Minnesota colleges are hiring advisers to work with Muslim students
Fardosa Hassan rarely lingers at her bare Augsburg College campus ministry desk.
In the chapel of the Evangelical Lutheran Church-affiliated school, she hosts regular Friday prayer for Muslim students and faculty. In the campus wellness center, she brings in a therapist and imam to undercut the idea that seeking treatment for depression is un-Islamic. She takes Religion 100 students to mosques in the college’s Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
“Islam has called me to serve my community,” Hassan said.
A growing number of Minnesota private campuses are enlisting Muslim student advisers as their Muslim enrollment has sometimes doubled or tripled in recent years. The new hires help students find internships, fit prayer into busy class schedules and process anger at the extremists behind the recent Paris attacks. They’ve also reached out to broader campus communities in hopes of challenging the heated political discourse about Islam.
The job title is spreading nationally, where several campuses have faced backlash over their choice of Muslim chaplains. Off-campus, Augsburg’s pastor Sonja Hagander has had to explain why a Lutheran college’s campus ministry would hire a practicing Muslim.
“With the growing number of Muslim students, it was really key to have a Muslim student adviser,” Hagander said. “We can’t help but do what we’re doing.”
At Hamline University in St. Paul, Nur Mood became full-time coordinator of religious and spiritual life programs in 2013. Augsburg tapped Hassan last summer for its new part-time Muslim student program associate position. Last fall, Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter recruited Ailya Vajid, a Harvard Divinity School graduate. Macalester College in St. Paul, which shares Vajid with Gustavus and Carleton, is looking to hire a part-time chaplain for Muslim life.
These hires are part of a broader push to become more inviting to Muslims. The University of St. Thomas, a Catholic school that has become a magnet for Middle Eastern students, spent $60,000 to outfit its Islamic prayer rooms with ritual washing stations.
“Our state and our nation are diversifying in many ways,” said Paul Cerkvenik of the Minnesota Private College Council, “and our campuses have to adapt.”
In five years, the number of freshmen at Augsburg who identified as Muslim went from 10 to 40, or roughly 8 percent of the incoming class, including many who, like Mood and Hassan, are Somali-American. The total number of Muslim students at Hamline has more than doubled, to more than 60. Not all students volunteer religion information.
Muslims, who attend college at markedly higher rates than the general population, make up about 1 percent of graduates nationally, but their numbers on campus are on the rise, according to the Pew Research Center. Today, more than 50 mostly private colleges and universities have Muslim chaplains or advisers, including top Ivy League schools such as Yale and Princeton.
“Over time, university chaplaincy has just blossomed,” said Feryal Salem, co-director of the Islamic chaplaincy program at Hartford Seminary, the only such accredited program.
‘A religiously plural world’
Colleges are responding both to the enrollment growth and “the higher profile of Muslims in the American consciousness,” says Sohaib Sultan of the Association of Campus Muslim Chaplains.
“Our students need to know how to exist in a religiously plural world, and that’s one of the gifts Muslim chaplains bring,” said the Rev. Kate Smanik of the National Association of College and University Chaplains.
A few schools have faced criticism over these hires. In 2012, Boston’s Northeastern University parted ways with its volunteer Muslim chaplain after off-campus critics highlighted statements he made praising two people convicted of terror-related offenses.
Last year, Wake Forest University defended its Muslim chaplain after a group of alumni said his views were too extreme and called for a donation boycott. Duke University reversed a decision to allow the call to Friday prayer from its chapel bell tower after an outcry led by Christian evangelist Franklin Graham.
On a recent Friday at Augsburg, Hassan helped students unfurl prayer rugs on the hardwood floor of a campus choir room she’d reserved when the chapel was unavailable. In her signature stylish glasses and fitted jacket over her long dress, she knelt with them. Freshman Mohamud Mohamed led the prayer and gave an impassioned talk. Young people, he said, must challenge the notion that “Muslims are hateful and violent and can’t function in a liberal, democratic society.”
“Fardosa is our guide,” he said afterward. “She is our connection to the outside world.”
At Hamline, Muslim Student Association President Nadia Almosawi said Mood encouraged her to hang in there when she felt overwhelmed juggling classes and an internship. He’s a “student adviser, a personal therapist and a life coach” for Muslim and non-Muslim students, she said, dispensing advice on job hunting and faith-related questions, such as what to do if a class conflicts with Friday prayer: Prayer is important, he tells students, but so is education.
At Gustavus, Vajid set about organizing an evening of Bollywood movies after hearing that some Muslim students felt isolated on Saturday nights because they didn’t want to go to drinking parties.
The morning after the Paris terror attacks last November, Vajid sent an e-mail with a standing lunch invitation to students worried about a backlash against Muslims. Hassan hosted a “healing circle” to help students process the event and its aftermath, including presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States temporarily.
“A lot of us worried this will be another 9/11 for us,” said sophomore Mariam Fawzy.
Ask a Muslim
The advisers say an important part of their job is educating campus communities. They’ve put on “Ask a Muslim” panels and fielded questions in religion classes. Mood says Muslims have to take on the issue of Islamic extremism. Last March, he hosted a panel discussion about the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. At the event, a Syrian student and Almosawi, whose family is from Iraq, told attendees that Muslims in these countries have suffered the most at the hands of the group.
“Having that dialogue with students on campus is really important,” said Mood.
Julian Kritz, a member of Augsburg’s Interfaith Scholars group who is Jewish, said he was impressed by Hassan’s knowledge of Judaism — and curious to learn more about Islam from her. The day they met, he lamented a recent worsening of Jewish-Muslim relations.
“Having her agree with me felt so good,” he said.
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