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Photo Courtesy of NYUAD

Learning and Belonging: The Story of NYUAD’s Office of Social Responsibility

Starting with a pilot English course in 2012 to being one of the leading models of corporate social responsibility in the region, the NYUAD Adult Education Program and OSR programming has sustained a sense of belonging for contract staff on campus.

Nov 1, 2020

NYU Abu Dhabi is home to over 850 contracted staff, from 36 different countries, who collectively serve as the backbone of our institution. Through their endless work as public security, cafeteria staff, facilities management and janitorial staff, they not only ensure the smooth operation of campus facilities and keep our community safe, but have also become an extended family for many community members.
The Inception of OSR
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
In 2012, the Office of Compliance and Risk Management and the Office of Global Education, recognizing the educational needs and desires of the contracted staff population, piloted the first English course for contracted staff on campus. The course was designed by Carol Brandt, Vice Provost and Associate Vice Chancellor for Global Education and Outreach.
“The Compliance Office was regularly interviewing our contracted staff members to assure compliance with the Statement of Labor Values (now our Supplier Code of Conduct). Some of our security officers noted that they would like to improve their English,” explained Brandt. “Maggie Bavuso, who headed the Compliance Office at that time, asked me if I could design a program of English classes for them.”
In collaboration with the Eton Institute, NYUAD was able to provide assessment tools and a sequenced curriculum that allowed contracted staff to progress on a scale from near beginner to advanced English over time. Since its inception, the demand to develop more programming and courses grew, creating the need for an individual department that worked towards facilitating lifelong learning for contracted staff on campus. This marked the beginning of NYUAD’s Office of Social Responsibility.
“We saw that our contracted colleagues were much like our students — young, entrepreneurial, eager for learning, creativity and growth,” exclaimed Brandt. “As the program grew, Liria Gjidija, associate director of social responsibility and community engagement, and I realized our contracted colleagues wanted more than just English education. We conducted surveys and soon added courses on financial management, computer skills, photography, the arts and more.”
Adult Education Program and Le’Naktashif Al Emarat
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
Over the last eight years, the Adult Education Program has developed into a full scale, comprehensive program, offering 12 certificate courses in a wide range of subjects and serving the entire NYUAD community including faculty, staff, family members, postdoctoral and graduate students. Along with skill-based classes, Adult Education Program also offers students at the advanced level of English the opportunity to enroll in Coursera, an online learning platform that provides access to courses at leading institutions around the world as well as IELTS preparation courses.
“[The Adult Education Program] was NYUAD taking its mission and vision as an educational institution to the next level and … Adult Education Program has grown parallel to our undergraduate studies but has integrated very non traditional students,” stated Gjidija.
The English in the Workplace Program – the pillar of the initiative – has served 1,400 contracted colleagues and domestic workers since its start in 2012. In the 2019-2020 academic year, OSR conducted 28 different courses with 817 participants from all across the university.
“I have taken English proficiency classes with OSR and they have helped me communicate better in English and understand the people around me,” said Baljit Singh, who has been working with Serco at NYUAD since 2011.
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
OSR has also developed Le Naktashif al Emarat – translating to “Let’s Explore the Emirates” – which is a program that fosters greater knowledge of the UAE and immersion into its culture for all community members.
“We decided to prioritize programming that would help everyone get to know the Emirates. Towards that, we expanded the Arabic classes for community members, designed a UAE 101 and organized visits to some of the most important festivals, museums and cultural attractions in Abu Dhabi and the UAE,” Brandt elaborated.
An Educational Model for the Region
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
Today, OSR’s Adult Education Program is recognized as a visionary educational model for promoting lifelong learning opportunities to contracted workers in organizations in the UAE. Through partnerships with a multitude of organizations such as Careem, CNN International, TwoFour54 and Rotana Hotels, NYUAD has welcomed their contracted staff to the university by offering English in the Workplace, financial literacy, professional development and creative writing programs.
OSR has also been facilitating other companies and organizations in the country to replicate not just similar labor compliance measures but also an analogous education model that aligns with the values of each institution, while also being aware of the resources they can provide.
“We thought it was a fantastic initiative to educate and give contractors skills for life. We were on board from the start and were highly impressed with their strict Code of Conduct policy, which protects these individuals, and goes as far as to who and how they do their business,” explained Shivon Watson, from CNN Abu Dhabi, whose Corporate Social Responsibility team met Gjidija at an Impact 2030 CSR event run by the Abu Dhabi Council.
Through their participation in the Adult Education Program, contracted staff from all over the country have been able to access facilities at NYUAD and experience the learning environment provided by the university while creating new bonds with peers working in different institutions.
