N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi Scours Globe For Top Students

Laith Aqel, co-valedictorian of his high school graduating class in Wayne, N.J., and juggler of too many activities to list, says he always envisioned himself on a classic New England campus with “Gothic architecture and big grass lawns.” He weighed offers from Tufts University, Boston College’s honors program and New York University.

Laith Aqel, co-valedictorian of his high school graduating class in Wayne, N.J., and juggler of too many activities to list, says he always envisioned himself on a classic New England campus with “Gothic architecture and big grass lawns.” He weighed offers from Tufts University, Boston College’s honors program and New York University.

But when he leaves for college this fall, he will travel 6,900 miles to Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf. That is where N.Y.U. will open a campus in September with an inaugural freshman class of 150 students from 39 countries, a far cry from Mr. Aqel’s old ideal.

“N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi came and messed that all up,” he said. “I think they’re trying to create a new paradigm, which I never factored into my education.”

Indeed, Mr. Aqel, whose parents immigrated from Jordan when he was a baby, is part of a high-stakes experiment in higher education — what experts are calling perhaps the first truly international university, with top students and faculty from around the globe.

American colleges have long had branch campuses and international programs in which students spend a semester or two abroad. But after years of planning, John Sexton, N.Y.U.’s president, is about to open the doors on a more ambitious project: a four-year liberal arts research university in Abu Dhabi that will eventually have 2,000 undergraduates and share an island alongside future outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums. It will be a full-fledged sister school of N.Y.U. and issue its own diplomas.

The new institution drew more than 9,000 applicants and has accepted fewer than 200. They are an elite group. The Abu Dhabi students have an average SAT verbal score of 715 and an average math score of 730, on par with Ivy League universities. Nearly 90 percent are bilingual.

Several other American colleges trying to establish programs in the Persian Gulf in recent years have struggled to attract both students and financing. But N.Y.U. officials, encouraged by their recruiting success, say they are talking with the Chinese government about opening a Shanghai campus modeled on its Middle Eastern project.

Others have taken notice. “We have lots of American universities engaged in various kinds of international activities,” said Robert M. Berdahl, president of the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research institutions. “But the N.Y.U. model reflects a very different and thoughtful approach to what John Sexton and others perceive as the increasing globalization of higher education and the disappearance of traditional boundaries.”

Backed by the open checkbook of the Abu Dhabi government, the wealthiest of the seven United Arab Emirates, N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi scoured the planet for candidates. It called on the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright scholarships, to help it identify 900 of the world’s top high schools, and then pressed the schools for their best students.

Though based in Abu Dhabi, students will be encouraged to spend time at some of N.Y.U.’s 16 other sites, on five continents — more traditional study-abroad centers with short-term or narrowly focused programs. In a promotional booklet, the university sketched out a hypothetical plan for film and media majors, with sojourns in Berlin, Buenos Aires, Prague and New York.

The project carries risks. While Abu Dhabi is a relatively modern, multicultural Muslim state, homosexual acts are illegal and the Internet is censored. And there is no guarantee that the seemingly limitless resources of its oil-rich government will remain so, given the precarious global economy and Middle East politics.

But the Abu Dhabi government has agreed to pay for the entire N.Y.U. project, though neither it nor the university has detailed a price. And the emirate has embraced N.Y.U.’s vision of a liberal arts institution with full access to ideas, books and the Internet.

“They believe that Abu Dhabi can become, and will become, one of the idea capitals of the world — a world city,” said Alfred H. Bloom, vice chancellor of N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi and former president of Swarthmore whom Mr. Sexton recruited.

Some in the new freshman class, including Mr. Aqel, have already used Facebook to discuss a possible civil rights club. “In a way, it’s almost a challenge because we can’t hold protests,” Mr. Aqel said. “But I think we’ll be able to find creative ways to circumvent restrictions while maintaining respect for our host country.”

He said he was persuaded to make Abu Dhabi his first choice after visiting in February. “I’ve never seen professors so excited to teach their students as well as learn from them,” he said. “The greatest appeal is the student body itself. There’s never been a more diverse group assembled.”

Much is still in planning. The island campus is not scheduled to open until 2014; until then, the university will use a temporary site in downtown Abu Dhabi. Though the university will eventually add a graduate program, it has not announced which subjects it will offer.

But spending is well under way. After identifying the world’s top high schools, N.Y.U. administrators held events in more than a dozen locations, including Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Vienna and Sydney, Australia. They flew in guidance counselors and principals, pitching to them the concept of a global university with a student-faculty ratio of 8 to 1. Each school was asked to nominate two students to apply.

Last fall, after narrowing the applications to about 275, the university began bringing groups of 50 to Abu Dhabi for long weekends, taking them to a mosque, the desert and the Emirates Palace Hotel for a resplendent dinner. For N.Y.U., it was a chance to winnow the pool. Professors gave sample classes and provided feedback to admissions officers on how students performed in group discussions.

“The weekends were profoundly moving, and for the students, I think, formative experiences,” said Dr. Bloom, who, along with Mr. Sexton, went on every admissions trip.

He recalled one group that had visited the desert, enjoying camel rides and the sunset. On the bus back to the hotel, the candidates decided to translate the song “I Like to Move It,” featured in the Disney movie “Madagascar,” into the 18 languages spoken by the group.

“That’s a great metaphor for what I see happening,” Dr. Bloom said.

While valuing academic prowess, N.Y.U. says it also looked for students who seemed intent on improving society. So those who had conducted medical research or promoted social justice had an edge.

“One of the features of the student body is raw intellectual potency,” said Mr. Sexton, who plans to teach a course on religion and government in the fall. “But what’s especially unusual is that there’s no real national center of gravity to the class. People who care about ideas care about testing the premises of their vantage points, and there’s no better way to test those than to put oneself in a rigorous, civil conversation.”

Although the students come from 39 countries, with 43 languages, about a third are from the United States. The next four biggest sources are the United Arab Emirates, China, Hungary and Russia. Along with some 50 professors, the students will live downtown in a new high-rise with art and music rooms, a fitness center and a dining hall.

Mate Bede-Fazekas, a Hungarian student who recently won a national piano competition and hopes to be a filmmaker, said he did not hesitate when his high school nominated him. “I can’t imagine a better place for becoming a global citizen, that I believe is the way of the future,” he said in an e-mail message. “For a guy like me from Hungary, it is quite unreal.”

Another student, Erin Meekhof of Woodbridge, Va., applied for an early decision. She is interested in international relations and, during her trip to Abu Dhabi last fall, was captivated not only by her fellow candidates but also by the city’s skyline.

“There are minarets and all the different mosques and then in the distance you have skyscrapers,” Ms. Meekhof said. “It was incredibly beautiful.”

As for the distance from her parents, Ms. Meekhof does not seem concerned. “If I went to a college in Virginia, I’d still be calling and Skype-ing and e-mailing, and they wouldn’t be seeing me that often either,” she said. “This will just be a little farther.”

Source: nytimes.com