Muslim Students in Higher Education

Responding to the diverse needs of students based on their cultural and/or ethnic backgrounds has become a priority in many higher education institutions. Universities have been shifting their priorities to focus on attracting, retaining, and representing students and professionals of varying cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Manning & Coleman-Boatwright, 1991), but religion is too often absent from conversations about diversity in higher education. Research on the impact of religion on student performance and satisfaction in higher education has historically been neglected, and religious affiliation was rarely, if ever, considered to be an influencing factor in either area (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010).

Islam, specifically, is consistently overlooked in higher education literature. Prior to 2003 no research existed that addressed Muslim students’ needs or experiences on college campuses in the United States, even though Muslims have become a significantly more visible demographic group in the United States due to the global political climate, and even given the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world (Mays, 2003). As the number of Muslims in the United States increases, it is likely that college enrollment rates will mirror these trends (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). In order to ensure that Muslim students receive the support they need to be successful and satisfied with their college experiences it is critical that policy makers, administrators, and faculty at higher education institutions become educated about this traditionally marginalized religious group, and that they acknowledge the important role religion plays in college student development (Mays, 2003).

This article will provide an overview of existing literature on Muslim college students in American postsecondary institutions, as well as implications for future research and recommendations for practitioners.

Review of the Literature

In reviewing the literature on Muslim students attending institutions of higher education in the United States, three broad themes were prevalent. First, the literature often addresses the challenges Muslim students face on college campuses in the United States; second, the unique needs of Muslim students were illustrated; and third, the articles discussed theories of Muslim student development.

Challenges for Muslim Students in Higher Education

Muslim students face unique challenges within higher education. Many Muslim students at universities in the United States report feeling judged because of their religious preference, and some admit to feeling uncomfortable performing Islamic rituals that can be seen by others, such as fasting or praying (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). In a series of qualitative interviews conducted by Nasir and Al-Amin (2006), all respondents indicated that they felt other members of the campus community imposed negative stereotypes on them (including ‘Muslim terrorist’ and ‘oppressed Muslim woman’) because of their religion. Many Muslims feel that Islam has a negative connotation for those outside the religion, and that it is often perceived to be violent and extremist (Mays, 2003). In Allaf’s (2010) study, one student indicated that she felt the need to defend her life as a Muslim against Western stereotypes, and that she was often frustrated by others’ assumptions that life for Muslims (especially women) is difficult, violent, or degrading. A ‘religionized’ image of ‘us’ (Muslims) versus ‘them’ (the dominant majority, or non-Muslims) can occur in these cases, with Islamic students in the role of the stereotypical, one-dimensional, religious Muslim (Mir, 2009).

Muslim students tend to face other challenges, as well. They are usually older than other students, speak English as a foreign language, and come from a greater variety of racial/ethnic groups (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). International Muslim students have the additional hurdle of adjusting to life and trying to perform academically outside of their comfort zones, which can have psychological ramifications including anxiety and feelings of alienation (Razek & Coyner, 2013). It is easy to see how these unique challenges, combined with the judgments (perceived or real) of non-Muslims, may contribute to a sense of “otherness” among Muslim students.

Muslim Student Experiences in Higher Education Institutions

A sense of otherness is not the only issue that Muslims experience on college campuses. Muslim students have reported being victims of direct discrimination and even hate crimes (Ali & Bagheri, 2009), particularly in the wake of September 11, 2001. One student interviewed stated that his university friends didn’t speak to him for several days after the attacks; another student reported that there was tension between her and her classmates because they did not understand that not all Muslims supported the attacks (Mays, 2003). A third Muslim student explained that his non-Muslim roommate stopped speaking to him after the attacks because he knew someone who was killed in one of the World Trade Center towers. When the Muslim student attempted to offer his condolences, the roommate told him that he was not allowed to because he was Islamic (Mays, 2003).

Other students admit to feeling alienated because Muslim students rarely make up a majority in universities within the United States, and the only time they tend to gather as a group is in mosques (Mays, 2003). Although colleges and universities are often regarded as places that embrace diversity and tolerance, Muslim students are not immune to discrimination on campus, however subtle it may be. A particular difficulty for Muslim students presents itself in classes where there is a political or religious focus. If discussions are not properly monitored, they can lead to ridicule and prejudice towards the student or towards Islam, and Muslim students have reported feeling hesitant to speak up or correct professors because professors are authority figures (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). Overt discrimination and a lack of understanding by professors have had an impact on the academic performance of some Muslim students as well (Nasir & Al-Amin, 2006). Female Muslims often feel uncomfortable when eating in cafeterias or at campus social gatherings because conservative Islam forbids male-female interaction between unmarried individuals (Mir, 2009). Women who wear a hijab (veil) on campus often report more exaggerated feelings of alienation (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). Additionally, because Islam is a collectivist religion (it emphasizes values and customs that everyone within the group must embrace), Muslim students often feel as if they are representatives of their entire religion. This collectivist mindset embedded within a very individualist culture (the United States) can lead to anxiety and depression (Razek & Coyner, 2013).

