting kudos – they present an educational enrichment, – akin to learning from the best, a level to which is non-existent at other institutions. NYUAD is also more than accommodating with assistance in finding research opportunities outside the NYUAD faculty, with the incredible resources from NYU itself, and beyond.
The fact that internships/research opportunities can be sought to specifically match the goals and pathway of the individual student – as well as their abundance and accessibility rather than the need for fierce competition in other schools, makes NYUAD a truly formidable place to pursue such opportunities. There will certainly be no dearth in prospects of applying our knowledge to real world situations, preparing us on an even greater extent for not only graduate school, but wherever our lives may take us in the future.
There exists a stereotype that Liberal Arts Colleges are “less rigorous”, and “less comprehensive” than their research orientated peers. The great thing however, about NYUAD, is that it combines both a Liberal Arts Curriculum with a strong research university. In this section, you may read it generally but will find that it deals specifically with Computer Science – the major I intended to pursue.
I was initially worried that by having the opportunity to pursue such a wide range of classes, that I would be compromising my education in Computer Sciences itself. The sample course sequence on the website itself, and I had a fear that despite how many unique and amazing offers NYUAD had, that it would come at the cost of receiving an education in Computer Science lower than the highest available in the American College System.
A great deal of such fear most likely came from a recent visit to Caltech, which specialises in highly technical teaching of Computer Science, with a huge focus in math and physics. The average student there dedicates a great majority of their courses solely to papers related in some form to Computer Science, and also they dedicate approximately 10-14+ hours a day on average on academics in the forms of lectures / classes / homework. Thought NYUAD students certainly do work hard and have demanding schedules, surely – they can’t be that hard.
Well it turns out there were two errors in my views. Firstly, Caltech is the exception, not the norm. Secondly, I had by far underestimated NYUAD. To begin, Caltech is a tech school that teaches Computer Science in a very… well technical form. At some of the world’s leading colleges such as Princeton and Harvard, Computer Science majors need only take one half or less of their courses in Computer Science, a number completely comparable to what is on offer at NYUAD.
In another aspect, I greatly underestimated the level of education that NYUAD offers. Firstly, it is much harder than I anticipated. They truly understand that we are working with some of the world’s brightest students, and they make their courses fittingly so. They go to high levels, taught by some of the greatest faculty. One account is that in the beginning of a Foundations of Science: Physics course, they started with reading Einstein’s paper on General Relativity.
Even more, they have the ability to learn extremely fast. Due to the class sizes ranging from 20-40 (For foundation courses required by all science & engineering students) to the much more typical 5-10, as well as the much more interactive nature of the classes, the lecturer needs not slow down for anyone. Hence, the quantity of content covered is in itself impressive.
Though, somehow I feel this is much more approachable than trying to tackle Caltech’s rigorous Math and Physics curriculum. Not because it is easier, not at all – rather because the support is far more accessible. The Lecturer’s offer teaching beyond the classroom and it extends further than mandatory office hours. In surplus to the aforementioned examples of teaching math and physics, a student commented “You will not “not” get something, the professor is always available to help you out”. And with such a tight community of students (It’s hard to be invisible as 1 of 5 Computer Science students), easy would be an understatement to describe the accessibility of help from the fellow students. One student described that all the engineering students now have unspoken meetings at a room before assignments are due. It is evident that collaboration and support is a big factor at NYUAD, and
Furthermore there is the ability to go to as high levels as you desire. In discussion with a current CS lecturer, he said that during my time abroad, especially in New York, I could pursue whichever high level computer science graduate courses I desired. I would also be able to pursue research with leaders of the industry (as mentioned prior), or work on personal projects and ideas. There exists no ceiling to the education at NYUAD, because it is so tailored to the individual.
Thus, perhaps the better way to see a NYUAD Liberal Arts Education may be – Comprehensive, and Personal. To elaborate on the second point, I wish to point out that one student who had an interest in Artificial Intelligence, was able to take a course in that, as well as take courses in computation and neural science to compliment this – cross disciplinary work. Other Computer Science students with different interests do not need to take these courses, and can pursue what they wish. Of course there is the added benefit of having all the “breadth” as discussed prior.
The educational style plays a large role. I know personally, that I dislike lectures. I find them generic, pedantic and uninspiring. It feels like I am receiving a pre-canned package of information that I am expected to know to be considered worthy of holding my degree, regardless of how distinguished the person delivering that package may be. However, at NYUAD, due to the tiny class sizes, the classes are more interactive, discussion based and interesting. In particular in Computer Science, they focus heavily on projects – seeing as it much easier to oversee projects for such a small class (maybe one in two assignments are projects). Much of it is collaborative, but it always involves creating real practical programs, rather than simple identical proof of concepts. One particularly amusing project was the creation of a Chess playing Artificial Intelligence, on which part of the basis of the grade was how many classmates it could defeat in a game of chess.
The overall goal of education (apart from the enjoyment many of us derive from it), is to become prepared. Prepared for what? Well that depends entirely on the individual. “I’ve learnt to learn quickly”, and when asked if they believe they are going to be fully prepared for Graduate School or even immediate employment, I was met with a resounding – “Yes”. Though you may not know off the top of your head as much technical knowledge as a student from Caltech, you have that same capacity to learn – but have been married with a greater breadth, and wider education. Now it may seem like chasing idealisms, after-all; what is a course in music going to do for a computer scientist. Well apart from the great majority of real world problems being cross-disciplinary to a great extent, a Computer Science major said that his course in digital music actually helped him to be able to write algorithms better. So there it is – proof that a broad education is beneficial. On asking which was the better choice – one faculty member put it down to “It depends how much of a rush you are in, if you want to enter industry immediately after graduating in a safe foreseeable position, go to a place like Caltech. If you want to have an adventure, expand your horizons and become a more educated person in general, go to NYUAD”. To me, my view is that a technical school may prepare you more for Graduate School, whereas NYUAD prepares you more for life.
There is little doubt that NYUAD offers one of the most comprehensive, high level and unique academic experiences available in any Undergraduate education. It equips you with the skills to undertake any further academic or otherwise endeavour, and offers us something unique, something that sets us apart from the myriad of applicants competing for jobs, research grants, and opportunities. For these reasons, I am convinced that a NYUAD education is second to none.
The Difference with NYUAD Students
Quality of Students
Without a doubt, one of the highlights of going to a “good” school is the quality of classmates you meet. Now though we hear that students at every school are fantastic, I was to discover that those at NYU Abu Dhabi were in themselves distinct from the rest of the crop, if you will.
Perhaps the root cause of this differentiation is the fact that the students come from all over the world, from many countries and therefore have all gone through a very distinct and unique pathway, both in terms of their life experiences and their individual academic journeys. What this brings to the community, is a wide range of thoughts and experiences –placing it far apart from the normal pool of over-achievers found within the traditional top US schools.
Now in my visit to Caltech – yes I was astounded by the ability of my peers in Math and Science, I was amazed at all their research projects and their internships in Labs and Research facilities. But despite this – they were all somehow ‘normal’, fitting into the mould of the hundreds of thousands of students attending these schools for the last decade or so. There is what I believe somewhat of a corruption of the American high school system, which has become somewhat of a pursuit of AP’s, Extracurricular’s, and the stacking Merit Scholarships and Olympiads until one can confidently stake their admittance into an Ivy League school. The pursuit of often hollow activities, all in the effort to improve their college application – and amongst this sea of overachievers, those from NYUAD stand out like a buoy in the Pacific.
There is a certain humility amongst the students. We aren’t walking upon a platform of the prestige of those before us, instead we are working together to build the dream and experiment, a vision we all share in. Though there may be hardships, we endure these hardships together, making the NYUAD community what it is today.
And amongst them, they are bright in ways that go beyond high scores in standardised testing. As evidenced by several professors’ I talked with, they have a quintessential intelligence within them. One professor even said “Because the students are just better”. However, for the sake of completeness, in terms of numerical comparisons, the SAT 75th snd 25th percentile exceed those by Yale, Harvard and the like. However, this may not be an entirely fair comparison as many students who are accepted choose not to submit SAT, and Writing is not looked at by NYU. Also, by having students from all over the world, there will be a natural disadvantage in the writing and reading session compared with their American peers (This is not to say that their English is lacking, in fact everyone I have talked with has had no communication problems, it is simply growing up surrounded by the language and the use of idiomatic expressions and the like).
