Who's studying for free in the Middle East

And you thought that semester in Spain was a big adventure.

Four Minnesota freshmen will soon be taking off for four years at New York University's new, high-profile campus in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

The four -- Nolan Funk of St. Cloud,

Charlotte Wang of Plymouth, Amelia Kahn of Minneapolis and Eric Johnson of St. Paul -- will be part of the first class of about 150 students from almost 40 countries.

They'll also be part of what the New York Times describes as "a high-stakes experiment in higher education — what experts are calling perhaps the first truly international university, with top students and faculty from around the globe."

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The two I spoke to weren't Mideast aficionados, and really considered the campus only after NYU approached them about it. But a free weekend visit -- Funk said it's a 15-hour flight, by the way -- seems to have sealed the deal.

What awaits them:

  • Four years of tuition-free education from a prestigious university in a Middle Eastern capital.

  • The chance to become fluent in Arabic

  • The opportunity to make deep international connections

  • The chance to shape what aims to be a world-class educational institution.

  • (Oh, yes -- two free airline tickets home for winter and summer recess, as well as regional trips during the spring break.)

They have some impressive company. According to the New York Times:

The new institution drew more than 9,000 applicants and has accepted fewer than 200. They are an elite group. The Abu Dhabi students have an average SAT verbal score of 715 and an average math score of 730, on par with Ivy League universities. Nearly 90 percent are bilingual.

They're leaving in a matter of days, but I was able to catch up to two of them to get a few quick impressions.

Here are some notes:

Nolan Funk Cathedral High School, St. Cloud

Field of interest: Public policy and economics

Packed yet? No.

Overall impression? It's a little intimidating. But I'm really excited about it.

What do you think of being in the first class? You could complain that the university doesn’t have a reputation or a U.S. News & World Report ranking or a real campus, but that’s not the point. It’s pretty tough to find a college experience that’s unique. Plus, we'll be the first to do things, like make a school newspaper.

How does the curriculum look? I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I thought it would lack selection, but the classes have been very interesting.

What about books -- and the library? We'll be producing our books as we go along -- using something called an Espresso Book Machine -- and then putting the books into the library shelves when we're done.

Nervous about anything in particular? I'm a little nervous about the laws. I hope they give us a good initiation about that ... although, they already went into it a lot.

What have they said so far? We should do well keeping out of trouble by being respectful. I'm going to guess that the drinking going to be much more difficult. I think they don’t want too much affection in public, so relationships will be different from those in an American college. I’m going to make a guess that there will be no drug use, because sentences are crazy.

What do you think of the trade-off? Even with those inconveniences, we're going to have opportunities that we were never going to get at another institution.

Charlotte Wang Wayzata High School

Field of interest: Probably the social sciences. I might do something with environmental policy, but I'm unsure.

How is Abu Dhabi as a college location? Business is growing at such a rapid rate, and the government has been trying to make it a center of commerce. It's becoming the place to be. But construction cranes are everythere. Everything is growing at a ridiculous rate.

And as a place for environmental policy? It doesn’t have a recycling system or desalinated water, but they're trying to make it a carbon-neutral city. It's definitely on the forefront of the green movement, so it's very interesting.

How about life in the city? The campus is downtown. We'll be living in a couple of towers about five minutes by car and about a 15-minute walk from campus. We’ll be mixing with the locals quite a bit.

Any restrictions? I don't have a clear understanding of this yet, but it's definitely a more conservative society. It's illegal to criticize the government. There's no public display of affection allowed. Homosexuality is not allowed. There's no free speech. No restaurants serve alcohol unless it's in a hotel. Foreign women don't have to stay fully covered or wear burkas, but they warned us that when we wear pants or skirts they should be below the knee. No tank tops. I don’t think I’d get into legal trouble, but I don’t want to have the locals disapprove. They brought in people to talk to us there -- locals, professors and expatriates. Obviously they didn’t play up those concerns, but they did allow us to find out about (the restrictions). It’ll be weird to adjust to, but also why it’ll be interesting being there.

How are your parents? At first they found it very daunting, but they've been very supportive.

How have other student candidates reacted? Some found it too small or too isolated. One American government student said, 'It's not for me." It's a huge change, and I can understand why it’s intimidating.