Warming up to a New City

NYU Abu Dhabi students spend time together in downtown Abu Dhabi.

How an unlikely class scavenger hunt can help you discover not just your new city, but who you are

“It was a Monday, and a 10:45am class,” first year student Amina Bašić recalled. She walked into her first year writing seminar class, called The Outsider, sat among unknown faces, feeling like an outsider herself.

The class taught by Deepak Unnikrishnan, a lecturer in the writing program. It was highly recommended by a sophomore friend, who also insisted that schedules be arranged according to this class. If that wasn’t enough, Bašić also went onto a closed NYU Abu Dhabi Facebook group for current students to seek more opinions and feedback. Turns out, “(Unnikrishnan’s) got a whole cult behind him!” Bašić exclaimed.

Two Truths and A Lie

For introductions, Unnikrishnan told students to write down two truths and one lie about themselves. The class would then have to guess which one is a lie, and what are the truths.

“It’s not your typical ‘my name is…’ introduction,” Bašić said. Unnikrishnan’s pedagogy initially baffled students, as he doesn’t provide reasons behind the materials the students were given. There would be readings from newspaper articles, and another time, music pieces, or watching snippets of videos. “Think about it,” Unnikrishnan would say.

Bašić believes it is this open expression in class that taught her how to think, write, and develop her arguments for topics put forth to her such as: “Are black people cooler than white people?” or “Can black people be racist?”

The Transformative Scavenger Hunt

The class was dropped off on Hamdan street — the heart of Abu Dhabi city center — on a Saturday evening. Unnikrishnan handed everyone sheets of paper containing clues to their scavenger hunt, and bidded everyone goodbye.

Soft chatters spreaded through the group. A shuttle bus would come to pick them up at 11pm later that evening, Unnikrishnan added.

He wanted us to walk through the city and feel the city.

Amina Bašić, Class of 2021
Amina Bašić, Class of 2021.

Being a first year student coming straight from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bašić didn’t know much about Abu Dhabi and the city. Learning about the city through the scavenger hunt was very rewarding.

Bašić’s favorite moment was finding a thrift bookstore and talking to owner, who had amassed a big collection of discarded books from the streets to start the bookstore.

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By the end of the night, students had also tasted Ethiopian food, found a Pinoy bakery, ate some more, and spoke to shop owners and security guards in order to find buildings built in the 1970s and 1980s.
“It’s one of the best experiences of the class,” Bašić said.

These small conversations that would otherwise not happen, are an important part of the course, as students learn to examine issues from multiple perspectives, and ponder what it meant to be an outsider.

As these outsiders began to blossom into better understanding of their environment, may they always remember the intention of this course, that “ignorance can be liberating, fostering open-mindedness and a chance to weave complexity back into dead narratives.”