Abu Dhabi 101: Como Park grad heads to other side of the world

Graduating seniors, are you looking forward to going away for college? Parents, are you getting a little apprehensive as the Big Send-Off Day approaches? Well, consider the situation of single mother Kathy Kahn and her only child, Amelia, a 2010 graduate of Como Park High School. Amelia is going away to college — 7,234 miles away, in fact.

That’s right. Amelia will be a member of the first class of the Abu Dhabi campus of New York University. A brand new, four-year liberal arts college, NYU Abu Dhabi is a collaboration between the prestigious American private university and the government of Abu Dhabi, the most prosperous of the Persian Gulf states that make up the United Arab Emirates [UAE]. The plan is to eventually create a full-fledged university with graduate programs and its own diploma.

This fall, the school will welcome its first incoming class of about 150 academic super-achievers from 39 countries, out of a pool of more than 9,000 applicants. Most of the incoming students were—like Amelia—offered full scholarships, including round-trip air tickets.

The journey to Abu Dhabi began with an unsolicited promotional mailing from the school, one of the flood Amelia received as a college-bound high school senior. “I was sorting out the piles and piles of college stuff,” she says, “and this one caught my eye.”

Although she had always had an interest in the Middle East, Amelia was initially more intrigued than convinced. “I applied on a whim,” she reports. “It was abroad and very different.”

That all changed last November, when she was notified that she had been admitted to “candidate status” and was offered an invitation to visit the new NYU Abu Dhabi campus.

“They flew out the candidates over Thanksgiving weekend,” she explains. One look and Amelia made up her mind. “It was the other students [who really impressed me]. They were some of the most intelligent people I’d ever met but entirely unpretentious. They came from every continent and were an incredibly interesting and really nice group of people.”

Amelia was convinced, but it was harder to sell her mother on the prospect of sending her only child to the other side of the world.

Kathy Kahn, a biology teacher at Como Park High School and a resident of Prospect Park, says, “When she got interested, I said, ‘why there?’ I thought about all the negative [stereotypes] of the area—misogyny, homophobia. But I was misinformed. Amelia was more open-minded than me.”

Amelia is not worried that the conservative outlook of Abu Dhabi society will impede her academic experience.

“It’s true that the UAE is much more conservative than here . . . but NYU has an open academic zone,” she says. “There is free speech on campus. My feeling is that there will be a pretty high tolerance for disagreement.”

As for life off campus, she says, “Abu Dhabi is an interesting mix of East and West. You might see a skyscraper right next to a traditional mosque. There are lots of beaches and, depending on which beach you choose, you can even wear a bikini.”

She also notes that 75 percent of the population of Abu Dhabi is foreign-born, and the state is not as restrictive as neighboring Saudi Arabia, for example. For Amelia, the restraints on her conduct will be more a matter of showing respect than a sacrifice of personal rights. “I won’t have to wear a head scarf,” she says, “but I want to try to be respectful of the culture. I’ll think twice before [I act].”

For Amelia, whose previous foreign travel has been limited to short trips to Canada and Costa Rica, the chance to see new horizons is a big part of the charm of NYU Abu Dhabi. “I’ve always had a kind of wanderlust,” she admits, “but the opportunities don’t arise for middle-class girls from Minneapolis.”

They do now. In addition to her home campus in Abu Dhabi, Amelia will have the chance to spend three semesters abroad. NYU itself has more than a dozen foreign study campuses, although Amelia says her choice is not restricted to NYU sites alone.

“I have my eye on Accra in Ghana and Madrid. I’ve been studying Spanish for God knows how long now,” she says.

It’s only a few weeks now before Amelia embarks on the more than 20-hour flight to Abu Dhabi in early September, but she’s ready.

“I have a deep love for Minnesota. There’s nothing like Minneapolis in the summertime,” she says, “but I think it’s time for new and different things in my life.”

Her mother is more hesitant. “I still have worries,” says Kahn, “but Amelia was raised to be the kind of kid that this adventure would appeal to.”

Judy Woodward has lived in St. Anthony Park for 25 years. When she’s not writing articles, she is a reference librarian at the Roseville Library.

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