Being a Senior at NYU Abu Dhabi During a Pandemic

Anna Bernice
4 min readMay 18, 2020
Photo by Shin Won Kim

This article was originally published by VICE in Arabic.

It was an eternal spring break. In early March 2020, life in the UAE was still somewhat normal; we dined out and sunbathed on the beach. I was naive to the gravity of the situation; the coronavirus scare felt like a distant reality. I was anxiously in denial, either thinking “I’m young, I’m probably fine” or taking two grams of vitamin C and sniffing essential oils. I binge watched coronavirus informational videos and experienced anxiety-induced symptoms. It was a weird time.

A week earlier, before U.S. colleges forced its students off campus, New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) had already declared a temporary one month closure because of coronavirus. Classes were moved online. Our administration worked hard to let students stay on campus because of the risks accompanying traveling during an unprecedented circumstance. Suddenly, around 1000 international students laid stranded in an island campus in the UAE.

NYUAD students are not strangers to isolation. Our campus is built on Saadiyat Island, 20 minutes from downtown Abu Dhabi, and non-local students are required to live here. We are so isolated that we get excited when a restaurant can deliver here, and we often “taxi pool” to save money on fares. The peculiarity of our experience created the “Saadiyat Bubble.” The dining hall, cafe, gym, convenience store, game rooms, and state-of-the-art facilities are always within an arm’s reach; it almost feels like this campus was built for community isolation.

At the end of March, we all retreated to our dorms and had unsettlingly odd Zoom classes with people who were just down the hall from me. What was once a hypersocial, hyperproductive campus reached a complete standstill. Class periods, lunch hours, and student organization events used to schedule and structure our social interactions. Coronavirus made this structure disappear, and we weren’t “bumping into each other” anymore. Recreational spaces emptied as group gatherings were banned. Less people sat outside as masks became mandatory. The dining hall, once vibrant with student chatter during meals, had its tables folded and its service reduced to take-out. We were unprepared for this kind of isolation.

Our beloved utopian home began to feel like prison, although I hesitate to admit this because I recognize the immense privilege we have to be sheltered here. But the Saadiyat Bubble was always meant to be popped, and when we could no longer leave, it became harder to stay sane as everyday started to feel like the movie Groundhog Day. I began having more meals alone. I didn’t know if it was appropriate to visit my friends next door. My productivity reached an all-time low as my attention span and eyesight struggled with online classes. My demotivation and self-doubt increased as post-graduation plans fell down the drain.

I wrestle with pandemic guilt as I feel terrible for struggling despite being sheltered and safe. Every week there is always a dilemma to be solved: navigating rescinded campus summer housing, jobs and internships; having to petition to keep my commencement; sending relief to my home community on lockdown. I worry for my family back home and mourn my cancelled plans to host my mom during graduation. I said premature goodbyes to friends who decided to take repatriation flights, unsure when I’d see them again.

Despite this, I remained inspired by the resilience and adaptive spirit our community cultivated in this strange time. Some have beautifully photographed our lives in isolation, while others made at-home workout videos to keep us fit without a gym. Some navigated dating via Zoom dates. My roommates and I would giggle as The National Sterilization Program emergency alerts startled us at 10 pm. Our Student Government hosted virtual trivia nights that doubled as a virtual reunion with alumni all over the world. We projected movies on a building wall and watched together from our windows. I began transforming what would’ve been a live theater performance thesis into a virtual installation. I picked up the guitar again and filmed song covers. I called friends overseas to check in. I made homemade lattes and espresso tonics. We fed our sourdough starters and finally learned how to make bread.

My last semester in college wasn’t supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to be filled with spontaneous plans and one last this and that. Instead, it’s hours of Zoom classes and meetings from my bed, dressed in business casual tops and pajama pants, with my professors mere meters away. This is not the senior spring I envisioned. There’s no spring gala or night-before-graduation rituals, and the NYUAD Class of 2020 won’t be graduating all in the same place.

But at the very least, I’m grateful I got to spend it having 3 am conversations in my best friends’ living room, confused about why Americans panic-bought toilet paper.

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Anna Bernice

Filipino multidisciplinary creative currently based in the UAE. NYU Abu Dhabi 2020.