End-of-Semester Reflection

Hey all,

Merry Christmas! Happy holidays! The blog is still alive! I know it's annoying when people start every post with excuses for not posting, but the second half of this semester actually got really busy. It wasn't exactly easy to miss a week of class to go to Florida for the Zero-G project, and then I was faced with midterm exams after just barely catching up. After midterms, my coursework became probably the heaviest it's ever been, and basically all non-essential priorities had to be thrown out the window for a while so that I could focus on staying sane through my electrical engineering major. Final exams were another roller coaster ride, and not the fun kind. That being said, having emerged semi-victorious from the latest episode of "will I finish my major, or will my major finish me?" I'm back with some updates.

UAE National Day decorations in Yas Mall
It's been a while, so there's a lot that I'd like to document. I'm planning to make separate posts for the main trips I went on this semester, to Turkey and to Shenzhen/Hong Kong. However, this post will focus on the semester itself and reflections on what I've learned.

Location Updates and Plans: 
I'm currently in Bahrain hanging out with my roommate and her family, and I'll be here until the end of winter break. Then, as you might have heard before, NYUAD has a 3-week "January Term" in which we take only one class, usually on a topic unrelated to our major and with a hands-on project or travel component to it. Last year, I went to Ghana to study wealth inequality. This year, I'll be doing a course on Community-Driven Development, based in Abu Dhabi with a week-long trip to the Philippines. Then, for spring semester, I'll be studying in New York, at NYU's Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn. Super excited, but not looking forward to the transition from the warm and sunny winter weather of Abu Dhabi to freezing cold NYC. I currently don't own any winter clothes other than a hoodie, so this is going to be an interesting experience.

Another perk of going to New York is that now I can avoid the confusing conversation about how I go to an NYU campus but have never actually been to New York before, since some people don't quite get the whole NYUAD thing no matter how many times I explain where it is and what I'm doing in the middle of the Middle East. I find it super ironic that my whole college experience is abroad and my "study away" experience is a semester back in the U.S., but this is the way the engineering program works.

Other plans for winter break and J-term include relaxing, reading lots of books, studying for the GRE exam, and applying to summer internships/research programs (as always, if you hear of anything related to electrical engineering that might be interesting, feel free to send it my way).

Highlights from the Second Half of the Semester: 

Aerospace Club
One of the things that I'm most proud of this semester was launching the Aerospace Club at NYUAD. One of the engineering professors reached out to me about wanting to get a community of students together so that we could advertise aerospace-related events, and several emails and forms later, the initiative was born. NYUAD currently doesn't have an Aerospace Engineering major, so this club is really needed because we're bring the aerospace enthusiasts together who are scattered across Physics, Electrical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Computer Science, etc. I helped organize several events this semester, and I'm hoping to stay involved with the club next year when I get back from New York.

One event we had this semester was a talk with NASA astronaut Charles Camarda. It was so great to have him come and share his experiences. He was so friendly and down-to-earth (no pun intended).
NASA astronaut Charles Camarda talks to NYUAD students

Chinese Learning

This semester I finished my Intermediate Chinese I class, which met 4 times a week and taught me a lot of new grammar concepts. There were only 5 people in the class, so we got a lot of participation time and individual help from our professor. People probably get annoyed by how much I talk about China and Chinese language learning, but it's something I'm genuinely passionate about and it's becoming one of my favorite hobbies. Sometimes I wish I could just drop everything and travel to random places and learn languages full-time, but I'm not sure if it would generate a sustainable income, haha.

In which my Chinese textbook tries to
 improve my nonexistent love life

I think the main thing I learned from Intermediate I class was how to express viewpoints in slightly more sophisticated ways. In terms of expressing ideas, the Elementary level is very all-or-nothing, and the vocab is only enough to conceptualize phrases such as "I like this" "I want that" "I disagree with this" "I will do that" etc. Then, at the Intermediate level, we learn things like "It depends on..." "In my opinion..." "Not necessarily...", etc. It might not seem like much, but the ability to partially agree/disagree with something and add reasoning creates so much more nuance in conversations. We also spend a lot of time learning the differences between certain words with similar meanings but different connotations, and when to use which word. There are lots of cases where several different Chinese words will translate to the same word in English, but we still have to understand the slightly different shades of meaning associated with each.

While we're on this note, I started a second Instagram account @alison_learns_chinese, where I'll be documenting and crowdsourcing my Chinese studying. It's pretty much a designated space for me to practice and make mistakes, while getting help from my Chinese-speaking friends. I post discussion topics and even videos of me singing in Chinese. Some of the stuff I post is pretty embarrassing, but that's kind of the point! Feel free to follow and invite your (Mandarin) Chinese-speaking friends to follow if they want to help me out.

Life in Building A5A
Reading outside on the lawn
One change this semester was choosing to move into what NYUAD calls "non-visitation" housing: a building where the opposite gender isn't allowed to enter at all. All the security staff, cleaning staff, etc. are female. One reason for this is so that the students who wear the hijab can remove it while in the building, since it's women-only. Other students just have a cultural preference for not having guys in the room. Something that kind of makes me laugh because it's something that wouldn't really happen in the U.S.: if a male maintenance staff person needs to enter to fix something in the building, the security guard carries around this little siren-emitting alarm and yells "men on the floor" as she escorts him around. I once had an interesting experience watching out for one of my hijabi classmates and letting her know when the maintenance guy had passed by while she hid behind a wall. Fun times.

Anyway, since most of the Emirati female students live in non-visitation, I think it has been a good way for me to make more local friends. It was also super nice to be able to walk around the halls in pajamas and not really care what anyone thinks. It's quieter, no loud parties at least, and the laundry rooms are cleaner. I guess the main inconvenience was that any mixed-gender study sessions and group work always had to be at someone else's dorm. I'm not 100% sure if I'll stay in non-visitation in the future, especially since I don't want to take up space in that building when there are people who need to be there more than I do, but overall it has been a really great experience and I met people that I probably wouldn't have met if I had stayed in the visitation dorms.

College Admissions Mentors for Africa
I'm still Director of Curriculum Development for this organization that offers mentorship to high school students from around the African continent who are applying to U.S. colleges. This organization recently received some funding from the Clinton Global University Initiative- Social Venture Challenge, which is great news. We're having a lot of fun and accomplishing exciting things.

Reading the Earth Class Trip 
My Core class this semester was a colloquium called Reading the Earth, where we read books from around the world about environmental issues and nature. It was a really thought-provoking class.  During the semester, we did a day trip to Dubai, where we visited some "human-made representations of nature" and discussed the ethics of them. I felt like a little kid on a field trip, but it led to some interesting conversations. We went to a rainforest exhibit, an aquarium, an art gallery, and a nature walk along the water.

Green Planet Dubai: artificial rainforest exhibit

Assorted imported tropical birds

Walk along Dubai Creek

A new building made to look historic

The art gallery/cafe where we stopped for lunch

I had never tried halloumi cheese before coming to the Middle East.
Now halloumi wraps are a way of life :)

Dubai Atlantis aquarium

Thanksgiving 2018
One of my favorite memories from this semester is our Thanksgiving celebration. NYUAD doesn't give us Thanksgiving off, since it's obviously not a UAE holiday, but a few of my American friends and I got together and decided that if we were going to have a Thanksgiving dinner, we needed to go all-out. I made a pasta salad, broccoli with garlic and parmesan, sweet potato casserole with maple and brown sugar, and a pumpkin cream cheese cake. Other friends did turkey, various pies, mac&cheese, and a whole lot more. We truly had a feast and it was so wonderful to come together and celebrate.

Friends that become like family

Our Thanksgiving feast (pies not pictured!)
Low Points/Reflection: 
Now that I've covered most of the good things that happened, I'd like to get vulnerable and reflect on the things that could have been better. One thing I'm not very proud of is how much I struggled with my engineering coursework. It was pretty difficult and a lot of information to absorb in a short period of time. On the bright side, I can honestly say that I did my best and learned a lot. It's an honor to be at a university where I have high-achieving classmates and professors that push me to improve, even if it really sucks to feel like I'm falling behind or that I'm inadequate compared to other people. I really didn't handle stress very well this semester at all, and I'm going to apologize here to my close friends who had to deal with me, haha. I remind myself every day that I'm not here to get all A's and always be the best at everything, since that's impossible for 99.99% of people. If I wanted to get all A's, I would choose a different university. I'm here to learn and get experience. Especially in engineering, learning involves trial and error and failure and being able to pick yourself up again and keep going. But it's a long road and it's easier said than done.

If there's one life lesson that has been underscored for me this semester, it's that sometimes in life there are circumstances we can't control. I'm the kind of person who likes to be as independent as possible and have control over every aspect of my life. Also, I've always kind of believed in the idea that hard work will pay off and lead to success. While I still think that's generally true if you average out the course of a lifetime, the reality is that sometimes there are other factors that inhibit our success, like health, life situations, other people's decisions, or our previous experiences. Not every project that we pour time and effort into will ultimately work out. I've been lucky that I haven't experienced any major life tragedies or anything like that, but the combination of small but frequent challenges and failures this semester definitely forced me to admit that sometimes I don't have control over everything and I shouldn't always take it personally when things don't go the way I've planned.

One of my goals for next semester is to get more comfortable asking questions in class. I'm lucky to have small class sizes where the professor can take the time to explain individual questions mid-lecture, but I don't participate as much as I'd like to in my engineering classes. I always have that little voice in the back of my head that says "...but what if they think I'm stupid?" and it usually keeps me from asking things in the moment. I did go to professors' office hours and ask individual questions a LOT this semester, which I'm happy about. But there's definitely room for improvement there. Maybe some of you can relate.

Onward and Upward
I've already posted and talked a lot about the Zero-G project, but I found this photo on the MBRSC social media and I think it's one of my favorite photos that has ever been taken of me:

Maybe a slightly morbid thought, but for the record, if/when I die someday, can people put this photo on my funeral programs? It captures the adventure and happiness that I'd like my life to reflect and it makes me smile every time I see it.

Anyway, that's all for now.

Have a lovely holiday season!


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