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Illustration by Michael Leo

Students of Determination Week: Can NYUAD Transform One Week of Programming into an Institution Wide Commitment?

"Accessibility needs to be something that permeates every single department and every single conversation on campus," reflected participants from Students of Determination Week. What were the impacts of this week? How can it transform the community?

Nov 28, 2020

Initiated by the Dean of Students (DOS) Office three years ago as a safe space for students of determination from across the UAE to come together, the Students of Determination Week this semester was held from Nov. 15 to Nov. 19. Featuring an array of active and passive programs, the week reflected NYU Abu Dhabi’s commitment to supporting students of determination in the community.
But it also left a question: what can the community do better? How can we sustain this commitment beyond just programming?
The Week: Centering Students in Conversation
In past years, the initiative included a Students of Determination Night; this third year featured a more elaborate week of programming.
On Nov. 17, the DOS office hosted a panel on “How To Be An Ally to Students of Determination”. The featured panelists included Price McCarthy, Class of 2022, Darya Sukhova, Class of 2022 and Mohammed Ali, Class of 2021.
“I appreciate the talk where I was a panelist because, since I’ve been in this school at least, this is the first time we got to share experiences and talk about things that bothered us, not amongst ourselves only but the larger student community too,” shared McCarthy.
Gladys Tarisai Mwedzi, Dean’s Fellow and Class of 2020, and Mehak Sangani, Class of 2021 and an intern at the Dean of Students office, elaborated that most of the feedback they had received about the panel in particular was along similar lines: students of determination felt for the first time that they were given the space to speak for themselves and be heard.
“It was shocking to me to realize that there had never been a space like this before,” reflected Mwedzi. “To know that it took four years for us to get to a space where we can gather and talk about this was really astounding for me.”
While the panel was a confidential, safe space for participants to learn and unlearn, McCarthy provided an overview of what was discussed. “It’s human nature that people are always afraid of the other or of people who aren’t like them… you don’t have to go out of your way to do anything [grandiose;] treating me like you would treat any other person is how I would expect to be treated,” she explained, later adding that if you want to be of help, be sure to ask me if I need that help first.
Making Student Interest Group programming more accessible was also discussed: “Sometimes our actions as SIG members or even leaders are creating an environment where people of determination are afraid to speak up… we don’t know how we might be isolating people even without our notice so I think reflecting more on that [is needed],” McCarthy argued.
Among the topics covered in the allyship panel, the need for a dedicated students union or SIG for students of determination at NYUAD was an important one. “I asked for a position to be created or a union where the students of determination themselves are placed where we can contact the administration directly about policies or issues that affect us, instead of always having to be blindsighted or bringing things up to Aisha [Al Naqbi, NYUAD’s Liaison to the Moses Centre,] who then brings things up to the school,” explained McCarthy.
“We’re looking into that,” added Mwedzi about the creation of such a SIG or space.
Another important part of the week was the faculty and staff information session. “The information session for staff and faculty was to let them know about the Moses Center, how they can support students better and how it is mandatory that they do so,” elaborated Mwedzi. “It also involved hearing some feedback from faculty and staff and having an understanding of how the Moses Centre can be better partners with staff and faculty and making sure that our students are included.”
The week also featured daily journaling prompts, a creative arts showcase and mindfulness and wellness videos by the Wellness Department. Like past years, the Students of Determination Night was open to students who identify as students of determination from universities across the UAE, in an attempt to foster connections.
Looking Ahead: Institutionalizing Support for Students of Determination
Even though the week was targeted towards students of determination, some aspects of the week still felt superficial for McCarthy.
“It did feel sort of performative, like a theatre of sorts... For example, when people had to change their background to burgundy, I was like, sure, but it’s not just about just changing the color of your profile picture,” McCarthy explained. “I realized so much more had to be done apart from just a week. For me, it felt like I wasn’t part of the week but that I was invited to the week.”
She did appreciate, however, that outside of programming this semester, campus departments and the Moses Centre are more receptive to feedback and criticism, and on taking action from that feedback.
Aisha Al Naqbi, Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Campus Life Initiatives and NYUAD’s Liaison for the Moses Centre, explained that the office has followed up these sessions with conversations with relevant campus departments.
While faculty on their own have started to think about how they can make the curriculum more accessible for students of determination, she also added that training for professors is in the works. Al Naqbi talked about bringing experts in to talk about these matters to equip professors to serve a wide range of students with disabilities or neurodiversity in their classrooms.
“Disability training should be mandatory for faculty as it is for us because a degree doesn't give you a pass to be rude or to forget all about someone's disability,” McCarthy emphasized.
Other than training for staff and faculty, the office is also working with the Career Development Center to cater better to the needs of students of determination, and increase resources that connect them with pathways, companies and organizations that are supportive and inclusive. A cohesive NYUAD-centric information page and resource list is under development and planned to be shared on the NYUAD student portal, so students can access relevant information on one platform.
But despite the work that is being done this year, there are still significant gaps in institutional support for students of determination. McCarthy argued that there needs to be more transparency on the institution’s part on what happens after a concern has been shared with them and what kind of action students should expect.
“Accessibility needs to be something that permeates every single department and every single conversation on campus as opposed to being just a conversation that happens with one particular group,” argued Sangani. “It should be a conversation that happens at every level, like the dining committee should ask if the dining hall is accessible for students of determination... in the same way ResEd needs to ask if they’re providing accessibility and accommodations.”
For a university that prides itself on prioritizing diversity and inclusion, NYUAD and our community have a long way to go in supporting students of determination, especially in prioritizing accessibility and in empowering students to advocate for themselves. The Students of Determination Week was an important step in raising awareness and showing allyship. While providing safe spaces for dialogue are essential, the tangible impact and action that comes out of that dialogue should also be visible in the aftermath.
For resources on being allies for People of Determination or for general awareness, you can refer to this document.
For more insights on physical accessibility at NYUAD, read this article.
Huma Umar is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
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