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Report: Higher ed needs better supports for Muslim students

October 16, 2019

A study of campus experiences around the country finds reasons for concern

By Ross Brenneman

Students

A new report out of USC Rossier shows a wide variation of Muslim college student experiences, and finds the need for better institutional supports.

Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center charted an increased in hate crimes on college campuses committed against Muslim students.

A new study from the USC Rossier Center on Education, Identity and Social Justice builds on that theory, examining the experiences and perceptions of Muslim students at higher education institutions across the country, and finding that universities still have work to do on helping a vulnerable student population.

“It is essential that administrators, faculty and staff are well equipped to respond and support Muslim students when hate and discrimination is directed at them,” said Shafiqa Ahmadi, an associate professor of clinical education at USC Rossier and co-director of the center.

To complete the study, center researchers did a semi-structured, 45-60 minute survey of 54 Muslim students, while another 73 students participated in an online survey. Most respondents were women and U.S. citizens, and four out of five students attended a private four-year institution. A majority of respondents were either fourth- or fifth-year undergraduates or graduate students.

Frustration sets in

Participants in the study reported a number of common issues and observations.

Among some of the problems:

  • Students said they often had experiences that involved addressing, confronting or correcting misconceptions about Muslims. Just over half of respondents reported feeling stereotyped as a Muslim college student.
  • Students experienced tension and occasional pushback or discrimination based on their choice to wear the hijab, and almost 87 percent of respondents said they thought that veiling affected how they were viewed by others on their campuses.
  • Students reported that the political climate in the United States, including rhetoric about Muslims used by U.S. President Donald Trump, negatively affected their educational experiences and sense of campus safety. Some respondents, however, were unsure if their safety felt threatened specifically because of their Muslim identity, or because of other identities they carried, such as being Black.
  • Students spoke often of tokenism, and being used by their institutions to promote diversity without the institution having supports in place to actually protect those students’ identities.

“The relationship between students’ Muslim identity and other vulnerable social identities not only debunk monolithic portrayals of Muslim students,” said Darnell Cole, an associate professor of higher education and a center co-director, “but also shed light on the complexity of how some Muslim students are perceived.”

Getting better

The report authors had a number of recommendations to better support Muslim college students.

First: That institutions create a centralized mechanism “to identify discrimination and hate directed at Muslim college students,” and to appropriately investigate and follow through on those incidents.

The report also suggests better professional development and other forms of education for faculty and administrators; the creation of spaces where Muslim students can safely gather, pray and engage in community building; and cultivating a wide array of student organizations to allow for variegated options for Muslim students to find their identities.

“Institutions of higher education should have a compelling interest in eradicating all forms of discrimination to ensure that free dialogue and exchange of ideas is taking place for all students,” Ahmadi said.

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