Local student ponders college life in Abu Dhabi

Sonoma High School senior Emma McGee stepped off the two-story jetliner at Dubai airport in the United Arab Emirates… and into a whole new world. Thanks to great grades, hard work and a sense of adventure, McGee was on an all-expense paid trip to visit New York University’s new world honors college in Abu Dhabi as a prospective member of the class of 2015.

It was sophomore year at SVHS when McGee first decided to look into college overseas. Says McGee, “I had taken a People to People trip to Australia the summer before and had an amazing time meeting students from all over who had such ambitious and unusual plans for their college years.” After her junior year she was fortunate enough to go on another trip — a community service trip to Cambodia and Laos, a trip that affected her deeply and resulted in her burgeoning interest in global studies.

Eighteen-year-old McGee, who is second in her class at SVHS, approached the college application process early and with gusto. She did a tremendous amount of research and ended up applying to 15 schools, ranging from UC Davis (where she was just awarded a Regent’s Scholarship) to St. Andrew’s University in Scotland (alma mater of royals William & Kate) to Macalaster College in Minnesota to NYU Abu Dhabi, with many more in between.

Her parents, Tim McGee and Julie Shoffner-McGee, attended UC Santa Barbara before graduate school; at UCLA, for her father, and at Davis, for her mother. Shoffner-McGee says that although they are nervous at the prospect of their daughter going to college in the Middle East, “We completely support her going to college far from home.  The best thing we ever did as parents was we gave each of our kids money toward an independent trip out of the United States when they turned 16.  Emma’s interest in study abroad and international issues was inspired by such a trip and we are proud that she will truly learn as a global citizen.”

McGee received word in late February that she is a finalist for the extremely selective NYU Abu Dhabi program, which last year, in its first year, accepted only 2.1 percent of its applicants (a lower acceptance rate then Harvard or MIT). That first class was 150 students from 39 countries, 40 percent of whom spoke three or more languages. The university is adding a class of 120-150 each year until it reaches full enrollment of 500-600.

With that email came the invitation to visit, a required step in the school’s admissions process. Whether or not she is accepted, and whether or not she chooses to attend, she returned last week from a (free) trip of a lifetime.

Upon landing in Dubai, McGee was struck by the dramatic skyline, the amount of construction and the quality of the lights, a far more intense neon than one sees in the States. At the airport she joined up with other prospective students for the two-hour trip from Dubai to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) capital city of Abu Dhabi. Her roommate at the lavish Crystal Hotel in Abu Dhabi was a young woman named Razan Halaby from Jordan. The candidates were separated into groups of about 10, and mixed with current students and faculty. McGee’s small group consisted of a student from Spain, one from Korea, one from England, one from Thailand, one from UAE and one from Azerbaijani.

With a purple NYU gift bag in hand, McGee embarked on a whirlwind two days of Q&A sessions; small group exercises; university, city and dorm tours; interviews; and panel discussions. In the course of the first morning, each of the candidates stood up and introduced themselves to the group and spoke briefly about an object brought from home.

“While everyone spoke fluent English, many introduced themselves twice, once in English and once in their native language,” McGee recalls. “Hearing all those languages and the stories behind the objects was an incredible experience and really brought home how truly international this college is.”

The large visual on the wall behind the students as they spoke was a huge map, with a pin representing every student visiting with a string linking each hometown to a central point, the Abu Dhabi campus. Approximately 275 finalists visited this winter.

The NYU Abu Dhabi program is just finishing up its first year and is still a work in progress. The university is a joint initiative between NYU and the UAE government who has provided the majority of the funding. According to its web site, what NYU gets out of the program is a prestigious worlds honors college that is enticing the best and the brightest students from around the world and helping build the NYU brand. The UAE government, looking toward a future that depends less on the product that built their country (oil) gets an influx of tomorrow’s leaders on their soil, becoming true global citizens, with an attachment to and understanding of their country.

NYU Abu Dhabi Vice Chancellor Alfred Bloom spoke to the students about his vision for the university and how each of them needed to each look inside themselves to make sure they were truly comfortable with such a unique program. NYU President John Sexton then addressed the group about the rigors of the program.

McGee had repeated opportunities to speak with current students who were candid about the program and she was struck by the uniformity of their enthusiasm, even though each cited slightly different reasons for finding it so compelling. “Besides just being smart,” explains McGee, “they had a lot of personality, humor and a sense of purpose. What everyone seems to have in common, no matter how they execute it in the future, is a fascination with globalization and unique vision that was very compelling.”

McGee was able to choose a class to attend and she says it almost impossible to decide on just one. “Because the students come from so many different world economies, each added a depth and unique perspective to the conversation that I can’t imagine could be replicated elsewhere,” she says.

While the Abu Dhabi campus costs the same as attending NYU stateside, around $55,000 a year, because the UAE government this campus, the financial aid available is very generous. “Most students I met were on a complete package,” says McGee.

Another unique element of the program is the requirement that all students spend two semesters at two different locations of the 16 study abroad campuses offered by NYU. This is included in the tuition.

The university is currently in a new small campus in downtown Abu Dhabi. In the fall of 2014, a large state-of-the-art campus will open in the Marina District of Saadiyat Island, 500 meters off the coast of the main city of Abu Dhabi, complete with athletic fields, performing arts space, and fully-furnished and uniquely generous accommodations for all students, faculty and staff.

As for life outside of school, Abu Dhabi is widely considered to be a very safe, very hot city that is experiencing tremendous growth. Only 20 percent of residents are natives, so the city is truly multi-cultural. While many of McGee’s friends and acquaintances were unfamiliar with Abu Dhabi, they were largely enthusiastic about this opportunity.

Some, however, expressed reservation about the Middle East. The school’s literature takes pains to clarify any possible misconceptions about religion (all welcome), dress code (none but use common sense as you would in any city environment) and equal opportunities for women. The only time that McGee modified her regular attire was for a visit to the Grand Mosque, but that was the only place that she saw women in Abayas, the black garment worn over street clothes for modesty. Current students assured McGee that there was no cause for concern over the treatment of women in the area and the university is gender balanced.

While NYU Abu Dhabi will never be a college known for its sports, the school is adding athletic teams as requested by current students. In its first year, in addition to traditional sports like soccer, swimming and volleyball, the school’s class of 2014 won the local Dragon Boat racing championship.

One evening McGee’s group ate the Palace Hotel, widely considered to be the most lavish hotel in the world. “Gold everywhere!” laughs McGee. On the other night, the students were bused 45 minutes out into the desert for a traditional candlelight meal featuring local cuisine under the stars. McGee found the food to be excellent and extremely varied. “With so many students with cultural and religious restrictions, they did a great job of having something for everyone.”

Now, McGee waits. She will hear from Brown University and NYU Abu Dhabi in early April. She heads out next week for a visit to St. Andrew’s University. She isn’t sure where she will end up studying next year but the trip to the Middle East was one that she will treasure forever.


One Response to Local student ponders college life in Abu Dhabi

  1. Lorna Sheridan says:

    She just heard that she got in! And was offered four year all expenses paid merit scholarship including 2 plane tickets home each year. But will she choose NYUAD over all the others great schools she has gotten into (10 so far)? I’ll let you know.