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The life-changing lesson a year in Abu Dhabi taught me...that I still use today

Updated: Sep 4, 2020

So many Black women are leaving the US for a million different reasons. Our guest Blogger, Dr. Kimberly Mulligan shares what her experience taught her.

Christmas Day 2014, I was at home with my family in SC. During the holidays I try to be cognizant of being present and not spending the whole day looking at my phone. Sometime during the afternoon, I checked Facebook and my timeline was flooded with people who snagged a ridiculous error fare to Abu Dhabi. I rushed to try and purchase tickets only to find out I missed the deal. I was so upset and very dramatically vowed to myself that I would never allow an opportunity like this slip through my fingers again (imagine me standing in the rain shaking my fist at the sky). I even changed the wallpaper on my phone to this:

The following summer for my birthday, my husband treated me to a trip to Barbados (on an error fare, I told you we were not letting another deal slip by). While we were relaxing on the beach, I decided to check my email (work stops for no one). In my inbox there was an email from the director of my center asking if I would be willing to be a part of the team working to establish a new STEM program in Abu Dhabi (full circle moment)! I would live there for the next year and needed to decide in the next 2 weeks because I would have to leave in a little over a month. Everything moved quickly after that and at the end of July I was headed to the UAE.

Originally much of my excitement about this opportunity was the glitz and glamour of the region, being immersed in another culture, and the possibility of traveling more of the world since we would be a little more centrally located. I never could have imagined the most important lessons I learned. A friend of mine recently sent something that said, “Europeans out of offices are like: “I will not be working until 18 September. All emails will be automatically deleted. Americans: “I am in the hospital. Email responses may be delayed by up to 30 minutes. Sorry for the inconvenience! If urgent, please reach me in the ER at…”. I started my time off in Abu Dhabi as that American. When I would arrive at work everyone would be sitting around enjoying their Arabic coffee and dates to start off the day, while I would come in with a quick hello off to whatever I thought was most pressing at the moment. The same would happen at lunch. When the bell rang to signal the end of the school day the staff would leave, and I would still be there working. I can still hear the teachers saying, “Dr. Kim, please sit down. That is not good for your digestion.” And my response would be, “Inshallah (God willing), next time.”

But over time I did learn that the world was not going to stop if I sat down and had a cup of coffee with my colleagues. It allowed me to learn so much more about their lives and customs; although we rarely got together outside of work, we became friends. I went home when the workday was over to the gym with my husband and still had time to do whatever I wanted to do while the sun was still up. My weekends were full of hanging out with friends, exploring the area, attending football games, and just having fun instead of getting a few more hours of work in. I even had the opportunity to attend an Emirati wedding and mosque for Ramadan with a co-worker. It was glorious. My husband and I made a promise that when we returned to the US, we would not subscribe to the tendency of putting work before everything else.

Fast forward a year and I took a new job that brought us back to the States. While we would miss the friends we made and the lifestyle (Friday brunches in gorgeous hotels that last 5 hours, yes please!) we were excited to be closer to our loved ones. The work I do is something that I’m truly passionate about and because I was overhauling an office there was a lot of it. In no time at all I was staying late, working weekends, and had no memory of what the inside of a gym looked like. While moving back to be closer to family and friends was so important, if the choice was between taking off work and spending time with them, work seemed to win 8 times out of 10.

Then in March, COVID hit and our worlds were turned upside down, but it also put a lot of things into perspective. While I know it’s so easy to never stop working when you do it from home, I made a conscious effort to have a structured workday that ended at a reasonable hour. Without a commute I was able to incorporate workouts back into my schedule and my daily devotional didn’t seem like an afterthought. My husband and I made dinner together, I had virtual happy hours with friends, and we got a puppy (Ruffin because nobody came to see Otis). I even lost a few pounds! It has been very reminiscent of our time in Abu Dhabi and I realized that while I have been killing it at work, I have neglected other aspects of my life that are even more important.

So now as I prepare to head back into the office full-time, I plan to remember the lessons I have been reminded of and do a better job of taking care of myself holistically. I can’t promise that there will never be any late nights or work on the weekends, but that will be the exception, not the rule, inshallah.


Dr. Kimberly Mulligan serves as the Auburn University College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) Assistant Dean for Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity. In this position, she works to develop and implement initiatives which create spaces for everyone to see themselves in STEM, particularly those from groups traditionally underrepresented in these fields. This extrovert who has never met a stranger loves traveling, enjoying a great meal with friends and family, reading, and finding a great deal while thrift-shopping.

Theme song: Nice for what by Drake

Superpower: Fearlessness

Proudest moments: Receiving my PhD, marrying my best friend, and seeing the students I work with find their passion


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