March 15, 2024

Mohammed Y. Omar headshot

“It still requires hard work and there is plenty of growing pain, but the uncertainty starts shrinking and finally you reach what I call ‘the bloom phase;’ you start to see opportunities you can take advantage of that you never imagined,” says Mohammed Omar (NYUAD ’14, TANDON ’15) [he/him/his] as he describes what it was like to move from country to country while growing up. While he attended NYU both in Abu Dhabi (as part of the inaugural class) and New York City, he has also had the opportunity to study in Beijing and the UK, and even live in a couple of other cities throughout his life. This global lens he now sees through impacts his career, his worldview, and how he mentally approaches new milestones in life. 

His undergraduate career in Abu Dhabi might have initially felt like being a part of a startup for Omar, but he took the uncertainty and turned it into multiple new opportunities that helped expand his horizons and allowed him to travel and immerse himself in new cultures. His faith in the unknown and gratitude for consistent change in life has led him now to Boston to deepen his contribution to his career. Read on to learn more about Mohammed Omar as he vividly describes some of his most cherished memories of friends, classes, and professors at the then brand new NYU Abu Dhabi campus.

You’ve had an exciting global journey from South Africa, to the Netherlands, to Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and even New York. Could you tell us a little about your journey and how being a part of the global society has impacted you?

Yes! I’m a fifth generation South African, who grew up in a small coal mining town in the east of the country. My dad’s job then took us to The Hague in the Netherlands when I was 12 and then to Singapore when I was 16, where I finished high school. I then had the opportunity to live in Abu Dhabi (at NYUAD), in New York (at NYU Tandon), in Beijing (during the Schwarzman Scholars program), in the UK (during my studies at Oxford) and now in Boston, where I work as a Principal at the Boston Consulting Group.

I suppose that makes me some sort of nomad, but the biggest impact moving has had, is that it’s allowed me to build an internal model of transition. I realized that during the first 1–2 months of moving to a new place, there is always a mixture of cultural shock and excitement. After that initial shock however, things start to get really tough; making new friends, adapting to cultural norms (and the weather), understanding how to communicate—these all take energy and because they’re in uncharted territory, things often go wrong. I can’t emphasize how important it is to have the right support system during this time. Eventually, you start to come to grips with it all and you learn enough that you can start gaining momentum on achieving whatever goal you seek to achieve; it still requires hard work and there is plenty of growing pain, but the uncertainty starts shrinking and finally you reach what I call ‘the bloom phase,’ you start to see opportunities you can take advantage of that you never imagined. You realize you’ve made new friends along the way; you’ve broadened your horizon of thinking, and you’re usually proud of whatever achievements you’ve made. 

I bet you’re thinking, ‘Cool, Mo, this makes sense, but so what?’ And you’re absolutely right to ask that question. In my opinion, knowing you’re going to go through some emotional whiplash as you’re transitioning in life is actually helpful (and by the way, that transition doesn’t have to be geographical, it can be getting a new job, having kids, transitioning out of a relationship etc.). It’s helpful because of two things: (1) you’re not alone in going through what you’re going through and (2) eventually, you will get to that ‘bloom phase,’ but getting there takes growing pains and hard work. In the end, it will be okay, but only experience helps you realize that and it's most definitely an easy lesson to forget.

You have two degrees from NYU and were part of the inaugural class at NYU Abu Dhabi. What was your experience like being the first class on a brand new campus at that time? 

At NYU Abu Dhabi, I double majored in Mathematics and Mechanical Engineering, and then I went on to NYU Tandon to complete my masters in Mechanical Engineering.

My time at NYU Abu Dhabi truly felt like we were part of a startup. There were no classes of students above us, nor were there any NYUAD alumni. It was a blank canvas, and it was completely different to the journey I thought I would be on at the Imperial College of London, where I was accepted to study Mechanical Engineering as an undergraduate. And while the uncertainty of joining NYUAD came with feelings of fear (and incredible excitement), I had faith in the program based on the incredibly high talent concentration I saw amongst my class and faculty and the dedication of the administration to make this work.

Mohammed in a go-kart with a helmet on

Go-karting team, 2014

Team photo on the field

NYUAD Football (soccer) Team

That faith was helpful, because as I mentioned above, with unchartered territory comes unparalleled opportunity. During my time at NYU Abu Dhabi, I didn’t just get to go to class and study math and engineering, but I got to visit Florence and study Renaissance Art History, I was part of the college go-karting team, I was able to attend classes where the student to faculty ratio was 8:1 (sometimes less), I spent my summers doing incredibly interesting internships in South Africa, the UAE, and in New York, and I was able to start taking graduate classes for my Masters of Engineering degree as a junior.

