The New Normal

Alta Thornton Mauro is Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the University's Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education (SLICE) program. She tells the story of how she came to NYU Abu Dhabi in 2014, and why she and her family have decided to stay.

Moving to Abu Dhabi was serendipitous for me: I received an email saying NYU had established NYU Abu Dhabi and were looking to shape up their intercultural work. They wanted to talk to people who did similar work to get some feedback. I agreed to a conversation, and about 20 minutes into the call, I realized I was being recruited!

Still, I considered it. I was really excited by the newness of the University, the opportunity to shape and build the office from scratch, and a chance to challenge myself professionally.  

Taking this job was a chance for me to see if I could really walk the walk, to see if all my years of doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work could be applied in a really new, diverse intercultural setting. 

Originally, I thought I’d be here, you know, maybe two to three years. Then I arrived and thought, maybe three or four. This is my fifth year.

I remember when I first arrived thinking it was a really beautiful place – passing the Grand Mosque, going over bridges, driving with the mangroves on the right hand side and palaces on the left. It really is gorgeous.

Moving here people get support to transition and then it’s expected that people will develop their own friendship groups and communities just as they would with any other move.

I say this to students all the time – if you moved here from somewhere else in the world, you’ve made quite a transition.

But if you moved here [Saadiyat Island] from Al Mushrif, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Abu Dhabi, you might find that this is also a world away from the rest of Abu Dhabi. It’s not just that this is a transition for expats and this is what makes NYU Abu Dhabi unique.

I’m a part of the University’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee, and we have active plans in place, not only to continue to make sure we’re diverse, but also to think about diversity beyond someone’s passport, and to make sure we’re inclusive at every level – faculty, student, and staff recruitment and retention – and that we’re thinking about ability, gender, among other considerations as well.

Alta Thornton Mauro and her children in Abu Dhabi.

This is a very diverse place and my hope is for it to evolve as a truly inclusive place. NYU Abu Dhabi as an institution takes diversity and inclusion really seriously. There are many different ways that people want to be shown respect. So you end up showing multiple sides of yourself and that’s a beautiful thing to be: flexible, culturally competent, and socially fluid. 

In terms of infrastructure lots of things were simple. I got a driver’s license really easily and there’s some comfort in being able to slip into some things straight away – a regular apartment and car. It’s very technologically savvy here too.

Working within the NYU global network helped as well – it felt really familiar, even though NYU Abu Dhabi is contextualized for the UAE. Our primary competencies and learning outcomes, the ways we expect students to grow and develop all felt like work I was familiar with, and that was really grounding and felt comfortable. 

Nevertheless there were other things, like getting my utilities turned on, which were more challenging because the processes are different! But even then, I think that initial struggle helps you to have an immediate reframe, to recognize you’re in a new place, and to focus on the things that are most important to you.

Abu Dhabi is the cleanest place I’ve ever lived and it’s the safest place I’ve ever lived in terms of crime. Frankly, financially I’m able to do well for myself and my family here and that’s a real draw too. I wouldn’t be able to live the way I do if I were doing similar work in the US. 

You’ve got to be open minded. If you’re going to move halfway across the world, you have to be a certain kind of person to have an openness and a curiosity about people, and an interest in how people have organized their own lives, as a baseline.

There are things I miss, but I live in a neighborhood with thousands of people and every now and then someone will put out a call for something from back home – “Is anybody going to the UK anytime soon? Will you please bring me back real Cadbury’s chocolate?” – if there are things you miss, somebody can bring it for you.

Finally, there’s a great focus on family here. There are very few places I feel it’s unacceptable to turn up with your children. Rich diversity is normal; people looking different, eating different things, and using different languages, is all very normal, and I’m grateful for the cultural awareness that’s giving my children.

I’m able to give them a new normal, different to my own childhood and upbringing. For me, that was a compelling reason to come, and it continues to be a pretty good reason to stay.


NYU Abu Dhabi is an institution in and of Abu Dhabi, in and of New York and the world. Our community is animated by inspiring faculty, students, and staff working together in a dynamic city. Read and download our latest publications about working at NYU Abu Dhabi.


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