Illustration by Isabel Ríos.

Vulnerability, Community, Connection: A Glimpse into Sustained Dialogue

Sustained Dialogue operates as a brave space that centers compassion and open dialogue. Facilitators and participants speak to the heightened importance of these connections during a challenging and distant online semester.

Apr 4, 2021

“In this period, the lack of connection really gets to people, but through this portal, you get to plug yourself into another world for a little bit and you get to connect,” explained Ribka Tewelde, Class of 2023.
Tewelde explained the role of this portal in transporting oneself away from the monotony of online classes and resulting Zoom fatigue.This portal takes one to a place where curiosity for one another can flourish; an atmosphere where ample room is given for participants to witness each other’s humanity and grow. The name of this portal? Sustained Dialogue.
Born under the Office of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education, under the creative consultation of Saman Hussein even before her joining NYUAD, incoming Assistant Director of SLICE, Sustained Dialogue found its inception in 2017. The initiative aims to cultivate a “brave space” for participants to show vulnerability and empathy for one another and engage in cross-cultural dialogue. By its very nature, it is a program made to facilitate connection.
In the era before Covid-19, the typical session consisted of six to 12 participants congregated in a circle, while one to three facilitators co-led a dialogue on the topic of the week. Often, the topic is chosen by the group itself, allowing for them to take agency over their own space. Before the dialogue even takes place, participants and facilitators would all share a meal and engage in bonding activities, check-ins and interpersonal sharing. Now, given that such in person gatherings are but a distant memory, Sustained Dialogue has transitioned online, yet meals are still shared even through a screen.
The transition to a Zoom format has not emerged without issues. Tewelde describes the virtual sessions as having stark differences to the Sustained Dialogue sessions that took place in non-Covid-19 times. For instance, when participants were in disagreement or offended, direct conversation was more frequent due to being face to face. Now, the option to turn off one’s screen and turn away from dialogue has made these key moments more difficult to have. Additionally, she describes how Zoom fatigue affects participants, decreasing the eagerness to participate in comparison to the previous in person structure.
Despite the imperfections of the online format, the barrier of the screen has not taken away connection. In fact, many participants praise Sustained Dialogue for helping them cope with the lack of connection in our digital semester.
Students Going Local and taking classes from their home countries, in particular, frequently join Sustained Dialogue to maintain connections with their community.
Mayher Matharu, Class of 2024, began participating in Sustained Dialogue in the Fall while taking classes in Illinois, United States, half the world away from Abu Dhabi. Even then, having an almost unfathomable distance separating her from her classmates, the platform of Sustained Dialogue gave her the means to get to know peers whom she would have never crossed paths with.
“I think Sustained Dialogue creates a sense of closeness, especially for myself and the few other freshmen in my group who haven’t made deeper connections with people in the community,” she described. Matharu went on to explain that Sustained Dialogue has become more important than ever in the current highly digital environment.
Milka Asgedom, Class of 2024, echoed this feeling: “I’ve really enjoyed my experience with [Sustained Dialogue]. It’s given me the opportunity to talk to people I normally wouldn’t have the chance to, which I appreciate even more given how difficult it is to form these sorts of connections, with everything online.”
Sustained Dialogue distinguishes itself from other online and dialogue spaces through its very deliberate structure. Within groups, there is a mutual acknowledgement that anything said during their weekly dialogues will not leave the session. This creates an environment where participants are able to lean into their vulnerability, discussing topics ranging from love, family, romantic relationships, success and our relationships with our bodies in a space that is safe and private. Additionally, the groups are previously established, meaning that members can expect to see the same faces return every week, allowing trust to naturally cultivate. Groups are made randomly, and members sign up by selecting the weekly session time that works for them.
The space that facilitators strive to create is also highly adaptive to the needs of the group. Despite there being several Sustained Dialogue “sections” meeting each week, facilitated by different students trained by SLICE, the topics for discussion may be completely different among them; one may host a dialogue about privilege and identity one week, while another may discuss love languages at the same time. The discussions are catered to the group, with each member involved in shaping the experience.
Naturally, trust grows, community flourishes and often conversations flow organically.
“The groups actually facilitate themselves,” commented Wilder Worrall, Class of 2023 and Sustained Dialogue Facilitator. He explains how beyond the facilitators giving a topic for discussion, the dialogue is fully driven by its members.
In the upcoming week, Sustained Dialogue is coming to its close for this semester. And soon, it will start again. When next semester rolls around in the fall, there will be a form floating around to sign up for Sustained Dialogue and join this small community. As the university manages the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccination rates continue to increase, there is hope that Sustained Dialogue can return to its in person format.
Tewelde shared her admiration for the program: “You create a little family of your own. Someone new to say hi to on the highline.”
Asgedom implored students to consider joining: “Just give it a shot. I have only heard good things about people who have tried it, and while some will say that Sustained Dialogue is nice, but it’s not their thing, others have told me that it has been a shaping experience for them. There’s nothing to lose by signing up but so much to gain.”
Dylan Herman is a Contributing Writer. Email him at
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