To be frank, there isn’t really anything that separates me from other students at NYU. But I had the privilege of having access to the NYUAD experience, which unlocked the opportunities I outlined above. I could not be more grateful to those who made that experience possible because it shaped the very fabric of how I live my life today.

Mohommed speaking on a stage lit in violet

Mohammed's final speech during his first term as Student Body President

NYUAD Student Executive Board

NYUAD Student Executive Board, 2014

You played a crucial role in establishing NYU Abu Dhabi's student government and served as the Student Body President twice. Can you share your insights on effective leadership and community building, and how these experiences shaped your career path? What was the most important lesson you learned in that position?

I was lucky to have been elected student body president in the presence of an administration who were so dedicated to empowering students to shape the future of NYU Abu Dhabi. This included NYUAD leaders like Al Bloom, Fabio Piano, Hilary Ballon, Carol Brandt, Julie Avina, David Tinagero, Hazel Raja, Renee Dugan, Coach Peter Dicce, Chuck and Katya Grimm, and also our current President Linda Mills and our President-Emeritus John Sexton.

As soon as I was elected, I had the opportunity, with my team, to build the foundations of an autonomous student government; this included building the processes to manage our budget, to provide systematic feedback for our academic system and student life experiences, as well as to shape an ecosystem of student clubs and events. It was scary, of course, attempting to be a leader as an 18-year-old sophomore, but I had a strong team and NYU leaders who were keen to empower us, and we all got through it together. A great moment was having the opportunity to be re-elected as student body president during my senior year, when NYUAD’s student government had grown to involve over 100+ students. My challenge had shifted from building a vehicle of self-governance at NYUAD to working with other NYU student governments so that we would have a global governance structure for our three portal campuses in Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, and New York.

Through those experiences, the most important lesson was that as a leader, you can’t please everyone. Not being able to please everyone was a personal struggle for me, but the truth is when you’re making decisions in uncharted territory there are always going to be trade-offs and sometimes you’re going to be wrong. Having faith that you’ve weighed out the pros and cons of a decision, you believe you’re making the right decision with the information you have, and you’re being open to adapting as you learn more, are lessons that I learnt then and that I continue to try and incorporate in my career today.

Looking back at your time at NYU Abu Dhabi, how do you believe your experiences there, both academically and as part of the student community, have contributed to your success and achievements?

My time at NYUAD definitely contributed to all my success after. Three unique NYUAD factors played a role:

The first was studying in a liberal arts setting, which was fundamental to widening my outlook on the world in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I learnt how to communicate in interdisciplinary settings and to appreciate the value of other fields of knowledge. Imagine being a total beginner in literature but having the privilege of getting to delve deep into dystopian or post-colonial literature alongside not only those who majored in it, but renowned professors like Cyrus Patel or Sheetal Majithia? It was a humbling experience indeed.

The second was the elements of cultural immersion through travel that were embedded in the curriculum. I will never forget taking a J-Term class called Children and Childhood with Professors Perri Klaas and Larri Wolff in Shanghai where we spent time understanding the Chinese education system, its differences to pedagogical models in the West, and the potential ways this can create tension amongst individuals today. (This class was also one of the core reasons I applied for the Schwarzman Scholars program.) Through these travels, I was able to see the value of NYU’s “global presence” and the unique perspectives it brought with it. It exposed me to cultures that may have seemed geographically distant but were (and are continuing to be) fundamentally important to understanding a world that is increasingly interconnected today.

The third was the diverse student body; I was in a class of ~150 students who were from 35+ countries and spoke 40+ languages. This, multi-national student body, contributed to fierce discussions in (and out of) the classroom and provided the backdrop for a continuous diffusion of knowledge about different ways of seeing the world. Our Class of 2014 and those that came after, have now become a tightly-knit alumni community spanning continents and industries that remain closely in touch today. And yes, some of us are old school and still have Facebook threads, but that’s a story for a different day.

Can you share a goal you have set for yourself moving forward? 

Yes, and it will sound cliché, but it’s been a challenging goal to work towards and that’s living a “holistic life.” In the winter of 2022, I remember going through a book called Designing Your Life, with an old friend (who of course was an NYUAD alum). It’s written by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans who are both at the Design Program at Stanford, and if you haven’t read it, I’d strongly recommend it and I’d make sure to do the exercises with someone who is not only willing to listen but challenge the way you think with the intention of making you a better person (you can tell, I was lucky!).

Without going into too much unnecessary detail, I realized I wasn’t purposefully “designing” the way that I lived to have experiences that brought me joy. It sounds vague and incredibly abstract, but as time goes on, I started to realize that one can get caught up with work, family, keeping healthy, and the many other responsibilities we all have as adults. The truth is though (and I’m going to be a cringey millennial here and bring back colloquial terms from 2012 so I apologize): you only live once.

