At Skidmore College a few years ago, Nat Smitobol was the 1st admissions officer anywhere to use Facebook to connect with applicants.
Today, as admissions officer at New York University Abu Dhabi in charge of all candidates from the US and Canada, Nat helps select one of the most diverse and globally engaged student bodies anywhere in the world.
Last weekend he traveled from his Westport home to the Middle East for an NYU Abu Dhabi Candidate Weekend. Three hundred finalists– carefully culled from the 15,000-plus applicant pool — came to Abu Dhabi for an intense round of sample classes, written work, one-on-one discussions with faculty, and explorations of the campus and city.
All expenses are paid, from anywhere in the world. It’s mandatory — you can’t get into the prestigious university without participating. That’s one of the many reasons the school is so special.
Nat’s long-standing interest in globalization and diversity was nurtured in Westport.
The son of Thai parents — his father worked for the UN — Nat had some “tough experiences” growing up as a minority here. But, he says, “I wouldn’t be who I am — or be so passionate about social justice — if I hadn’t gone through that.”
His role models at Staples — where he achieved great success in tennis and track — included 2 older black students, Gibran Patterson and Cameron Keeler. As Nat became an upperclassman, he in turn tried to look out for students of color who, he says, “were the butts of racial jokes.” (One is now a doctor at Harvard.)
After graduating in 1994 he went to Skidmore, where he thrived. He majored in exercise physiology, met his wife, and headed to San Diego State to start a sports psychology masters degree program.
He switched to a masters in cross-cultural education. He also taught tennis to top junior players and coached high school, then in 2003 returned to Skidmore. The admissions office wanted someone to “articulate the student-of-color experience.” Nat coordinated multicultural recruitment efforts, and helped increase the number of minority students from 12% to over 20%.
After a stint as a college counselor at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan — where Nat saw the search process through the eyes of students and parents — he moved in 2010 to NYU’s Washington Square campus. He worked on diversity initiatives, then this fall took on the Abu Dhabi assignment.
NYU is, he says, the 1st American institution to run a 4-year liberal arts school in the Middle East. It is “mind-blowing. We’re blowing the doors off diversity. We have incredible kids, from all over the world.”
As an example, he points to a class that president John Sexton teaches on the church and state. In New York, Nat says, nearly all the students say those are 2 separate institutions. When Sexton teaches it to a class of mostly female Muslim scholars in the Middle East, they say church and state are the same.
In Abu Dhabi, though, Sexton finds the NYU freshmen have an enormous range of opinions. “He never knows what they’ll say,” Nat notes.
The Candidate Weekend plays a key role in forming that diverse group of students — and Nat plays a key role in that weekend (there are 4 each year).
This past weekend, 80 applicants from over 50 countries descended on Abu Dhabi. “They’re all super-bright,” Nat said, just 2 hours before boarding a flight to the Middle East.
“Our job is to measure their ’emotional and intercultural intelligence.’ We take them out of their comfort zone. We want to see how they interact with each other, and what their leadership style is. Those are the kinds of things that are important for them to succeed in today’s interconnected world.”
When Nat left Skidmore in 2008 to work for St. Luke’s, he moved back to his home town. Now he lives 3 houses down from his father.
Westport today is more diverse than when Nat was growing up, he says. There are more people of color, and more organizations and programs — like TEAM Westport — that reach out to and speak for them.
Nat says — admitting this is “a gross generalization” — he senses that Westport parents teach their children to be “color-blind.”
“That’s honorable. It’s what most people think they should do,” he says.
“But I think that misses really thinking about the ramifications of what it means to be a minority. People’s hearts are in the right place, but I’d like to see even more in-depth discussions and activities about the experiences of minorities.”
Nevertheless, he says, “My wife and I will raise our family here. We know what to expect. I feel 100% lucky and blessed to live here. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”