We live in an age where Islamophobia is rampant. The negativity that is seen on social media and television has created a culture of fear and a backlash towards Muslims, particularly Muslim students.
I sat in my room staring at the wall thinking why is this happening? Why does no one care? How do I help individuals understand what Muslim students are going through? How do I break the stereotypes and assumptions of Islam? All these questions and thoughts were running through my head without a solution. I started reflecting on my experiences of being an American Muslim on a college campus and then it hit me: I need to share my knowledge with others on how they can better serve the Muslim student population.
As a higher education/student affairs professional I have come to know that we in the field use theory as a guide to address areas of student need. Two of these key areas include: the impact of the college environment on student growth and development and changes that take place in students’ lives while on campus (Dey, 2012). To my knowledge, there has been little to no publicly accessible research conducted with respect to American Muslim college student development.
So, this begs the question: How do we as higher education professionals address these challenges? In a study done by Pew Research, it was found that a majority (53%) of young Muslim adults reported it was difficult being Muslim in America (Pew Research Center, 2007). Given current events and the issues that I have and continue to face, there is no doubt that this number has increased. For me, there are three initial steps needed to be taken by higher education professionals to help the American Muslim student population. We must develop an understanding of the cultural and religious aspects of Islam, create spaces on college campuses where Muslim college students can freely express their culture and religion, and, finally, look beyond the physical barriers and get to know the person. I’ll elaborate on each of these starting points.
The first step to helping Muslim students is to develop a true understanding of the religion they practice, which is so tightly coupled with their core identity. I suggest obtaining information from credible sources that gives you an overview of Islam and the basic tenets of the faith. One of the best websites that I refer my non-Muslim friends to is http://www.islam-guide.com/. This site provides sound, accurate background knowledge and can help you better understand the religion. Most often and most importantly, I highly recommend visiting a local mosque near you to gain a better understanding of the faith. I urge you to go meet the individuals there and have face-to-face interaction. This is an opportunity for you to be in a Muslim environment and provides you with some context about what Muslim students believe.
Create a Safe Space
One of the best ways to help American Muslim college students is to create safe spaces on your college campus. What does this mean? This means that while Muslim American college students should feel safe and welcome to express themselves on college campuses they, in fact, do not. So, we must create environments that are judgment free and where open and honest dialogue can occur. This safe space should be spiritual and physical in nature. In my experience, there have been many times that I have seen Muslim students who are praying in the corner of the library or in the middle of the stairwells in the student center hoping no one will bother or find them. Universities, such as DePaul and Michigan, have taken steps to create safe spaces by providing prayer rooms for their Muslim student populations. While continuing to lobby for a permanent prayer space on my own campus, I feel very strongly that it is time for other universities to provide similar spaces where students can practice their religion without fear of harassment.
Get to Know the Person
While many Muslim students want you to understand how their faith is a crucial part of their identity, we know and understand that identity is neither static nor one-dimensional. So, it is of the utmost importance for student affairs professionals to get to know these students beyond this one dimension of their identity. Take the time to discover the hobbies, dreams, and career aspirations of your Muslim American students. Discover what gets them excited, what topics they are passionate about. Just as we should with all our students, build a relationship and show that you honestly care for them. In other words, become a mentor, an ally. These seemingly small steps will go a long way in helping to build and gain the trust of your Muslim students. If they can discern your genuine care and concern regarding them and their experience on your campus, then they will open up to you, and you will see that they are just like any other college student.
It is important to note that these are just a few initial steps that higher education professionals can, and I would assert need to take to better assist the Muslim student population on their respective campuses. I want everyone to remember that all you have to do is take initiative; don’t wait for someone else to do something. Be the individual who takes action and speaks up (and out) instead of remaining silent. These, too, are your students!
Dey, F. (2012). Islam on campus: Identity development of Muslim-American college students (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Florida, Gainesville, FL.
Pew Research Center (2007, May 22). Muslim Americans: Middle class and mostly mainstream. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/2007/05/22/muslim-americans-middle-class-and-mostly-mainstream/
Faran Saeed is a recent graduate of Louisiana State University where he completed his Master of Arts in Higher Education Administration. He received a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry in 2012 from the University of Memphis. He currently serves as the Volunteer Programs Coordinator for Madison House, a nonprofit that is affiliated with the University of Virginia. In his personal time, Faran does interfaith work on the local and regional level. His research interests include College Muslim Identity Development and Religious Diversity. He is excited to share his experiences as an American Muslim and looking forward to sharing his expertise on the topic of Muslim College Students.