Image Description: A header image of multiple hands holding each other in a circle with the NYU Abu Dhabi logo in the fron. END ID
Image Description: A header image of multiple hands holding each other in a circle with the NYU Abu Dhabi logo in the fron. END ID

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Five Hopes for a Transformative Future for NYUAD — A Letter from a Graduating Senior

In this heartfelt letter, a graduating senior urges for thoughtful considerations in forging a brighter future for everyone at NYU Abu Dhabi.

When I first arrived at NYUAD, back in 2019, everything was quite different. Candidate weekends were in full force, the A1C building was virtually empty, and stipends were distributed in cash for students on full-aid, deposited directly into our deceased Wirecard account. “Assume good will” was a motto still to-be challenged, and SIGs like Sahana and AZIZA did not even exist. SLICECT was SLICE, and the Office of Equity and Inclusion wasn’t even there. Four years later and a pandemic in-between, the memory of a pre-pandemic campus fades and twirls into a reality of many good days, but also terrible, terrifying days. Whereas I’m not a person who gets caught up in nostalgia, because I get genuinely excited about transitions, transitions, transitions, I can’t help but delve into disappointment when realizing the dissonance between what NYUAD could be and what it actually is.
But that’s not the end of the story: as the semester of Spring 2023 ends, and graduation has passed, an immense feeling of pride fills my heart. Realizing the amazing work that my fellow classmates have dedicated their time and love to, I am also flooded with gratitude for surrounding myself with such incredible folks. It is in that deep belief in our potential as a student body that I write below my five hopes for the future of NYUAD. I aim not to be prescriptive, nor normative; this stems from a genuine concern about silence(s) and violence(s) in-built within the structures of the institution and the student body.
I hope for students to be vigilant of changing public discourses on campus, and to listen intentionally for the silences
Our university is a transient space. Students come and go during J-terms, summers and winters, and study aways. A graduating class leaves and the first-years come every year presenting new possibilities for the path of the university. The graduates may never step foot in the U.A.E. again, and the incoming students may never have come to the U.A.E before their first year. That means that the public discourse on campus also changes and shifts constantly. It is imperative for students to be aware of what these shifts in student population mean for our sense of community. I am not interested in gatekeeping admissions, but I am interested in how we can be better vigilant of discourse on campus to allow for everyone to at least try to connect minimally with the community on campus.
Look around. What posters do you see? What events are being advertised? What words do not exist in the public sphere at NYUAD, and what issues do we not yet have the vocabulary to unwind, complexify, and explore? What kind of posts are being published in online forums? Which ones are not? What do these recent posts reveal about the student body now, in relation to who we used to be? What do all of these reveal about the future of the institution?
Structural violence is manifested both through what we can hear, and by what we can not. What are global forms of structural violences that are reflected and reproduced by our community and our discourses? Who is allowed to take space, and what voices are silenced. Is there a denial towards this silence and these forms of structural violences? Where is the denial coming from? That is why I am not interested in defending or going against free speech, a theme heatedly discussed in previous semesters both in The Gazelle and elsewhere. The free speech discussion is framed under an assumption that everybody is able to partake in public discourse. On campus, that is not the case. In other words, this debate can only truly exist within its in-built exclusions. I am more interested in the material realities that public discourses create and how they shape individual experiences on campus: who is afraid, and who is not. Who is lonely, who is not. Who feels threatened, who does not. But above all, whose voices we are not even able to hear.
My capstone research project investigates silences in the public sphere during the military dictatorship in Brazil. Something I learned during my capstone process and that I try to hold on to, always, is that discourse is not a free-floating shapeshifting market of ideas. Discourse has material legacies, and emerges from materiality. Rita von Hunty, Brazilian drag queen, academic, and Professor, says: “[I]deas and words guide, orientate and metamorphize themselves into actions. [T]hat's why our [battles are] always cultural, and they’re always material." The centrality of discourse and its materialities in Von Hunty's mirrors my own, being aware that discourse mobilizes ideas that have material consequences in the world.
Lastly, empower yourself as much as you can: are you familiar with the work of different offices on campus? Do you know who to contact if you’re dealing with something that seems unsolvable? Do you know what the SLICECT office can offer? What about the reporting avenues of the Office of Equity and Diversity (OEI)? Who to contact in case of a Title IX violation? Empowering yourself with information is vital in helping others.
I understand from personal experience that these resources are not always effective. Bureaucratic delays more often than not enhance the experience of humiliation and vulnerability. Hence, and most importantly, build and protect your community. Your strongest allies are around you, and they are the ones you can rely on to help you listen for and break silences the most.
I hope identity-based SIGS can unite forces, and show solidarity
A large number of our Student Interest Groups (SIGS) are identity-based, focusing on community building and advocacy for vulnerable students. They are independent from one another and tackle issues from several different perspectives to achieve equally varied goals. Sahana, for example, serves the South Asian community in the spirit of gender expansion, incorporating intersectional analysis of identity into their programming. AZIZA, similarly, “is a Black women-centered program that is geared towards creating a secure network where resources can be shared among [them], and with our allies on how best to support them. These SIGs are important actors on our campus in expanding, challenging and creating belonging to different student communities.
My experience as an E-Board member of one of the largest identity-based SIGS revealed that these student organizations are also not free of structural violence and silencing. The same questions mentioned above are essential for e-board members of identity-based SIGs to reflect and reorient themselves: whose voices are not being heard?
More importantly, however, I noticed that because these SIGs are identity-based, they often end up (re)creating a monolithic homogenization of the identity they are trying to represent. They also often exist in silos. In the attempts to advocate and create a community around a particular identity, it is hard to develop a work ethic that constantly seeks to recognize and incorporate the intersectionality of identities each individual carries within themselves.
Furthermore, identity-based SIGs, despite being diverse and working on different fronts, often have similar missions, similar necessities to voice specific issues, and a similar need for representation in the larger student body. This, combined with the necessity for a constant remembering of intersectionality as a tool for inclusion, transformation, and recognition of one’s humanity, makes me think that the only way we can achieve change, and a critique of the system, is through joining forces.
In her book, All About Love, bell hooks centers love in her practice for social justice. It makes sense, then, to extend solidarity with one another when things get difficult. This can be done individually, but also at a SIG-level. What kinds of transformations can we achieve together when we embody intersectionality through joining SIGs?
I hope students continue to advocate for decolonization, beyond just our academic curriculum
When I was a second-year, I wrote an article talking about the newly introduced class, “Modern Social Thought in Comparative Perspective,” a course introduced to challenge the eurocentric approach to history and intellectual thinking. I celebrated this new course, as it satisfies a requirement for Social Science courses – ultimately giving students more autonomy in what kinds of learning they want to engage with. It was also an example of a successful student body mobilization.
However, decolonizing our institutions means much more than questioning production of knowledge. It also means rethinking the way we relate to each other in the most practical ways. Who are the Professors teaching us? Who are the Deans leading the many aspects of social and educational experiences? Where have they been trained? Do we emphasize rationality as a mode of communication above all other forms? Why do we tend to intellectualize everything? Who are our student representatives and leaders? Is English their first language? Which bodies are allowed mobility, who gets to go to Georgia in spring break? Are you communicating with your friends in ways that see them for all their humanity? What forms of communication do we tend to emphasize? Who are your friends? How many of them are from the same race, ethnicity, and cultural background as yours? Why is that? Are we creating intentional spaces to fully honor the collective knowledge, experiences, and thinking we all bring with us?
To be fair, there has been progress in some sense: the new course evaluation includes questions such as, “To what extent were diverse voices and perspectives integrated into this course?” which incentivizes staff and faculty to take inclusion and equity seriously. The newly formed Conflict Transformation office at SLICECT is developing a new way of approaching disciplinary action based on restorative justice practices. The same office has launched IBDE training that to a certain extent makes us reflect about the ways we relate to each other, even though exclusions are also present in the training, and not every single aspect of our identities is dealt with within the training.
There is still a long way to go.
We pretend to be critical of orientalism, but we are also quick to homogenize Emiratis on campus, speak on their behalf, and ignore those most vulnerable within the Emirati community. Questioning the lack of local persons at the highest levels of administrative roles is an obvious first step, but it is not exhaustive.
Brainstorming critical questions also involves questioning major structures, lack of autonomy in building our own curricula, and what sources and materials we are using. It also requires a radical rethinking of the very foundations of some of our curricula, including how we assess and evaluate our learning, and how we create spaces for critical reflection and dialogue.
Neha Vora’s most recent book Teach for Arabia investigates American university campuses within the Gulf. In the words of Sejin Park in his article, “ What Can NYUAD Learn From Neha Vora About Decolonizing US Institutions In The Gulf?", Vora “pointed to the paradox of liberalism as it plays out in Education City, in Qatar. Vora claims these campuses operate within the division of the world into the liberal (including the US) and the illiberal (including Qatar). Education City carries the liberal world’s mandate to civilize the illiberal world. Accordingly, the faculties and administrations at Education City build curricula and interact with students based on their notions of liberalism.”
She rightfully points out that, “Through cultural relativist ideas of respecting difference, Qatari students are treated as a group rather than as individuals and are pressured to represent Qatari culture as a whole and exhibit nationalist pride.” I find Noha’s explorations of Education City incredibly pertinent to NYUAD.
NYU Abu Dhabi holds a huge potential for continuing to and maxime de-centralizing European and the United States’ ways of knowing. I hope students keep working together with staff and faculty in elaborating strategies to recognize the necessity for ongoing institutional self-reflection and critique.
I hope students can better engage with “diversity”
We are a campus that is afraid of conflict.
I ask once again: how many of your friends are from the same race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, ability, educational background, gender, or cultural context? How many times did you have space in the classroom to explore the diversity within the students in that classroom? How many times did you “celebrate” diversity at NYU Abu Dhabi without understanding that diversity also implies and necessitates conflict? Do we understand that inclusion is not necessarily guaranteed following from diversity?
We celebrate “diversity” but forget that, most times, the most vulnerable on our campus aren’t in a celebratory mood. At the core here is a necessity for the student body and larger administration to take conflict seriously, to not only celebrate a vague notion of “diversity,” to go beyond that, and critically examine what it really means for us to have one of the most diverse student bodies in the world.
If we aim to be in a community that takes differences seriously, we need to have widespread campus conversations about cultural differences, colonialism, imperialism, racism, language, ethnicity, gender expansion, desires, forms of communication, and ways of knowing. I am positively surprised to realize we don’t host general assemblies, neither campus-wide nor department-wise. Students come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, but when and how do we actually share a dialogue about our differences? This lack of space to engage with diversity beyond neoliberal celebrations of cultural differences makes us unprepared to handle conflict.
We have a lot of internal problems with regards to how we work with conflict. What happens is when “conflicts,” or injustices come about in the outside world, it shakes our community. And because we do not have a solid ground, a starting point with respect to conflict management, how are we able to deal with it? How do we show up? In the wake of the Israeli violence in Sheikh Jarrah, the Society for Justice in Palestine (SJP) mobilized the larger community. The student body showed solidarity through adopting the slogan “diversity without care means nothing,” pointing out the de-politicization of social movements by a liberal understanding of “diversity.” It is imperative that we prepare ourselves to engage in difficult conversations and face our differences. And I don’t mean debating, here. I mean to critically examine who are the most vulnerable on your campus, recognizing inequalities as inherent to concepts such as diversity.
I hope students can continue to be critical of the institution
Whenever students are deeply critical of the institution and engage in advocacy in order to re-imagine NYUAD to a truly equitable place, it is common that students point out our inherent entitlement, inferring some sort of ungratefulness from those who criticize the institution.
Coming from a lower socioeconomic background, as well as being part of other social minorities, NYU Abu Dhabi is, indeed, a dream: I had access to an education that I would never be able to afford, as well as being financially independent (and more than that: being able to support my family back at home) are insurmountable privileges. Being able to study away, having a fully-funded summer internship experience, traveling in J-terms… Point is: I am deeply grateful for what the institution has provided me with.
However, there were way too many bad days too. Terrible days. It is not oxymoronic to be grateful for what you have but still imagine and advocate for a better institution. Part of the effort in engaging in advocacy is extending belonging not only to yourself, but also to others. Let’s not let “gratefulness” be an excuse for inertia.
Another common response which points out a student's entitlement is the prime “if you don’t like it, just leave it.” This discourse is extremely violent because it ceases any possibility of transformation, and shuts everyone down. Furthermore, it begs that those discontent with the current status quo (that is, those not represented, left behind, left silenced, unhappy) to disappear. It is also not fair to expect me to let go of all the accomplishments, the opportunity that NYUAD represents for our future, and the personal growth we experience through meeting different folks, because I also happen to find structural silences and violence within the institution. I did not leave, and I did not shut up, because we belong, and we exist.
Part of fighting for a campus that is transparent, inclusive, and just is also rooted in hope, in recognizing the potential of what NYUAD could be. And even though I am not particularly hopeful at the moment I write this article, I still choose to side with bell hooks when she says “hope is the only thing we have”. But hope, in my perception, implies action. And action implies recognizing what needs to change. What needs to be done. What we can achieve. And keep trying, trying, trying. Even though I don’t think I have an end-goal, we’ll get there. Eventually we’ll get there.
With love, Lellis
Lucas De Lellis Da Silva is a contributing writer. Email them at
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