Fortunately, not all Muslim students report having negative experiences in higher education. Some students even had positive experiences in the wake of September 11, when they noticed that their friends and classmates began to ask questions, do research, and learn about Islam (Mays, 2003). In these cases, Muslim students had the opportunity to educate their peers about Islam from their own perspectives. Other students felt accepted within their institutions and noted that faculty and other students were very tolerant (Mays, 2003). Even seemingly trivial events, such as receiving a compliment on a hijab, colored students’ experiences for the better (Nasir et al., 2006). Muslim students also tend to be more involved on campus with diversity clubs and programs, and they tutor peers more often than their non-Muslim counterparts (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010).

Unique Needs of Muslim Students in Higher Education

No group of students, regardless of their similarities, will have identical experiences at any given university, but there are some common needs that Muslim students often report as being unmet within their higher education institutions. Largely, these students report not having a place to pray (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). One student mentions feeling ‘sneaky’ when she walks through the campus buildings looking for empty classrooms in which to perform the ritualized prayers, which Muslims must do five times daily (Nasir & Al-Amin, 2006). It has been suggested that student affairs practitioners can designate a specific, private area for Muslim students to use for this purpose (Ali & Bagheri, 2009).

These students also have special needs related to their academic calendars, particularly during the holy month of Ramadan. Because students are fasting during this time, it is often difficult for them to sit for long exams or partake in strenuous activity (such as in a physical education class) (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). Female students may face challenges regarding on-campus mixed-gender housing facilities, and dining hall options can also be limiting for students who follow Islam, as they cannot have pork products and their meats must be halal (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). Muslim students may also be uncomfortable attending campus or other social events (such as fraternity and/or sorority events) where alcohol is present (Mir, 2009). These students need specific dining hall menu options, special scheduling considerations during Ramadan, safe prayer spaces, and alcohol-free social events in order for them to feel fully integrated as part of the campus community (Ali & Bagheri, 2009).

Methodologies and Theoretical Frameworks Employed in the Study of Muslim Students

Most of the studies conducted on the experiences of Muslim students in colleges and universities have employed qualitative methodologies (Allaf, 2010; Mays, 2003; Mir, 2009; Razek et al., 2013), which are particularly suited for ascertaining the details of an individual’s unique experience. However, Cole and Ahmadi (2010) conducted a quantitative study that compared the differences between the experiences of Muslims, Christians and Jews at colleges and universities in the United States. The study used the scales to measure several aspects of the students experiences at their postsecondary institutions, including time spent praying, interracial interactions, involvement in academic activities, and student-faculty interaction (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010).

Several theoretical frameworks surfaced in the literature, one of which was DuBois’s concept of double-consciousness, which is relevant because Muslim students are often trying to navigate both their ‘Muslimness’ and being a ‘normal’ college student (Mays, 2003). Another theory that was applied to one qualitative study was that of passing, in which an attempt is made by an individual to blend into the dominant culture (Mir, 2013). Tinto’s interactionalist theory of college student departure and social integration is utilized as a lens for viewing Muslim female student retention (Allaf, 2010). It is important for student affairs practitioners to be aware of the developmental theories that may explain or help illuminate the experiences of this group of students on college campuses.

Recommendations for Practice

Several recommendations can be made to help college and university faculty and staff accommodate their Muslim student populations. First, a designated space should be provided for Muslim students to utilize for prayer (Ali & Bagheri, 2009). The space can be a non-denominational or multi-purpose space, but it should be quiet, peaceful and available for Muslim students to use from sunrise to sunset. Additionally, halal dining options should be offered in on-campus dining halls and cafeterias (Ali & Bagheri, 2009).

During the holy month of Ramadan, Ali and Bagheri (2009) recommend allowing students to make slight changes to their academic and extracurricular schedules due to the fact that they are fasting in the daytime during this month. Students may be exempt from strenuous physical activity (such as physical education courses or sports team practice), and they may also need to modify exam schedules (for example, to take exams early in the morning after they have eaten). There should also be ample opportunities for Muslim students to become involved with student groups, and student group activities should be alcohol-free in order to encourage Muslim student attendance (Ali & Bagheri, 2009).

Employing Muslim faculty and staff can also help to make students feel more represented on campus, and can help Muslim students to identify Islamic advisors or mentors that can help them succeed in college. Workshops, seminars and speaker panels on religious diversity and tolerance are also recommended in order to educate the campus population about Islam and create open dialogue about what it means to be a Muslim student on a college campus in the United States.

Implications for Future Research

It was not until relatively recently that the effects of a student’s religion on their development and success began to gain attention from higher education researchers, but Cole and Ahmadi’s (2010) study showed that a student’s religion is more important than it ever has been in shaping student identity and engagement. While the body of literature is slowly expanding, there is still a lack of knowledge about the ways religious affiliation may impact student academic performance, involvement, and satisfaction rates at postsecondary institutions, particularly regarding student affiliation with Islam and the unique needs and experiences of Muslim students (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). Most of the early literature on higher education assumed that the average student was white, attended college full-time, lived on campus, and was most often male between 18 and 24 years old (Smith, 2005).

The dearth of information about the specific needs of Muslim students on college campuses in the United States is puzzling when one considers the increased media attention towards Muslims after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which made observers of Islam more visible and arguably contributed to an environment of Islamophobia and xenophobia that extended to the college campus (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). The lack of research about this particular demographic is also unusual given the large population of Muslims in the United States. According to one estimate, Islam is the second largest religious group in the country (Mays, 2003).

Limited in-depth studies have been conducted on higher education, Muslims, and college students, but literature addressing the overlap of these areas is sparse to non-existent (Allaf, 2010). The studies focus on specific sub-groups of Muslim students or are limited in scope to one institution, making the generalizability of the results questionable. The quantitative study conducted by Cole and Ahmadi (2010) encountered limitations in its sample populations (only 66 Muslim students responded, the majority of whom were females with a college GPA of B or better) and research sites (largely private universities). The qualitative studies faced their own limitations. One study was conducted solely at a Jewish-sponsored university (Mays, 2003), one interviewed only women (Mir, 2009), and one utilized a sample population of only Saudi Arabian international students (Razek & Coyner, 2013). Further research could contribute to filling the gaps in the sparse literature relating to Muslims in universities within the United States, including research addressing the following questions:

  • Does being a practicing Muslim student affect the satisfaction levels of undergraduates at four-year public institutions in the United States? If so, how?
  • Is there a significant difference in academic achievement or retention rates between practicing Muslim students and their non-Muslim peers? If so, what factors might influence this?

Conclusion

While diversity is a focal point on most college campuses, research, policies and institutional practices have too often neglected to address the impacts of a student’s religion on his or her college experience. Some scholars have recently argued that religious identity and engagement are more important to today’s college students than they ever have been before (Cole & Ahmadi, 2010). If we acknowledge that a student’s religion is as important as race, ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic background to his or her academic success and satisfaction, it is critical that policy makers and educational practitioners implement measures to ensure that all students, including the most underrepresented, are included in the academic community. Because of historical trends, a lack of research and recent global events, it could be argued that Muslims may be one of the most marginalized student groups in the United States. Therefore, it is critical that educators’ knowledge of this group increases, so that higher education institutions in the United States can implement inclusive policies that will ensure Muslim students a safe, successful and satisfying college or university career.

Discussion Questions

  1. What obligations, if any, do you think an institution has to accommodate the religious needs of its students?
  2. What are some ways that college and university practitioners can foster an environment of open communication and respect of values across the entire campus and its diverse student populations?
  3. What biases (against or for) Islam do you have or encounter in your daily life or academic setting? What are some ways to overcome or defend against these biases?

References

Ali, S., & Bagheri, E. (2009). Practical suggestions to accommodate the needs of Muslim students on campus. New Directions For Student Services, (125), 47-54.

Allaf, C. (2010). An exploration of higher education graduation rates: A case study of women in Jordan. Retrieved from Proquest Digital Dissertations. (UMI 3431816)

Cole, D. & Ahmadi, S. (2010). Reconsidering campus diversity: An examination of Muslim students’ experiences. The Journal of Higher Education, 81(2), 121-139.

Manning, K., & Coleman-Boatwright, P. (1991). Student affairs initiatives toward a multicultural university. Journal of College Student Development, 32, 367-374.

Mays, N. G. (2003). Muslim students at an American university: A postmodern ethnography in new millennium. Retrieved from Proquest Digital Dissertations.  (UMI 3089753)

Mir, S.  (2009). Not too “college-like,” not too normal: American Muslim undergraduate women’s gendered discourses. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 40(3), 237-256.

Nasir, N. S., & Al-Amin, J. (2006). Creating identity-safe spaces on college campuses for Muslim students. Change, 38(2), 22-27.

Razek, N. A., & Coyner, S. C. (2013). Cultural impacts on Saudi students at a mid-western American university. Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, 17(1), 103-117.

Smith, D. G. (2005). The challenge of diversity. ASHE Higher Education Report, 31(1), 1-90.

About the Author

Kate Mazal is a master’s degree candidate in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at Columbia University, Teachers College. She received her B.S. degree in English Education from the University of Central Florida, and spent six years teaching English both in the United States and the Middle East. Currently, she works at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in the Office of Undergraduate Student Affairs and Global Programs. Her main responsibilities include student programming and academic study abroad advising. Within higher education, her research interests focus on international students and their acculturation processes to different university and cultural settings, as well as the success and satisfaction levels of historically underrepresented student groups, particularly Muslim students.

Please e-mail inquiries to Kate Mazal.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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