VMSU demands more support for Muslim students

Members of the Vassar Muslim Student Union (VMSU). The VMSU is advocating for more support from the College, such as a Muslim advisor and their own prayer space./ Courtesy of VMSU

The question of whether Vassar fully supports the religious aspects of student life has been raised from time to time over the years, and it is true that Vassar has been making efforts to ameliorate the lack of institutional support for religious students. However, the Vassar Muslim Student Union (VMSU) argues that Vassar still has a long way to go to fully support the Muslim community on campus.

VMSU member Victoria Majarali ’18 commented that the absence of a religious advisor for Muslim students is a major problem with which the College must contend. According to Majarali, the College provided a Muslim advisor when she was a first-year student. However, he worked at Vassar only part-time and mostly spent his time at Bard College, where he had originally been hired.

Majarali also pointed out that she felt that the former advisor was not open to students’ ideas. She recounted, “We used to do a student-led prayer, which he was not okay with. We also had a female-led prayer, which is something that he was also not okay with. So having that experience, I think it is important to take away that…we need someone who is open-minded and willing to work with student rather than someone who dictates, because we are a student-led organization.”

However, since the former advisor left the position, the VMSU is facing difficulty finding a new advisor. Some members of the group believe Vassar has not been supportive enough on the issue. One member, who requested anonymity, said that the group has been advocating for the past three years to get a Muslim advisor without notable progress. According to the student, the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life (RSL) also told them that funding a new position would be difficult and Muslim students should be content with receiving support by Skyping with an off-campus advisor. However, when the VMSU met with President Bradley, she emphasized that funding should not be an obstacle to having a Muslim chaplain and that she would do her best to find someone to fill the position. Additionally, this student said that RSL has failed to fulfill its responsibility to reimburse students for the cost of attending off-campus religious services in a timely manner. They said, “This has been a huge financial burden for students to take on their own in order to observe their religious practices.”

Majarali expressed her expectation that a future advisor should not only be a qualified Muslim chaplain and lead prayer, but should also play a significant role in fostering the campus Muslim community. For example, she hoped that a new advisor could arrange various educational events about issues affecting Muslims. Furthermore, she emphasized that the advisor should work with the administration to make sure that Muslim students’ religious needs are met, such as availability of Halal food and accommodation for the fasting period. They should also ensure that Muslim students have a safe space to address Islamophobia on campus. She recounted, “There is no space that I or we feel comfortable [talking] to the administration about how to address these problems, and I feel having an advisor or an adult who is in a position of power would be able to address those issues without putting a burden on students.”

Additionally, Majarali pointed out that the VMSU lacks key infrastructure, such as a larger general body, a well-planned budget and a stable foundation, including a person dedicated to leading services, and their own prayer room. Majarali noted, “We used the Library Quiet Room, which is a shared space. You could be using the space and someone else just can walk in.”

Director of RSL and Assistant Dean for Campus Life and Diversity Sam Speers acknowledged that supporting emerging religious groups on campus is always challenging since spiritual communities are themselves changing and living communities. Nevertheless, Speers emphasized that Vassar is making significant progress on increasing support for its Muslim community. He explained, “This year has been an important year for expanding support for the Muslim community on campus—a number of long-term goals are coming together.”

Elizabeth Aeschlimann, the Rose and Irving Rachlin Director of Jewish Student Life and Assistant Director for the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, elaborated, “With input from VMSU, RSL is taking some significant steps this year. A dedicated Muslim prayer space will open in the Old Laundry Building in the next few weeks, and with the support of President Bradley, we are beginning a search for a Muslim advisor who will start in the fall.” Speers added that RSL is working to make more Halal foods available on the dining plan. Additionally, a Muslim life consultant, Celene Ibrahim, was selected to be a resource for students through video-conferencing, telephone and email. With her experience serving as Muslim chaplain at Tufts University, Ibrahim also played a significant role in the process of establishing the prayer space. Speers and Aeschlimann both said they are looking forward to having a new Muslim advisor on campus. Speers noted, “Our new Muslim advisor will significantly strengthen the work all of us have to do to better understand Muslim practice, observance and culture as part of a cosmopolitan learning community.” Appreciating the VMSU’s efforts, Speers added, “Muslim students at Vassar and at other campuses are speaking out now about the challenges they face—in ways I am grateful for. I’m especially grateful for students’ activism this year around a Muslim prayer space and Muslim life staffing, as these are things my colleagues and I in RSL have been advocating for many years.”

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