Illustration by Zelalem Waritu.

Holistic Well-being on Campus: The Dangers of Universalizing Diverse Experiences

Institutions tend to rely on students’ own creativity and innovation in setting up initiatives related to physical health and wellness. Such education must fully be the responsibility of bodies that claim to look after students’ holistic well-being.

Nov 28, 2021

In a campus like NYU Abu Dhabi, one which is populated by students from different cultural backgrounds, conversations about physical health and wellness often become an afterthought. The conversations we do have often fail to recognize the nuances and diversity of experiences that exist within our small community.
A core component of a comprehensive and holistic education is sexual health and wellness. This forms an essential part of students’ undergraduate education and is instrumental in helping them navigate realities beyond their tenure as students at NYUAD and their time in the UAE. All this prompts an important question: Is it the burden of institutional bodies to build a campus that looks after students’ holistic well-being, including sexual health and wellness? Or do students need to assert their agency to build a campus culture wherein such conversations are freely had?
Everyone has a different relationship with sexual health, based on their cultural, educational and social background. Therefore, the assumption that everyone on our campus possesses the same level of understanding of the basics of sexual health and education is harmful and impedes progress.
“There is a disparity of knowledge that needs to be addressed right off the bat. What’s the point of giving students blanket training if they do not have a blanket knowledge [about sexual health]?” highlighted Sameera Singh, former chair of the Student Government Health and Wellness Committee and a member of the Class of 2022.
These individual differences stem from varying perceptions of sexual health around the world. Many cultures do not focus on sexual hygiene as a central aspect of upbringing. This may be due to a wide range of reasons such as stigma around topics of sexual hygiene like menstruation or deprioritization of sexual education as part of a holistic upbringing due to religious or cultural sensitivities.
Such a gap in understanding produces a need to move toward a shared understanding of sexual health, one that is cognizant of the distinctive needs that each individual might have. A shared understanding of sexual health would entail having a mutual understanding of consent, sexual boundaries and a recognition of individual well-being as it helps foster collective well-being. As easy as this may sound theoretically, it is much more complicated to realize in practice. There are a wide range of comfort zones and sensitivities around conversations like this and acknowledging them is an integral part of the process.
Despite differences within the student body, a movement toward open and accessible conversations around holistic health, including sexual health and more, is not impossible. Certain concepts, such as consent, require a need to be universally respected and recognized. Furthermore, there is always space to construct a shared knowledge base about matters relating to sexual wellness that is culturally sensitive while still fulfilling the desired educational outcomes.
Institutional bodies such as the Department of Student Success and Well-being and the Health Promotion Office within it have done much to empower students to build that foundational understanding of sexual health and education. The physical health workshops during Marhaba and the Life Skills presentation have been important student-led initiatives supported by these institutional offices that have allowed the permeation of basic awareness about sexual hygiene and health, especially among first-year students.
However, many times institutions tend to rely on students’ own creativity and innovation in setting up initiatives like this rather than realizing that such education must fully be the responsibility of bodies that claim to look after students’ holistic well-being. These institutions were formed with the sole purpose of facilitating such conversations and instrumentalising them into actions. When they fail, such institutional cracks permeate into students’ personal lives, deeply affecting them in many ways: emotionally, psychologically and materially.
“If we find a gap in the institution and we feel like they are not going to fill it, that’s when you start having peer-to-peer [initiatives]. It shouldn’t be up to students to come up with creative ways to have these conversations. It should not fall on our shoulders to make sure that we are getting the education that we need to navigate the real world,” argued Singh when asked about unofficial avenues of sexual health and education that open up on campus due to the lack of official channels for such conversations.
While allowing students to spearhead conversations like these is important, making the availability of conversations surrounding sexual health contingent on their initiative places an unfair burden and expectation. This is especially true given that most of such organizing work is voluntary. It also means that such conversations happen without appropriate professional oversight which makes it more difficult to navigate their sensitivities.
These problems become even more accentuated in the case of minoritized students. Many students feel that the university hides under the guise of cultural context and falls short of their commitment to the sexual well-being of its students, further marginalizing minoritized students in the process.
“We don’t come in knowing that we won't have access to good sexual health care. This is not to tell people to not come but it is to be fair and transparent, acknowledging that there is a lack of access in certain areas even though that lack of access should not be a reality. There is a lack of clarity about what is and is not available for us,” said Emilia Vieira Branco, a key student organizer and Class of 2023.
On a theoretical level, sex education for minoritized communities also comes with its own complexity and nuance. Globally, there is a need to move beyond merely elementary levels of discussions regarding queer sexual health and recognize the multitudes of sexual experiences that form part of the community. Furthermore, there is a need to reevaluate the assumptions of universal sexual health in the context of minoritized communities, acknowledging its specificity and difference. Assumptions like these serve to marginalize and erase such experiences, making them appear out of the normal or ordinary.
It is imperative that institutions realize that students’ health is more than just an institutional objective that needs to be taken care of. It is something that characterizes a student’s entire experience and conversations like this are instrumental in shaping a student’s physical and psychological well-being in the long-term, beyond NYUAD and the UAE.
Ibad Hassan is Deputy Opinion Editor. Email him at
gazelle logo