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Image Courtesy of BEN and GEN

A History of GEN and BEN

Learn about two initiatives that have shaped the Legacy of NYUAD in the Abu Dhabi community from past and present participators and directors.

On Oct. 9, the Girls’ Educational Network celebrated its fifth anniversary. Founded in the fall of 2014 by two NYU Abu Dhabi alumnae — Sofia Gómez-Doyle, Class of 2017 and Ritu Muralidharan, Class of 2018 — the program has gained much acclaim and even won the Dalai Lama Fellowship.
Two years after GEN’s inception, Firas Ashraf, Class of 2019, and Garreth Chan, Class of 2017, came together to co-found the Boys’ Educational Network.
Spearheaded by the Office of Community Outreach, GEN and BEN are NYUAD’s signature youth engagement programs. Today, both programs have become well renowned not just in Abu Dhabi, but also throughout the UAE — with participants coming from Dubai and even Ras-AL-Khaimah. Collectively, BEN and GEN have engaged over 700 participants and 350 NYUAD student facilitators. Last year, Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Boys made the BEN program mandatory for their gifted and talented group of students.
Through a series of workshops, both GEN and BEN aim to actively inculcate a sense of self-awareness while also focusing on developing soft skills such as team-building and conflict resolution. The primary aim of the programs is to explore what it means to be a leader and understand the multifaceted notions of leadership in today’s world.
“Years ago, as we observed the initial success of GEN, a few of us were determined to figure out how guys could also contribute to the progress of gender equality,” explained Chan. “We started BEN because we didn’t feel like we understood enough about gender dynamics and masculinity, especially in this geographical context, it was an exploration for ourselves and for younger boys.”
“Change is often uncomfortable and difficult,” Chan explicated on the motivations for starting the program. “The ultimate hope is that BEN facilitators and participants will finally understand the implication and responsibility of the simple phrase: Be a man, do the right thing.”
Andrew Riad, Class of 2022 and co-director of BEN, described BEN as a safe space where middle and high school boys can collectively engage in dialogue with topics that are not commonly discussed, or may not have been given the focus they deserve during the process of the young boys’ development.
“In this space, not only do we foster conversations that we deem are integral to the growth of the boys...we cultivate this sense of a shared humanity,” Riad added.
Both programs have been positively received by participants, parents and facilitators.
"BEN has helped our son gain advanced leadership skills and supported him in adopting positive changes that help him tackle real-life challenges," stated one parent in a testimonial provided by the Office of Community Outreach.
"GEN was a wonderful experience for my daughter,” added another parent. “She got hands-on experience on ways to resolve conflicts and to be more open to suggestions from peers."
Not only do the BEN and GEN workshops aid the development of crucial skills amongst participants, they can also provide immensely valuable experiences for facilitators, functioning as a two-way street with a parallel transformation on both sides.
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Image Courtesy of BEN and GEN
Over the years, the BEN and GEN programs have undergone tremendous changes. While facilitators would go to local schools during the first few years, the workshops are now held at the NYUAD campus. The scale of the workshops has increased significantly and the curriculum has evolved under the direction of multiple Executive Boards.
“Difficult in the day, but wonderful in reflection. I think that probably describes all GEN and BEN challenges in growth,” commented Suparna Mathur, associate director of Community Outreach, on sustaining the programs. “We have had a lot of changes happen from local regulations to highly variable turnout. The constant need to pivot, respond and adapt has always been a recurring theme."
“What began as a single workshop to celebrate International Day of the Girl in Fall 2014 has grown into a semester-long program exploring concepts such as mindfulness, self-awareness, design thinking and notions of leadership,” reflected Ritu Muralidharan, Class of 2018 and co-founder of GEN, on how the program has transformed over time. “It’s been incredible to witness.”
Despite all these changes, the shared vision of facilitators, the BEN and GEN Executive Board and the Office of Community Outreach, has remained the same: to create an empowering and inclusive space for UAE’s youth, where collaborative and ethical leadership skills can be honed through dialogue and a variety of activities.
“When we set GEN up, we always wanted it to be something that would be a tradition at NYUAD,” explained Mathur. “What would be incredible is, no matter how much it changes or evolves, GEN and BEN continue to be programs that community looks forward to being offered and that cater to the needs of the community — both at NYUAD and in Abu Dhabi. That would be their legacy.”
While GEN and BEN write their legacies in real time by shaping the youth of the UAE, more work needs to be done. Together, the two programs aim to prepare participants for obstacles they might face in the future. The plurality and ever-evolving nature of identity — especially in the UAE’s cultural context — means that we need programs such as GEN and BEN in our communities now more than ever before.
BEN and GEN should continue to evolve such that, as Treedom Zhang, Class of 2023, GEN facilitator, eloquently puts it: “When you saw the smile on their faces when they stepped into the classroom, you knew everything is worth it.”
Vatsa Singh is Deputy Features Editor and Lucas Gomez-Doyle is a contributing writer. Email them at
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