Cover Image

Image courtesy of REACH

REACH: Creating a Culture of Support Since 2014

For over five years, REACH has sought to create a community in which every student feels healthy, safe and supported and in the process filling in a gap in mental health resources on campus.

Dec 7, 2019

Back in 2014, a group of NYU Abu Dhabi students got together with a simple aim: Raising Empowered Advocates for Community Help — REACH.
“We just had this idea that students can help students, and that there is a value in peer support in and of itself,” shared Liza Tait-Bailey, Class of 2017 and one of the founders of REACH. “You know, gaining the perspective of a peer who is trained but who also lives that and knows what it's like to be a student on this campus.”
Tina Wadhwa, Associate Director of Health Promotion & Sexual Misconduct Support, had just joined the university as a counsellor, but was unable to practice due to delays in her UAE licensing process. As a result, there was only one working counsellor at NYUAD. While Wadhwa was setting up the Health Promotion Office, students approached her with this idea of a student-led group seeking to create a community in which every student feels healthy, safe and supported.
“This really mattered to me in my personal life: the need to talk about mental health. The need to talk about consent. The need to talk about what success looks like, the pressure that we feel as students,” expressed Tait-Bailey. “I wanted to have those conversations, and REACH was an amazing avenue to do that and to see change.”
Today, REACH has been around for half of the university’s life. From initially struggling to gain recognition and build a reputation among the student body, it is now a well-cemented and accessible resource that is introduced to students starting from Candidate Weekend.
One of the key ways in which REACH supports students is through The Nook, a private non-judgemental space where students can talk to a member one-on-one. Primed as something in between talking to a counselor and a friend, members who work at The Nook go through intense active listening training to fulfill this role.
“Basically what we do is that two people will role play: one as a Nooker, and the other as a student,” said Cece Kim, Class of 2021 and one of the leaders of REACH, explaining the weekly training sessions. “We all come with different scenarios that usually reflect the needs of the student community.”
This semester, the team has mostly focused on issues related to academic stress and receiving bad news from home, though they also addressed body image issues, disordered eating and sexual misconduct. A part of the training also includes knowing comprehensively the resources on campus to which they can refer students, such as the nutritionist, the counsellor and the Title IX coordinator.
“The idea is to create a whole supportive network, where everyone is interconnected and people can recommend each other to different resources,” expressed Katarina Holtzapple, Class of 2020 and member of REACH. “But also just the idea that that's the norm here: that there are students who are looking out for you, there's an idea of peer-to-peer support, there's a focus on mental health.”
The team is continuing its effort to remain as diverse and inclusive as possible. Waseem Gulam, Class of 2020 and member of REACH, highlighted the significance of representation in such a role. “Coming from an African country I think there's a lot of stigma attached to mental health, especially in men, who don't really tend to their mental health needs,” he shared. “So I feel like I’m using that platform to engage men, especially African men, black men to seek some counseling and take care of their mental health as a priority.”
In fact, keeping up with their goal of accessibility, REACH is now working on having people be able to talk to someone in their native language at The Nook, to make them feel more comfortable and destigmatize the space as much as possible.
“Sometimes, we just underestimate how much culture plays a role,” said Simran Motiani, Class of 2020 and one of the leaders of REACH. “We tend to assume that everyone's on the same page with mental health and sexual respect because we talk about it so much in this community, but we have to make a conscious effort in all our programming to really think about that.”
REACH’s most significant role is in contributing to important dialogues on campus and creating a shared understanding of relevant issues, be it through “Factful Fridays” on Instagram, the Sleep Workshops, Consent Dialogues or campaigns such as “Love Your Body Week” and “Redefining Success Week”. Through such initiatives, REACH collaborates with other campus stakeholders, such as Anchorage, Student Government, the CDC and the Health Center, to ensure that they address these topics holistically, giving justice to various perspectives.
But they also face a number of challenges, mostly in the form of responding to student criticism online and addressing the informational gap between students and the administration when it comes to dealing with issues of sexual misconduct and mental health resources.
“As much as we try to engage the student body in these conversations, there is a disconnect between who shows up to the conversations and who is speaking out online,” said Mia Mancuso, Class of 2020 and member of REACH.
“I feel like the online outrage used to be much more translated into action,” added Holtzapple, reflecting on her freshman year, when far more students attended the consent dialogues, community discussions and the Title IX Town Hall.
“But then there's also the students who wouldn't engage online because they don't think it's an issue,” she added, emphasizing the need for mandatory Consent Zone Trainings in establishing community standards about consent. “You may not have known about this before you came to this university but because you’ve gone through this training now, you don't have an excuse to say, ‘Oh but I didn't know that that wasn’t consent, or I didn’t realize that that wasn’t policy.’.”
While REACH contributes to creating a culture of shared values and support on campus, upholding it ultimately depends on students. The team is always open to feedback and criticism, as long as it is constructive and comes with the willingness to participate and collectively implement change.
“People come to us and ask, why don’t you do this? Why don’t you try this? But we have,” lamented Holtzapple. “Sometimes we’ve done that exact program. People just weren't interested.”
On a campus as small and intimate as ours, everyone is interconnected. A small incident in one corner can have ripple effects on the entire community. In such a space, REACH plays a crucial role in defining the ethos of our student body.
“It starts with asking the question ‘How are you?’ and wanting to hear an answer that isn't always ‘I'm okay, thanks’,” expressed Tait-Bailey, reflecting on the significance of REACH at NYUAD.
“But it's also just saying I care. I care about other students. I care about the environment I live in,” she added. “To me, that's what a culture of support looks like. It's about a culture of belonging.”
Kaashif Hajee is Managing Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo