Sonoma stories: A postcard from Abu Dhabi

Sonomans in Abu Dhabi

Emma McGee, SVHS ‘11, was the first Sonoma grad to attend NYU Abu Dhabi, just a year after its founding in 2010. McGee was soon joined by Marcus-Willers’ brother, Ben Marcus-Willers, SVHS ’12. Learn more about NYU Abu Dhabi at

The city at dusk: Families sipping karak tea stand backlit by neon bakery windows; shop owners welcome passersby from chairs folded out on the sidewalk; throngs of commuters at a bus stop with work bags, grocery bags, book bags; shisha smoke from a wrinkled face at a street side café dances with the desert dust, the violet night.

The call to prayer cascades from the skyline to the apartments of potted plants and swaying laundry, settling on the humble, beige storefronts below. “God is great,” it says. Sandals wait by the entrance of a mosque, spires illuminated in green. Another day comes to an end in Abu Dhabi.

I take a taxi over the freeway bridge to Saadiyat Island, “Island of Happiness,” my home during the school year. The driver somehow fits his life story into the 10-minute drive. He is from Pakistan; the world’s most delicious mangoes come from his hometown. I tell him about my own hometown, Sonoma. He wonders why go to school so far away.

We stop by the main entrance of the campus, I thank him, pay and cross the central courtyard to the dorms. The library glimmers above me – the NYU Abu Dhabi torch alight with purple. Students sit in the expansive windows with cups of coffee and laptops.

The breeze is sweet with plumeria blossoms, sage and water from the Persian Gulf. I walk to my building; exchanges of smiles and nods and short chats. Everyone recognizes everyone when the entire student body is only around 1,300.

All of the students, from first-years to seniors and even graduates, live on campus. We all shop at a central convenience store which supplies everything from erasers to avocados. We all eat in one dining hall famous for its fibrous but inexplicably delicious grilled chicken. As long as we aren’t in the mood for pork, it serves just about any type of food we could ask for. Our sports teams, small but spirited, compete against schools from Abu Dhabi and the other seven emirates in the UAE.

NYUAD is one of the three degree-granting four-year campuses in NYU’s Global Network University (the others are in New York and Shanghai). The school began its academic program in 2010, accepting its first class of just 150 students. With each admission round, the program has increased in size, with an end goal of a student body of around 2,000; my class has approximately 390 students.

In my grade alone, 84 different nationalities are represented (the school has over 120), with the largest group being Emiratis, making up 19 percent of the students. During my freshman year, my three roommates came from Fiji, South Korea and Taiwan.

The ideal vision for the university is that students – by virtue of always being around such a diverse group of peers – will have no choice but to expand their ways of thinking, be it academically, culturally, politically, etc. This is accomplished to a certain extent. However, no matter the number of countries and cultures present in a classroom, in my experience most students fall back into the groups with which they are most comfortable in their free time.

There are notably lively friend groups of Spanish-speakers from Central America, South America and Spain, (in)famous Polish-hosted shindigs on Thursday nights and cohorts of Americans that stick together to celebrate Thanksgiving and watch the Super Bowl.

While it sometimes takes extra effort to expand outside of these linguistic or national boundaries (whether admitting to or not), the unique opportunity that NYUAD students have to interact with people from so many different backgrounds – to be a vital ingredient in a super-concentrated melting pot – leads to many experiences and friendships that would be almost unthinkable in previous generations or different circumstances.

I am studying music, and in my first year I had opportunities to perform with several different bands. I played a show at the base of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai with an Arab alternative-rock band from Cairo, and performed on campus with bandmates from Morocco, Trinidad and Tobago, Romania, Fiji, Hawaii and Kazakhstan.