Coming together to Celebrate Personal Stories
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
Meet Our Colleague Monday, one of the most widely known initiatives, sheds light on the stories of different contracted and domestic worker staff every week by sharing their profiles on OSR’s social media platforms.
“Students don’t really understand who is behind the uniform. I thought it was important to highlight that they [contracted and domestic worker staff] are people with lives and stories and experiences,” said Firas Ashraf, program coordinator at OSR and Class of 2019, who started the MOCM during his time as a student assistant. “I was inspired by Humans of New York and their way of storytelling so, in the fall of 2016, I started talking to our contracted colleagues and domestic workers, got to know their stories and started posting them on our social media.”
OSR has also served as the starting point for community members to explore their talents and to apply the skills they learn through OSR’s programming to tell their own stories. Following a series of OSR’s photography workshops, Brenda Belaza, a domestic worker in the community, gained national and international recognition for her talents, allowing her to publish her story in national newspapers in the UAE as well as the Philippines, her home country.
“OSR helped me become someone I could’ve never imagined. It pushed me to become a better person and brought out the best of me. The best part is the feeling of being acknowledged by the people who believe in my talents and capabilities,” Belaza proudly stated.
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
The OSR team, including the group of student assistants that work with the office every semester, have been able to not just foster an intimate relationship with the contracted and domestic worker staff on campus but also reflect on their personal connections to migration.
“There is a common link that has brought us [the OSR team] here together; it’s a professional and a personal journey. We all come from very different places but I think that we all understand the context of this all too personally,” expressed Gjidija. “As a child of immigrants and a first generation American myself, being able to work with our contract and domestic worker colleagues makes me more passionate about my work.”
The office also serves as a catalyst to create and solidify bonds, especially among the student assistants.
“Since I am a freshman, everything was new to me; however, as I joined the team, I received a warm welcome from Lily and Firas as well as my fellow student assistants. This helped me immerse myself into NYUAD and create a more well-rounded environment,” said Chuol Ruei Deng, Class of 2024.
Working at OSR has been an even more special experience for visiting students, one that has engendered a unique relationship between them and the NYUAD community.
“As a study away student from NY, I was so excited to get to work with and get to know the people who run the beautiful campus -- people who I might not have been able to get to know without this position at OSR,” admitted Jasmine Darwish Odeja, Class of 2021. “Working with OSR made me feel like I had a larger purpose on the campus and I loved it,” she added.
Bridging Gaps in the NYUAD Community and Beyond
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
Through collaborations with multiple Student Interests Groups as well as various academic and nonacademic departments across campus, for events like Staff Appreciation Day, Gully Cricket and its Adult Education Program and cultural outings, OSR has played a vital role in fostering a greater sense of inclusion, equity and belonging at NYUAD.
“I really enjoyed when I got to recite my poem last year at the Staff Appreciation Day event. It was a great opportunity for me to perform in front of my NYUAD colleagues, professors and students,” described Harkamal Singh, a contracted staff member working for ADNH at NYUAD since 2017.
OSR’s programming has actively worked towards erasing the invisible barrier between community members who fulfill very different roles by bringing everyone together in the same classroom, event or cultural celebration. Contracted and domestic worker staff have not only achieved milestones, such as giving Ted Talks and winning UAE wide photo competitions, but also worked with other members of the community to support one another in times of need.
“I see everyone who works at NYUAD, whether employed directly, contracted or employed by our families as caregivers, as a member of our community. Early on, [Gjidija] and I gave a lot of thought to removing barriers to inclusion that existed because of a community member’s employment status.” stated Brandt. “I see everyone as a learner and a teacher. Everyone has gifts to share. Everyone has gifts to be recognized by others,” she added.
Photo Courtesy of NYUAD's Office of Social Responsibility.
The Adult Education Program, in collaboration with ADvocacy, a SIG that works with migrant labor communities on and off campus in Abu Dhabi, has provided contracted and domestic worker staff on campus with a platform to lead a lecture series and panel discussion. OSR initiatives, such as the Second Chance Store and the first-used textbook collecting effort, have brought together members from the NYUAD community to care for the contracted and domestic worker staff population.
The department also makes great contributions in the upward mobility of the contracted and domestic worker staff on campus. A contracted staff who started as a dishwasher took every English class in the 12 step sequence and is now a supervisor of over 20 staff members. Furthermore, the ripple effects of education go beyond geographical barriers and have enabled the staff to teach their families English over the phone.
“Our programming has been directly correlated to the upward mobility of our colleagues and oftentimes, I have seen our colleagues take the skills that they learn from our courses and apply to jobs outside NYUAD; that’s still a win to us!” exclaimed Gjidija.
Aasna Sijapati is a columnist. Email her at
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