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Illustration Courtesy of Joaquin Kunkel

Restructuring Wellness at NYUAD: Student Reactions to a Risky Gambit

Four Wellness Specialist positions are being discontinued from summer of 2022. The Gazelle taps into how students have been reacting to this structural decision will have rippling implications on physical fitness and wellness at NYUAD.

Dec 14, 2021

On Dec. 7th, Kyle Farley, Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, sent out an email informing student leaders that the positions of four Wellness Specialists — Ayesha Al Suwaidi, Jamie Burns, Dalal Mustafa and Kaisa Pedersen — were being discontinued from June 2022.
Associate Vice Chancellor Farley’s email remarked that this decision was not being made lightly and was “part of a strategic reorganization process” and aimed to “redeploy resources towards academic coaching and structured class-specific support.” This decision is deeply reflective of institutional priorities and will have influential implications for physical fitness and wellness at NYU Abu Dhabi.
This decision, framed as a “staffing update,” was shared only with “student leaders.” Over the past week, though, through word of mouth and informal Facebook platforms, information has trickled down. More than a hundred students and alumni interacted with posts on Facebook about the decision. The Gazelle reached out to students to hear their thoughts on this restructuring decision.
“This restructuring has been the most upsetting to me personally, [and] I feel like it has also been [upsetting] to a lot of other students. If you look at Facebook or generally talk to people: I am yet to come across someone who looks at this restructuring decision positively,” commented Kainat Zakarya, Class of 2023. Zakarya, a junior currently, took a class with Mustafa in her first year but has remained in touch ever since.
For Raiymbek Kabiyev, Class of 2023, Dalal was the sole reason that he began weightlifting. “When we arrived for Marhaba…she invited me to join [a] weightlifting class. And then I first just tried a weightlifting class, and then ended up joining the team and competing for the university.”
Without Mustafa’s support over the years, Kabiyev would have never imagined getting into weightlifting: Now, as he plans to study away at NYU New York next semester, he is hoping to pursue a professional weightlifting license, to mark his undergraduate weightlifting career.
When Zakarya followed up with Mustafa about a weightlifting club that she had been planning to start, she found out that the Wellness Specialist roles would soon be discontinued.
Zakarya added, “She [Mustafa] seemed really defeated. And she [was] like — to be honest — I don't know what to tell you. Because I don't know how to start a club, seeing that I'm not going to be here after a certain point in time…”
Aside from approximately 60 one-on-one instruction sessions, Physical Education classes, FABS group fitness classes, over the years, Wellness Specialists have made substantial contributions to, and investment in, the community and the institution. For instance, Pedersen has been a Marshal at every commencement since the first graduating class. Others have participated in programs like First Year Dialogue. Students fail to understand how external vendors and contractors can ever resemble the support that the Wellness Specialists have provided students over the years.
“Once Dalal is gone, there is no weightlifting. Nobody is going to coach weightlifting…And then once Ayesha is gone, boxing would be eliminated. Then, when KP [Pedersen] is gone HIIT [High-Intensity Interval Training] is eliminated. So many things are going to be eliminated,” commented Kabiyev. “That’s completely wrong — what they [administration] said about the availability of classes.”
It is hard to overstate the contributions of the Wellness Specialists over the years and to sufficiently describe the personal impact that they have had on so many students — not just from a physical health and wellness perspective, but also on a deeper, personal level.
For Mehak Sangani, the overwhelming support, encouragement and the constant checking-in that the specialists provided during a serious shoulder injury was something that she deeply appreciated. “I am skeptical if any external vendor would be able to build these sort of personal relationships with students. With the shift to an external vendor model, even if these deficits can be filled, the focus remains merely on the services students have access to. And that, I feel, is a very detached and impersonal way of thinking about wellness.”
“There’s definitely a huge positive impact on my entire experience here [at NYUAD]...It’s not only a physical thing, it helped my mental health a lot. Jamie was also doing life coaching with me…which helped me overall,” added Sophia Sui, Class of 2024. “The lifestyle changes that these [specialists] provide will help in the long term, even academically,” Sui told The Gazelle.
“It just is irrational: they [personal training sessions] are in super high demand, a lot of my friends want to do personal training. I was going to start doing it…now I don’t know what I am going to do,” added Sui.
Zakarya, and many other students, are inclined to agree with Sangani. “Especially in the context of the pandemic, we have been getting all these emails, talking about community and solidarity…These things are not ingrained in the NYUAD community via the emails that are sent to us. But there are people [that] build this community and solidarity.”
“And having this conversation about how these roles are being [discontinued]...You are not just dissolving these roles. You are dissolving the community that these roles — and these people — have been fostering,” Zakarya shared.
She also felt that to talk of “holistic wellness,” and then to dismantle physical wellness structures and resources was insensible, which was a sentiment many others seem to resonate with too — particularly on NYUAD’s Facebook forums. “It is simply using a label and not holding up to its meaning or essence,” she concluded.
This decision also indicates a shift in institutional priorities. And for the student body at large, many questions remain unanswered: How will these deficits be accounted for? How is a newfound focus on academic coaching more holistic? How can the university claim that this will not impact class availabilities and resources available to the student body?
But beyond this, there is a deep sense of frustration that aside from select students, the student body at large has not been — to date — informed of such a major decision, let alone consulted during the decision-making process. This also invites larger important considerations surrounding decentralized decision-making and information and transparency. How important is the student body as a stakeholder in these decisions?
“I just do not like how they make decisions… about what is best for students without even like bothering to ask [students themselves]?” shared Kabiyev, with a tone of resignation.
Vatsa Singh is Managing Editor. Mehak Sangani contributed as a reporter. Email them at
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