A college life on shifting sands
Catching up with grad:
Emma McGee with new friends her first week at NYU Abu Dhabi in the Middle East.
Current college sophomore Emma McGee graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2011. Accepted to several top colleges, she made a bold choice, which she explains here in her own words.
If you asked me during the fall of my senior year where I’d be 12 months from then, I never would have imagined myself more than 8,000 miles away from home, studying at a small, start-up university in the Middle East.
Whenever anyone asks me about college, or simply wants to know what I’ve been up to for the past year, I have to take a deep breath. Explaining NYU Abu Dhabi, the university I now call home, to friends, relatives and colleagues, is one of the most difficult feats I’ve ever been faced with.
Maybe it’s because so few people have heard of the school, or know much of anything at all about Abu Dhabi itself. Or maybe it’s just because this past year has been so jam-packed with awesome opportunities, amazing new people, stellar professors and travel, that I just don’t know where to begin.
Let me start by saying I applied to NYU AD because I got a postcard in the mail. No joke.
A lot of the stuff I got in the mail came from obscure colleges, and I remember recycling stacks of colorful envelopes and glossy catalogs. My mom handed me the card from NYU AD and told me she thought it sounded interesting.
My interest automatically piqued, I Googled the school (then only in its first year). I fell in love with the program, so much so that I was crestfallen when I saw the acceptance rate of the inaugural class; I thought there was no way a school accepting only 2 percent of its applicants (top students from literally all over the world) would even give me a second glance. I spent my energy getting excited about other schools and almost didn’t end up applying.
After I was invited on an all-expense-paid trip to visit the school in Abu Dhabi for a candidate weekend in February (the second step of the application process, full of interviews, sample classes and evaluations), I decided there was no way I could pass up an offer of admission (particularly as the school provided me with a merit scholarship to more than cover the entire four-year tuition, including airfare).
The first thing I remember after
arriving at NYU AD last fall, was being struck with a horrible bout of what I like to refer to as “Awesome-Opportunity-Overload.” In retrospect, I’ve realized that, in many ways, NYU AD is like an all-you-can-eat buffet, where each dish laid out before you is as scrumptious-looking as the last, but you know you can only fit so much on your plate before you literally explode. I got to Abu Dhabi and I wanted to do everything all at once, and quickly learned how to make choices between dozens of equally enticing opportunities.
The next thing that struck me about the school was the people. My classmates are amazing – I’ve learned from them more than professors and textbooks could ever teach, no matter how phenomenal they may be.
NYU AD is truly a global university, with students as diverse and talented as they come.
My four closest friends are from Bulgaria, Chile, Thailand and Ethiopia. Each class has only 150 students, and the school is just about to enter its third year, which means we’ll have around 450 students come this fall.
Before I left, I was worried the school would feel too small, but to be honest, the small size of the university is one of the things I love best. It’s large enough and diverse enough that I was still hearing people’s life stories for the first time by the end of the second semester, yet it’s small enough to truly feel like a tight-knit community. I love and trust the people I’ve met here, people from across the globe, whom I probably never would have met if I hadn’t committed to this crazy adventure.
For my first semester of college, my biggest class had only 10 students and my smallest class had just five. Couple that with the fact that I’ve had only amazing professors – and you have a dynamite undergraduate experience. As a result of these small classes, I’ve gotten to know my professors really well – they often invite us over to have dinner at their apartments, or watch a movie screening from their couch.
During my first year alone, I was a volunteer teacher in a local school, I interned with two professors doing research for the next book they are publishing, I traveled to Lebanon and Oman, took a class trip to Armenia to learn about Armenian identity, wrote an ethnography of children’s street games in the city of Abu Dhabi, interviewing parents and children, spent a week documenting life in the emirate of Umm al Quwain with a world-renowned photojournalist, worked with migrant laborers, and collected data on the environmental impact big cities have on coastal ecosystems.
Once the beautiful madness that was my freshman year finally came to a close, I flew home for just a few short days before zipping off to intern with Third Millennium Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in rural Ecuador. As their community education and sustainable development intern, I taught ecology, art, reading, music and English in the learning center.
I also worked with the adult community on larger projects, such as the women’s organic soap initiative, a project that hopes to bring local women together to create and eventually sell organic, hand-made soap.
For most women, the only current employment opportunity involves long, labor intensive and often dangerous work in nearby shrimp packing factories. The soap project aims to revive old traditions (this soap was made by the ancestors of the villagers) and to provide an employment alternative for local women.
I also organized and facilitated a community sports tournament, bringing together almost 100 members of the community – men, women, and children – to compete in lively games of volleyball and soccer. I am in the process of editing two, short documentary films I shot while working in Ecuador.
Now, I’m heading back to Abu Dhabi to start my sophomore year and I can honestly say there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything – even the parts that have been challenging and confronting, because I think those things have made me grow the most.
I’m looking forward to the years that lie ahead, to studying abroad in Buenos Aires and Accra, and to all that awaits me once I’m done. While I have started brainstorming, I’m still not sure where I’ll end up after I graduate, but I’ve learned to be OK with that.
Right now, I’m just moving, enjoying the journey, acquiring the words that make a story.