Since then, I’ve tried to make my goal of having ‘experiences of joy’ and setting a goal of ensuring I try to purposefully plan something that will bring me joy at least once a week, but it can’t be a regular thing. My biggest learning was that these things don’t have to be grandiose; indeed most of the time they aren’t. In the last six months, things like having dinner with an old friend, planning a small two-hour hike close to home, or going to a new fitness class (like Solidcore, which is seriously brutal), were all things that qualified for me. This has really changed the game for me, and I hope to continue maintaining this goal all through 2024.

Did you have any NYU classes or instructors who inspired or majorly impacted you? 

Absolutely; I was fortunate to have taken many classes with instructors who were inspiring.

Any STEM major at NYUAD will recognize “Foundations of Science,” it was directed by our Dean of Science at the time, Professor David Scicchitano, who masterfully crafted a course that enabled students, regardless of their background, to study physics, chemistry, and biology. I obviously was grateful for this; it was the first time I took biology in my life, but I absolutely came to love it because the faculty team that ran these courses were not just top researchers in their field but were incredibly patient professors who were skilled in the art of teaching.

Another critical set of classes was “Foundations of Engineering,” which was spearheaded by Professors Sunil Kumar and Ramesh Jagannathan at the time. They, and the faculty team who led the classes, strived not just to teach us the required theory, but introduced us to modern-day tools and concepts that are relevant to engineering today and provide us unparalleled opportunity. I remember, it was through Professor Ramesh’s class on “Design and Innovation,” that I was able to file my first patent as a 19-year old. It was truly something. 

Mohammed speaking with microphone to an audience

Speaking in present day at FASPE

Mohammed speaking into a microphone from panel table

NYUAD Engineering Alumni Panel, 2017

Finally, Professor Nikhil Gupta from NYU Tandon was not only my thesis advisor when I was a graduate student, but also a mentor who believed in drawing the best out of his students and advisees. I started working in his lab when I was a junior, and I continued my research on hollow-particle reinforced metal alloys when I returned as a graduate student. He pushed for his students to be real contributors to the field of materials and to publish our findings. I was lucky to have had that opportunity so early in my career.

Do you have a favorite memory from your time at NYU?

I have many wonderful memories at NYU. A particular memory that stands out was when my friends and I decided to run a five-person, 72 km relay in Oman called the Wadi Bih race. We (and by that, I mean I) were not in any way pro-runners, but NYUAD sponsored a few teams, and we signed up just to have a good time. In the run-up to the race, we’d train together and during the race itself there were great conversations and laughter in the jeep when we weren’t running and beautiful vistas to soak in when we were running.

I look back at this, and some of my most cherished memories at NYU were just hanging with friends, singing when we were traveling, or laughing until we cried. So while I spent a lot of this interview talking about opportunity and grabbing it with both hands, I would advise an NYU (or any college) admit to remember that while academic achievement is important, never forget the little moments of ordinary joy and laughter. They really matter and will form some of the best memories you will ever have. 

So that our global community can get to know you a bit better, we have a quick lightning round for you:

What’s a bucket list item you have? I would absolutely love to see the Northern Lights. I haven’t yet had the opportunity to, but I hope someday I will.

What is something your fellow alumni would be surprised to know about you? I really enjoy watching movies at the cinema. It forces you to put your phone away so you’re not looking at emails or social media (or in my case, high quality memes), but really immersing yourself in a story. It doesn’t even have to be that complicated; my close friends will know that I have to recommend watching the Fast and Furious franchise to anyone who hasn’t seen it; start with Tokyo Drift!

What’s your favorite day off activity? I know this is a millennial stereotype, but I spend my time watching cheesy, feel-good shows like Ted Lasso, New Girl, Friends, and The Office.

What’s a place you want to travel to? South America! I know it's such a large continent with so many diverse cultures and languages, but since I’ve never been anywhere close to it, I’d be excited to travel to any country within its borders.

Favorite food? Can I pick three? Chicken shawarma (no pickles though; all my friends know I struggle with the acidity), lamb biryani, and some South African milk tart.

Favorite song or musical artist? Can I pick two? The Piano Guys (they are creative geniuses; check out their lullaby version of the Eye of the Tiger if you don’t believe me) and Hans Zimmer (who doesn’t want to listen to a mash-up of Interstellar and Inception soundtracks while studying or working?)

A superpower you would love to have? Time travel for sure. I’d love to have been in the stadium when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, but also casually check out if we master intergalactic travel 500 years from now.