Comparing apples to apples would be far more apt. One professor wrote an exam on which he expected students of Yale and Harvard to be able to score 65%. NYUAD students averaged 72%. Simply, the students are as capable intellectually if not more so, at doing well on their tests as their ivy league peers, but they are able to distinct themselves, in a community where we are not underpinned by the united experience, but rather brought together from entirely different worlds – and as hackneyed as it may sound, that is what discerns NYUAD students.
Pick a Place, Any Place
“Logically, I know there is no way we can’t get into great schools. Illogically, we are all young and like to worry” – A very well put description of the situation at NYUAD. Of course, a significant proportion of students will be looking to advance into some of the best grad schools in the world, but with having no one graduated before them – it is difficult to tell how they will fare in the admissions process.
NYUAD is rapidly building reputation and recognition – but perhaps not at a rate so rapid that within the next 2-4 years it will be a big name. Though with talking to a faculty member they said that in selecting students for graduate school, they look at a few factors; 1. GRE, 2. GPA, 3. Research/Internships experience, and #4. Professor recommendations. I believe especially in #3, and #4, that NYUAD has exceptional ability to empower the students to reach the top graduate schools.
There is a surplus in research opportunities with some of the leading faculty in the world even from the freshman year as discussed earlier. In addition, there is the senior capstone project – somewhat akin to the successful senior thesis model taken on by many top schools (Princeton, Caltech, etc). On the side of the professor recommendations, we’ve already discussed how the interaction here far overshadows what other schools would call “great accessibility”, with perhaps the d close relationships with professors of any top research institution.
Finally we fall onto Extracurricular life; it is last but by no means the least topic of discussion. All of us when we go to College are seeking new experiences, new things to challenge us. A wholesome college experience goes far beyond the academics and what we learn within the classrooms, with much of it coming from the opportunities we’ve had, the new things we try, the influence of our peers around us
NYUAD positioning itself as a world honour’s college, as cliché as it may be does offer the ability to have events beyond the scope of normal schools. One student said that one of his favourite and least favourite things about NYUAD was that there was simply “too much to do”. Events are held constantly. And whether they may be cultural celebrations, dining out, tramping in the desert, – they offer an incredible scope of opportunities, going far beyond the normal of varsity sports and college clubs – perhaps not in the numerical aspect, but rather in being exceedingly unique. As described, there is more going on than one has time for, which is extremely impressive for a school with only 300 students. One particular interest I have been far looking forward to pursuing is Scuba Diving, an opportunity I always wished I had, but finally do
One complaint I do have is to do with the “Downtown” campus; it is extremely small, and though it serves its purpose for now in such a tight community, it is not something any of us would show off. However, the new Saadiyat Island campus is positioned to be larger than 80 New York blocks, and hopefully incredible. When I visited Princeton, I was not a fan personally of the castle-like aesthetics of the school constant reminders of an ancient past. Hopefully, when the Saadiyat campus is completed in 2014, it will truly show that this is a school of the future.
And so thus I conclude my discussions with the desert falcons. These have helped me get a closer look at the fine details of the reality of what NYUAD really is in this present time. I have to say, it is incredible what it has already achieved in its short life, the promise of what it is capable of in its future presents an unparalleled excitement in itself. It is this that makes me honoured and ecstatic to be offered a part of this community, especially in the fundamental moments of its first years– during which the very foundations of this prodigious new institution are being formed, and to partake in the great experiment that will undoubtedly offer something unlike anything in the past.
Most of all – my fears are alleviated. It is of the upmost importance to not select a school such as NYUAD whilst doubts or fears still linger in the mind. It is not for those students who do not wish to be part of the unknown, for in truth it is an experiment – but it is only through experimentation that abundant advancements are made, and from my viewing glass, there is little doubt it will be anything short of an exceptional success. Now I have no more doubts and simply wait eagerly and earnestly to be part of and contribute towards this incredible vision that is: NYU Abu Dhabi.