NYUAD provides its students with the environment to share and follow their passions in many ways. The university exists thanks to financing from the UAE government whose officials worked alongside former NYU president John Sexton to make the campus a reality. In recent years, the government has been working to make Abu Dhabi a global cultural hub and has supported the school based on the conviction that one of the most effective ways to accomplish this is by designating education as a national priority. Thanks to government funding, a large proportion of NYUAD students are on full scholarships. This is, of course, attractive to applicants, as the total cost of attendance is around $80,000 per year.

Sonomans in Abu Dhabi

Emma McGee, SVHS ‘11, was the first Sonoma grad to attend NYU Abu Dhabi, just a year after its founding in 2010. McGee was soon joined by Marcus-Willers’ brother, Ben Marcus-Willers, SVHS ’12. Learn more about NYU Abu Dhabi at

Despite its small size, the school is home to exceptional facilities from a state-of-the-art engineering design studio to a fully outfitted recording studio – particularly exciting for music majors like me. The world-class Arts Center hosts an eclectic range of music, dance and theater from all around the globe. Given the central location of the UAE, some classes travel to foreign countries for educational trips – I went to India for a week with an art history class of only 12 students.

However, with this generosity, it is expected that students will prioritize their academics. Accordingly, the programs are highly rigorous across disciplines. The school follows a liberal arts model and requires all students, no matter their major, to take a writing seminar, several multidisciplinary “core” classes and writing- and discussion-heavy colloquia in addition to the intensive major requirements and electives.

Everything we need to survive, and more, is available inside the “Saadiyat bubble.” Everything is within a five-minute walk so I sometimes find myself spending weeks at a time on campus without ever really having a thought of leaving the island. Every time I have gone out into the city, however, I’ve been glad I did. It is a place of rapid change, proud of its traditional history but eager to embrace innovations of a global age.

Abu Dhabi is the capital city of the UAE, located in the country’s largest emirate of the same name. Where Dubai – the most populous city in the UAE – is the global-facing business hub of the country, Abu Dhabi, located about an hour away, is where the government is based and where a majority of the oil is located. The UAE was only established in 1971, and its glimmering skyscrapers – including the 2,722 foot Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building – essentially sprouted from the desert, nourished by an elixir of petroleum and the forward-thinking leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a principal founder of the Emirates.

Before oil was found, the region was inhabited largely by nomadic Bedouin tribes, many of whom sustained themselves through the pearl-diving industry. Not 50 years later, the UAE boasts one of the world’s highest per-capita GDPs. Migrant workers have flocked to the country in such volume that now only around 11 percent of the population is Emirati and the most prominent ethnicities are Indian and Pakistani.

Abu Dhabi is home to sweet-smelling Filipino bakeries on almost every block, designer coffee shops full of British expats, lush parks where Emirati families stroll in the evenings and bustling souqs selling rugs, plants, fruits and vegetables. In the shadow of luxurious beach resorts along the Arabian Gulf, wooden boats crewed by South Indian fishermen supply fresh-caught seafood to an expansive fish market.

As global influences work their way into the fabric of the country and the fabled “last drop” of oil emerges on the horizon, Abu Dhabi has gradually begun to take on a new identity as the country’s cultural center. This shift is reflected at a visible level by recent government-financed projects, many of which are located on Saadiyat Island. This, of course, includes the establishment of NYUAD, but also the construction of an impressive Louvre museum and plans for a Guggenheim.

Abu Dhabi is an undeniably exciting place to go to school and call my second home. In a way, the close community that I’ve found at NYUAD parallels my experience growing up in Sonoma. For better or worse, it’s near impossible to leave the house without seeing a familiar face. On the worst days, this can feel somewhat smothering, but that’s usually not the case.

I feel fortunate to be a part of this community – composed of people from over 120 nationalities, all with unique opinions, passions, beliefs and backgrounds. However idealistic this concept is, I have seen first-hand that it is possible for a group like this to embrace its differences and similarities, to discuss, argue, joke around and constructively coexist, and it gives me hope that it is some indication of what the future holds for our globalizing world.

Aaron Marcus Willers graduated from Sonoma Valley High School in 2017.

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