A New Faith at Catholic Colleges

Muslim students arrive in significant numbers -- ready to engage in campus life while maintaining their own identities. 
April 3, 2006

Until two years ago, Muslim students looking for a quiet place to pray at St. Peter's College, in New Jersey, would go to far corners of the library and hope for no disruptions. The students still use the library as a spiritual hub, and thanks to petitioning by the Indian and Pakistani Culture Club, they have gained access to a makeshift prayer room, where copies of the Koran are stacked along with prayer mats.

"It shows [the administration] appreciates and values us," said Rabia Sattaur, president of the  club. "Part of welcoming us here is looking at our needs. We're here for the entire experience, inside and outside the classroom."

The Roman Catholic (and, more specifically, Jesuit) affiliations of St. Peter's are unmistakable. A lecture series at the 3,000-student campus in Jersey City focuses on Catholic and Jesuit identity. The president, the Rev. James N. Loughran, is a Jesuit priest. Students take theology courses as part of the undergraduate core curriculum.

For Sattaur, who is Muslim, those programs and requirements were attractions. She wanted a college where discussing faith is encouraged. And she was confident that she could thrive at a Catholic institution.

Still, her friends had their doubts. "They hear Jesuit and they think it is nuns and priests teaching you, and that's it," Sattaur said. "It's way more than that."

Because identifying one's religious background is optional on many student forms, few colleges can accurately report Muslim enrollment figures. Catholic colleges, unlike some Christian institutions, do not require students to share the faith of the institution. Across the country, administrators at many Catholic colleges say an increase in Muslim students -- both U.S. citizens and those from abroad -- is apparent.

A study conducted in 2005 by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that Muslim students are still a considerable minority. Of more than 260,000 students surveyed, 0.7 percent of students at Catholic colleges identified themselves as Muslim, as compared with 1.2 percent at all four-year institutions. But for the first time those numbers appear to be growing and to have become significant at some institutions.

For example, at Benedictine University, in the Chicago suburbs, 5.6 percent of students identify themselves as Muslim, up for 1.7 percent a decade ago.

Zeina Abusoud, advisor for the Muslim Student Association at Benedictine, said she has noticed a steady growth of Muslim students on campus since she arrived there nearly a decade ago.

The association's president, Mir Ali, is a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from India. He attended a private Islamic high school in suburban Chicago and first considered attending Benedictine after a college recruiter visited his school. 

Ali's parents urged him to stay near home and bypass a larger institution for a smaller one. Abusoud said many Muslim parents feel most comfortable sending their children to Catholic colleges because of shared religious and moral values. The Alis were no exception.

"We're confident in our own faith to an extent that we are comfortable anywhere," Ali said. "We're not looking to convert anyone and no one is out to convert us. When we are surrounded by people who believe in their faith, it inspires us to do the same."

Omar Shaikh, a Pakistani-born Muslim who attends DePaul University, said there's a different environment at Catholic colleges than at public universities. "Catholic colleges stand for certain things, like honesty, integrity and respect," he said. "The idea is to let everyone practice what they want."

Shaikh and other students interviewed said there is a focus on hospitality at Catholic colleges, as well as an emphasis on service, both values shared by Islam. 

During this academic year, more than 20 Muslim students from the Middle East are studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. On a given day, many will pass the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, two of the most prominent buildings on the campus.

The university was founded by a papal charter and places an emphasis on Catholic teachings. Helene Robertson, director of the office of International Student and Scholar Services, said she is "kind of surprised" to see a sizeable group of Muslim students enroll, "particularly for them to come to a school that bills itself as the pope's university in the United States."

Robertson has asked some of the students what factored into their enrollment decisions. "What they said to me, almost to a man, is that it has nothing to do with religion," she said. "It has to do with a program or a particular professor and what they wanted to study."

Afif Jawad, one of two Muslim professors at Madonna University, in Michigan, said competitive students of any background select an institution for its academic reputation, not its religious affiliation. Students identified traits commonly associated with private colleges -- such as small class sizes and accessible professors -- as reasons for attending the Catholic institutions.

John O. Voll, professor of Islamic history and associate director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, said higher Muslim student attendance at Catholic colleges is, in part, a result of some institutions de-emphasizing religion. "Most small Catholic schools tended to be very church-related 20 years ago and aren't as much now," Voll said. "They've become very cosmopolitan. It's not a so much a public relations thing as it is an economic thing. They all need students."

Shaikh, the DePaul student, said his university is "becoming known less and less for being Catholic and is becoming part of the mainstream." He said DePaul is accepting of campus activities that go against traditional Catholic values.

Carli Pierson, a DePaul senior who converted to Islam during her first year at the university, said she would like to see a bit more censorship by administrators, who she said have the authority to set the tone on campus. "People who are actively religious have certain values, values they do and don't want to see in their school environment," she said.

Once on campus, students say they are looking to make their presence felt. Bob Meyer, associate vice president for student affairs at Seton Hall University, said he is seeing increased engagement by Muslim students, including filling leadership roles such as chairman of the interfaith council and vice president of the pre-law review group. “They’ve become a good part of the fabric of what happens,” he said.

At least 25 Catholic colleges, including Benedictine, reported having a Muslim student association. Muslim students at Benedictine plan a range of cultural activities, from break-the-fast events during Ramadan to a lecture series featuring social commentators and comedians.

Many colleges provide Muslim students with prayer space, such as the library room at St. Peter’s College. Georgetown employs an imam as a full-time campus minister. Some colleges emphasize recruiting. Shvonne L. Johnson, outreach coordinator at the College of St. Catherine, in Minnesota, said the college is producing a video that shows the campus experience of its Somali students. The video, Johnson said, is intended to reach audiences at high school campuses, and particularly Muslim students.

Voll, the Georgetown professor, said urban Catholic colleges have been the quickest to attract Muslim students. Benedictine, for instance, draws heavily on the sizeable Muslim population in Chicago.

None of the Muslim students interviewed reported feeling uncomfortable on campus. Some did report a lack of integration. Ali, the Benedictine student, said there is a perception at his college that Muslim Student Association members “keep to themselves.” Few students outside the group feel comfortable enough to ask members about their customs, Ali said.

He said he is continually searching for ways to invite Benedictine students to group events. And Ali is always on the look out for future members, he said.

“When I go back to my high school and I talk to younger students, I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid to look at Catholic colleges.’ ”


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