She and Bailey Theado are the group’s Americans; both New Jersey natives, they are enrolled at NYU on Washington Square and are only sojourning on the Abu Dhabi campus. The other two, Mastewal Terefe and Daria Karaulova, raised in Ethiopia and Moscow, respectively, are based in Abu Dhabi, and they’re exactly the kind of students who get a free ride at NYUAD, dubbed “The World’s Honors College.” Brainy and ambitious, they are as articulate as debate-team captains and neat as pins.
Only the Americans complain about their lack of liberty, and when pressed, they concede that the compensations on offer by the university are pretty sweet. “There’s this sailboarding thing,” says Bailey, smiling wide on Skype. “Horseback riding. Deep-sea diving. That’s another reason that I came here. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow, there’s so many resources.’ ” Jessica and Bailey talk about life at NYU with the hard-bitten nostalgia of urban survivors: bedrooms so tiny you can’t fit a suitcase under the bed; miles to walk to class; miserly cafeteria workers who count out the chicken pieces on the Caesar salad. “Here,” says Bailey with seeming wonder, “it’s really nice.”
Sexton himself helps to set the tone. The University president is omnipresent at Abu Dhabi, flying there regularly and teaching a class on the Supreme Court. Most of the NYUAD kids call him by his first name. A kind word from “John” factored into Daria’s decision to attend NYUAD. At a meeting of prospective students, she says, “I told him, ‘My father doesn’t want me to go here,’ and he said, ‘What’s his number? I’ll call him.’ I said, ‘My father doesn’t speak English,’ and he said, ‘That’s not a limit for me.’ ”
This hothouse atmosphere makes the American students both jealous and squeamish. “It was really weird for me to come here, where everyone has such a personal relationship with the university president,” observes Bailey, who with other New York students recently had a meeting with Sexton to voice concerns of second-rate treatment. “How is that supposed to make me feel? It’s like, ‘How do we fit in here? Are we enough for the World’s Honors College?’ ”
Daria defends the president. “It’s like any other start-up organization. It wouldn’t work if he didn’t make it personal.”
Obviously, Sexton cares. He cares so much that, with the help of the government, he’s building his Abu Dhabi students a new campus, due to open in 2014, on nearby Saadiyat Island, with ocean views. Neighbors will include the Guggenheim (Abu Dhabi), the Louvre (Abu Dhabi), and a professional golf course, all so students can kick back in high-end seclusion as they prepare to one day lead.