Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Sustained Dialogue: The Importance of Honest Conversation on Campus

Sustained Dialogue showed me the power that conversation can have in creating a positive outlook.

Nov 26, 2016

Editor’s note: this article is part of an initiative by the Office of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education which runs the Sustained Dialogue series.
It all starts with a conversation.
“Jack, can you come upstairs real quick?”
I sighed, paused the millionth episode of my Netflix binge and walked upstairs to the smell of the fast food left out on the kitchen table. I turned to see my parents calmly sitting on opposite ends of the couch.
“Jack, your mother and I are getting separated.”
I can’t say I was surprised.
A month later, and I’m shipped off halfway around the world to begin my new life in Abu Dhabi. I was in a sea of new faces, new friends, new everything. To say that NYU Abu Dhabi was the fresh start I needed is an understatement. Since Candidate Weekend, all I could think about was the idea of a new beginning, finally getting the chance to become my own person, finally getting away from the other lives I’d been tangled in for so many years. I could finally be left alone.
For a while, whenever people learned of my parents’ very recent divorce, they were apologetic. I always said that it’s fine, I was expecting it for a while, I’m surprised it didn’t happen earlier. I was convinced I was handling it very well. My family was on the other side of the planet, I didn’t have to see them and I hardly had to talk to them. Out of sight, out of mind, right? This was the mentality that I worked under for my first semester at NYUAD. I didn’t have to deal with my parents very often. I could move on. I was fine.
Then I went home.
Only that it wasn’t home — it was my dad’s new condo. Every other night, it was the hotel my mom was staying in. My home had been sold to a new family two months ago. I drove past my home every day on the way to my new residence. I could see home from the window. Coming back to my friends and family, I had never felt so alone in my life. Even by the end of the winter break, I still said I was fine, but now I know it was a lie.
One day in the spring semester back in Abu Dhabi, I was talking to a friend about meaningful conversations. He told me about something that the Office of Student Life was organizing later in the week, and that I should go with him. I was busy and hesitated, but in the spirit of procrastination, I went. I ended up at my first Sustained Dialogue Session.
The session started out like many other highly informative initiatives on campus. Everyone in the room introduced themselves, we set some guidelines for the conversation and we made a list of potential conversation topics. The topic of the evening that we gravitated towards was mental health, which sparked a lively conversation that I never would have expected out of a group of people that hardly even knew each other. After this session, I was curious to see what topic would come up the next week, and the week after that. My curiosity turned into passion when the conversation turned to family.
The day that Sustained Dialogue tackled the issue of family marked the moment that this program was not just something I attended, but something I needed. It was the most uncomfortable I had been since watching my newly-divorced parents make small talk over Christmas Eve dinner. Nobody apologized to me, nobody asked how I was handling it. The group simply asked me what I was feeling, which nobody else before had bothered to ask with care. My efforts to avoid my family were put directly in front of me, and it hurt. I cried the second I got back to my dorm that night. I cried until I forgot what I was crying about, and after that, I called my parents.
Many of the subsequent dialogue sessions were much lighter on my psyche, but their meaning stayed with me. In the process of building a space for myself, I was part of something bigger. I became part of a space that the entire group shared. Even if most weeks were not intensely emotionally-charged conversations, they were in an environment where I could be my authentic self, and everyone in the room could too. Sustained Dialogue became something to look forward to rather than just another weekly commitment. No matter how much work there was to do, Sustained Dialogue put me in the right place to get it done.
After a while, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to limit the time that I could be myself. With every conversation I had, not just in the realm of Sustained Dialogue, I began to speak a lot more freely. I opened up to a lot more people about my parents’ divorce, among a million other stressors in my life, and eventually, people opened up more to me. Since Sustained Dialogue, I have made conversation an investment, rather than a pastime. It is an investment in self-improvement, in friendship and in simply being.
Living on such a strange campus where everyone is very different makes it easy to feel alone and lost in one’s personal problems. By granting me the ability to analyze my daily life, Sustained Dialogue made me realize that nobody on campus is ever alone in their troubles if they choose not to be. We are an amazing and loving community, made up of amazing and loving people. Although conversations with other people won’t just magically solve everything, Sustained Dialogue showed me the power that conversation can have in creating a positive outlook. My difficulties with home and family are just as present as they were before I started talking about them, but these problems no longer make me feel lost and alone. I can communicate much better with my parents as individuals now, and I’m much closer to both of them than I was when they were married. Getting to this point wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of people to get me here.
It all started with a conversation.
Jack Delano is a contributing writer. Email him at feedback@thegazelle.org.
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