Dubai Knowledge Village. Photo for illustrative purposes only Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Sand, strangers, shivers. This is what I remember from my first day at university in the UAE. (I was new to the Emirates.) It’s not easy to enter a situation alone. Especially when you are still navigating your teens and the awkwardness of age is the least of your worries. Eventually though, it’s all a lesson in grit and game – and most will go on to find their footing, discover themselves a tad more and get ready for – or step into - working life. This week, many, many teens will go through the roughhousing, the giggles and the fright that comes with walking into a new university – leaving behind the known, for their greater good.

Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates, says the period is a big transition. The students “are coming from school to college, where the rules are completely different.”

Mrabet Jihene

And socialization can mean a tailspin. “Many people have challenges getting into new relationships. They face acceptance issues, trust issues, adjustment issues. They don’t know how to get into a group,” she explains.

Seventeen-year-old Tanvi Malhotra, who has enrolled at University of Birmingham Dubai, says she is both anxious and excited for college to begin. “We have a welcome week – so I’m actually excited for that and lectures the week after start after so I’m a little anxious about that. But what I expect from this is to meet a bunch of new people, make friends, have a great college experience and also get a world-class college degree that I could use for internships or to use to get into a good graduation [course],” she explains.

Tanvi Malhotra

Making friends

While Dr Jihene points out that colleges must do their part in integrating students, it is time for some proactive behavior on their part as well. “Approach the other students and [do] not isolate yourself,” she says.

It’s a fine balancing act, she adds. “College environment is not only about studying, it is also about socializing, activities, work opportunities, internships, involvement, community active participate. All these things new rules have to be understood by the student, and [in an] organized [manner].”

Also, she warns of the price of freedom: responsibility. “Whenever you take your own decision, there are consequences,” she says.

It’s a lesson 18-year-old Michael Leo Kokkat, who is enrolled at New York University Abu Dhabi campus, is getting a semester-filled course in. “My experience has been great so far; while it's difficult to get used to a lot of features of life at university (cooking your own food, filling out your own insurance forms, making schedules and having to hold yourself accountable for them), it has definitely made me more independent,” he tells Gulf News. Besides, it’s given him newfound respect for his parents.

The diversity of the UAE, says Leo Kokkat, is on perfect display at university. It’s also given him a bit more exposure to working office conditions, he believes. “Aside from meeting and working with people who have wildly different backgrounds and experiences.”

Adjusting to campus life

Reading giphy
Read - as much as you can.

Now, while life under university’s gaze can be tough, Dr Jihene, says there are some tips that newbies can employ that will make slipping into campus life easier. She says:

1. Read as much as possible. Reading is more required than in high school. Students should follow their professors’ recommendations to get more in line with their college major. They should train themselves also to get into more frequent reading.

In college, learning is no longer given 100 per cent by the teacher, it is more about critical thinking, reading and discussing with the teacher. Critical thinking, innovation and leadership, so that’s why reading should be independent.

2. Research possible college majors. They need to be responsible for their decisions.

3. Work to enhance your communication skills. With both professors and peers.

4. Learn acceptance.

5. Learn how to analyse an article.

6. Try to establish a good relationship with your teachers and college’s academic staff. Get in touch with them before the start of the semester; it would be a great opportunity to disclose academic issues that you’ve had in the past and to discuss any apprehensions you have about the future.

Parents, take note

Parent giphy
It's a tough time, for parents and kids Image Credit: Giphy

Since it’s a time of great upheaval, parents need to keep a wary – if patient – eye on their kids. The signs of good adjustment are easy to spot: Student will show social acceptance and psychological flexibility in his way of thinking, in his way of being. We will also express self-respect. Participating in social events. Responding to things in a logical way.

Maladjustment, unfortunately, can be more sinister, wrapped in anxiety or anger. Here’s what it looks like, explains the doctor: [A person with] motivation problems, students who can’t be comfortable in any situation – professional or personal; here the maladjustment will begin to show, as for example as a phobia, habit disorder, sleeping disorder, eating disorder, problems in concentration, memorization. They will also be very disorganized in planning their day-to-day [activities].

“As a parent, you have to establish healthy communication, show them that you are available, that you understand. Try to be in touch with the professors – if you think they have academic problems,” she says.

Added perspective

We also asked third years what advice they would give their first year selves. This is what they said.

If I could give my first year self some advice, it would be: Freshman year is always a great time to meet new people and go out to have fun. But it is very important to study hard for the first two years. It’s so easy to get caught up with the social aspect of school. Studying should always be priority because your GPA has a great effect in your first 2 years. If you work hard in your freshman year, it will make a great difference as you work your way up. Work very hard as a freshman so you get to relax later on.

- Shahira Hosny, a third year student at the American University of Sharjah

I think the biggest mistake I made in my first year, was thinking that university would be easy and chill. Everyone told me to “enjoy my university life” but in reality I underestimated how difficult it would be. I kind of fell behind at the beginning. I was switching majors a couple of times, and I would tell people who are going into university for the first time, to know what they want to major in and focus on it. Switching majors means you could lose credits, so make sure you know what you want. I also recommend that students start working in their field as soon as possible, whether in summers or freelance work. My advice would be build your cv and do something on the side.

- Loay Youssef Balkis, a third year student at the American University of Sharjah

Honestly, I would tell myself to study less and have more fun. I spent a lot of my time focusing on studies, but I wish I enjoyed my university years more. First year students should have a balance. Yes it’s important to achieve good grades, but the social element of school is incredibly essential. The students that you have around you, are the contacts that you will need to reach out to when you are growing in your career. Build good relationships. They will last you a lifetime.

- Lina Ghalib, a recent graduate from the American University of Sharjah

Seven years later...

I have been working for 7 years now. Here’s what I would have changed about my university life, says Yousra Zaki

1. Make sure you choose university subjects that are relevant to the future job market.

If I could go back in time, I would have taken more computer focused courses instead of art. And easier math courses instead of advanced math. I did not realize at the time that art was just a hobby, rather than an relevant course to my future career. As much as I enjoyed it, I wish I looked at university as a focused stepping stone rather than as an end goal. At the time “having fun” was more of a priority for me. But now I get that choosing your subject needs to be a strategic (forward looking) decision, rather than a passionate one. Save the fun for after class.

2. Pay attention in English class

As a current journalist, I believe the most important subjects for me was English. It truly helped in structuring my thought process as well as my public speaking skills. English class is when I realized that I love writing and presenting and that even in the real world, death by text heavy PowerPoint is a real thing. English teaches you effective communication and proper writing, which, no matter where you work, is super important.

3. Don’t take tough subjects to impress anyone

During my time at university, people made fun of my fellow students who were in simple math courses. As a result, I thought to myself, “well I should go to smart people math then. I want to be one of the smart ones.” That was a big mistake. If you aren’t studying engineering or physics or anything that requires math, don’t let it be a burden on your GPA. I ended up getting a C- in math. I think it is important to be able to admit if you aren’t great at something, and go for the easier version.

4. Play sports

I was on the swim team. I loved being part of an extracurricular activity that was good for my health and helped keep the stress away.

5. Try and get extra credit whenever you can

You never know whether your next test will tank. So in order to be prepared for failure, try and always have the upper hand with extra credit.


The most important piece of advice that I can give ANYONE going through university, is that they need to study exactly what is written on the syllabus. I noticed that exam questions were sometimes word for word exactly what was written on the syllabus. Go through it step by step and answer every single question on there. That should prepare you for any test.