Illustration by Dhabia Al Mansoori.

“I Started Perceiving Campus as a Hostile Place”: Cyberbullying and Rethinking Accountability at NYUAD

Recent events on campus have raised questions about how to create an environment conducive to productive communication. We interviewed a student recently affected.

May 2, 2021

A first-year student – whose name will be redacted due to privacy concerns, posted a now-deleted message to an NYU Abu Dhabi Facebook group in late February. He was responding to a statement scribbled on the D2 “Senior Screw Up” board — a giant poster placed outside the dining hall where seniors are able to write messages to each other, speak on their current state of mind and normalize failure and defeat. This message in particular, remarked, “Men Suck!”
In a moment of anger, he snapped a picture and shared it to the university Facebook group. His message read: “You have to really reconsider your life choices, girl. You have to work on yourself a bit.”
In an interview for The Gazelle, the student explained: “Just like my mother, I take everything close to my heart … based on emotion I wrote something condescending and harmful … I was wrong and I admit that.” To him, his message initially seemed benign and was an attempt to foster conversation on whether or not such a statement was appropriate to be said publicly. While this was his intent, the student’s comments were widely seen as an example of victim-blaming, indicative of a culture of misogyny and tone policing.
As explained by Julia Tymoshenko, Class of 2021: “This power dynamic of a man telling, supposedly, a woman who clearly had negative experiences with men that it was her fault and that she had to make better choices was what made me incredibly uncomfortable.”
What followed was an avalanche of negative and cruel comments responding to his social media post. While some comments critiqued his perspective in an effort to educate, many responses amounted to personal insults online as well as school-yard style bullying in person; including one student who posted a meme saying to the student: “No one asked, plus you’re ugly.”
“I received a lot of hate. Basically, more than a hundred comments in one hour and I was genuinely surprised to receive that amount of negative attention," the student added.
“People in real life, they were talking behind my back, and they were … giggling and mocking me … I did what I could to explain the situation, I’ve apologized several times, but nobody paid attention, and nobody heard me."
This student’s experience raises many questions. What are appropriate reactions from the NYUAD student body to harmful behavior? What type of environment would breed education rather than harm? And why do certain statements trigger responses in the first place?
These questions are especially relevant when navigating through sensitive topics — especially ones that relate to the intersections of gender, race, sexual identity and other issues that have the potential to increase harm to those who hold minoritized identities on campus.
Despite the student apologizing, the bullying did not subside. The negative response began to affect his mental health to the extent that he felt compelled to leave campus.
"The reason right now I’m in my home country was because … I couldn’t handle it anymore," the student explained.
“For me, getting to New York University was basically a dream … [but] it doesn’t really matter that it’s so convenient, that there's a basketball field, there’s a running field, and all those amenities … it doesn't really matter …. I started perceiving campus as a hostile place,” he added.
Saman Hussain, Assistant Director of Spiritual Life and Intercultural Education, provided context for these incidents and harsh social backlash. Hussain acknowledged that while some comments seem cruel, they are often the natural response to genuine pain, something women and other marginalized identities have experienced again and again throughout their lives. As she explains, “In the moment, there is only the physical response, I am hijacked, I am triggered, I’m tightened up and I’m going to type. But what might be behind that is a deep story of pain. A story of not being seen, of being marginalized. You may have heard of this phrase — hurt people hurt people, it’s called a cycle of harm,” said Hussain.
Katia Yesiyeva, Class of 2024, and a friend of the student, explained that she feels when someone posts something online, they often feel more compelled to voice comments that cause harm, rather than measured criticism. “Somehow when you comment it's like this virtual reality; you don’t feel like there's an actual person behind the post … You see a text or a post from social media, you forget that actually someone real wrote it,” she explained.
On April 14th, an email was sent by Dean Farley highlighting the need for unity, rather than polarization. The email explained: “I fear the current online discourse is normalizing intimidation and bullying in the name of accountability. I expect us to build a campus community that creates honest spaces for mutual accountability and reflection alongside forgiveness and empathy for ourselves and one another.”
“This message was a remedy for my broken heart. I am very glad that Dean Farley shares my approach of compassion alongside critical and sound reasoning instead of bullying,” the student said when asked about the email.
Many, however, do want to acknowledge a firm divide between harassment and holding those accountable, as well as maintaining that forgiveness is a process that does not happen overnight. As explained by Tymoshenko: “I want to draw a very clear line between bullying and calling out racism and misogyny. I think it could be pretty dangerous to blend these two into one.”
Hussain gave advice for those who want to explain their perspective. “In order for me to hold the space for different perspectives, I need to cultivate that space within myself. Spaces of education that foster what I call inner-work, a level of working on myself … If you want to engage in conversation and lean in … then be prepared to look inwards as well as outwards.”
The student explained that despite the experience, he hopes that people will be more considerate in the way that they react to people both online and in-person in the future. He believes that this is central to what it means to be a “Global Leader.”
The student's name is kept hidden due to privacy concerns
Ari Hawkins is Editor-in-Chief. Email him at
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