I spent last January teaching somewhere unexpected: at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, established six years ago. And this class was different from any other in which I’ve been involved.
My creative writing class had 25 students of extraordinarily diverse backgrounds. Some were traditional-age seniors, soon to graduate. Others were older security personnel, several of whom had never been able to attend a college or university. Yet their differences didn’t matter. For three exciting weeks, I taught storytelling to matriculating students and staff members. More important, they taught each other.
They came from all over with tales to tell. A woman from the Philippines planned her story in her head while on duty as a campus security guard. Another student, an Emirati, composed his off campus, in his family home. One student from Uganda wrote about a young girl who could whistle magically. A student from Pakistan enlisted classmates to perform her manifesto -- scripted as a play -- satirizing arranged marriages. Another student, from the same part of the world, read out a dialogue from a son who wanted only more time with his busy, working dad.
This all started months earlier, when I received an email from Carol Brandt, NYUAD’s associate vice chancellor for global education and outreach. Would I be interested, she asked, to have my class participate in cocurricular activities? I had no idea what that meant. She told me that I could break up the January term’s notoriously intense three weeks of daily classes by, for example, taking students on a field trip or having them interview school staff members, or whatever creative idea I felt was suitable.
In the days before term started, the opportunity expanded. Another email came -- this time from Liria Gjidija, who goes by Lily and works in the social responsibility area of the university. Would I, she asked, be interested in also teaching creative writing to members of the campus staff?
I said yes to the unexpected offer. Of course. Education, after all, is key to developing every citizen’s possible self, while creative writing is vital to finding one’s voice.
Upon arrival in Abu Dhabi, I immediately met with Lily, who explained NYUAD’s evolving social responsibility initiative. I was surprised, then thrilled, to hear about her work with campus contract employees -- maintenance personnel, hospitality staff and security guards -- as well as with those working in domestic roles with staff and faculty families. NYUAD now offers all of them access to library and health facilities, intramural sports, film screenings and an expanding range of classes on such subjects as survival Arabic, ESL, photography, business English, storytelling and even cooking.
Rather alarmingly to me, Lily described the creative writing course I’d give to contract staff: everyone had very high hopes, she told me, and you’ll be the captain of the ship.
Carte blanche can sometimes produce great anxiety, especially when teaching for the first time at a foreign school. I retreated to my apartment to brainstorm, knowing well that continuing education presents special challenges. I’d learned that painfully after completing my M.F.A. at Columbia University, when I gave creative writing courses in South Australia at the Workers’ Educational Association. There, I discovered that adult learning is particularly demanding because teachers have little baseline knowledge of what students have previously learned. Faced with the diversity of teaching 16 contract staff members at NYUAD, I became even more anxious.
The solution hit me as I read over the initial completed writing exercises of my nine matriculating NYUAD students. We’d spent our intense first week learning the basics of storytelling. They’d studied elegantly simple short stories, such as “Reunion” by John Cheever and Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Reading the students’ work, it was evident they’d learned their stuff.
I jumped up, excited: Why not have these young students share all they’d learned with the 16 security guards whom I’d be teaching in the second and third weeks of the term? And why not have both sets pair up to learn about narrative by sharing their life stories?
On the first of what would be two Thursday afternoons, both sets of students were equally enthusiastic. For the beginning half of the class, the NYUAD kids shared their new skills with the guards who keep their campus secure. During the latter half of the class, those youngsters interviewed their elders, learning about their lives. Throughout, there was a shared excitement in the air. Nary a moan nor protest was heard when I assigned the busy contract staff members the stories by Cheever and Hemingway as their homework.
The frisson persisted during our second Thursday together, as the young students paired up with different staff members to unpack “Reunion” and “Hills Like White Elephants.” As with the week before, the latter portion of class was spent on interviews, but this time with staff members interviewing students about their lives. At the end of the class, we all parted ways for the weekend -- stories communicated and real connections made.
Too rare, often, are the moments in teaching and writing when you’re reminded exactly why you do it -- when what is learned goes beyond pages or discussions, or standardized demands of exams or reviews. Over the following two weekends, I met alone with the contract staff members to go deeper into what the NYUAD students had taught them. Those older learners then constructed their own stories and shared them with each other. They wrote of distant children growing up without them. Or parents passing far away. They wrote of departures and missed opportunities. Or the unforgotten beauty of their homelands. In writing, my students transcended themselves -- taking a bold step toward finding their voices, so that one day they could raise them beautifully and loudly. Because that’s what creative writing is about.
But rarer, still, are those moments when you see a higher education institution transcend the business that is education. Colleges and universities have classrooms, books, facilities; many have endowments and well-paid professors, or noble ideals like with my own Jesuit and Christian brothers’ alma maters. Colleges and universities engage in socially relevant research or in outreach, give to charities and encourage students to look at our troubled world and ask: Why?
Yet nowhere in my lifetime of studying and teaching have I seen this effort to help further educate the hundreds of workers who exist quietly within hallowed halls, in shadowed corridors -- keeping campuses safe, serving food to young minds, selling or shelving books or tidying up classrooms those long hours they are emptied. We should ask ourselves: Why not?
NYU Abu Dhabi is now doing it, to my great surprise. Their social responsibility program is becoming a model that should be replicated in every able university across the world. If you saw what I saw, what my students saw in those 16 university employees -- from the Philippines, Nepal, Uganda, Pakistan and India -- you would agree wholeheartedly that this initiative is vitally important. Because isn’t what happened in those classes what education is all about?
Miguel Syjuco, a visiting assistant professor of practice at New York University Abu Dhabi, is a Filipino writer from Manila. His debut novel, Ilustrado, was the winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and a New York Times Notable Book of 2010.