Supporting Muslim Students during COVID Pandemic

Photo by Deddy Yoga Pratama on Unsplash

Ermin Sinanović is the executive director of CICW at Shenandoah University. Amir Durić is a Muslim chaplain at the MSL at Syracuse University, where he is also pursuing a Ph.D. in Social Science.  

As the voices for greater inclusion and diversity are rightfully increasing in our society and in higher education, the needs of Muslim students ought to be addressed too. Muslims constitute only about one percent of the US population. The Muslim student population on college campuses can often be small, especially outside larger urban centers where Muslims are often concentrated. For that reason, college and university administrators may not always be fully aware of their needs. Especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Muslims have been working against negative perceptions and stereotypes in wider society. According to a poll of American Muslims conducted by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), about 69 percent of Muslims aged 18-29 report religious discrimination. 

Find out more about how students from diverse worldview backgrounds experience college in the latest IDEALS research report. Read more >

Between late March and late April, the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) at Shenandoah University and the Muslim Student Life (MSL) at Syracuse University, conducted a survey of Muslim college students. The survey was designed to obtain Muslim student responses to general questions of religiosity and campus life, as well as to address specific needs during the COVID pandemic. By late April, the survey was completed by 498 students in 32 US states. About two-thirds of the surveyed Muslim students belong to minority populations (Asian, African, African-American, Latino, Pacific Islanders, etc.). This essay highlights some of the most important results of the survey, suggests ways in which university and college faculty and administration may be able to accommodate the needs of Muslim students, and spotlights best practices. 

We have the following recommendations for institutions of higher education: 

  • If you do not have a Muslim chaplain, this may be a good time to hire one 
  • If you do have a Muslim chaplain, reach out and develop a plan to address the needs of Muslim students 
  • Invest in mental health 
  • Address health insurance needs of Muslim students 
  • Have accurate data about the Muslim population on campus 
  • Alleviate worries about academic goals and job market 
  • Reach out to your local Muslim community for support in case you do not have a Muslim chaplain or can’t hire one 

COVID pandemic has exacerbated mental health challenges for everyone in our society. Muslim students are stressing the need for greater support for mental health too. In a telling example, close to 40 percent of female students and about 20 percent of male students report increased anxiety since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, about 65 percent of female students and close to 58 percent of male students evidence an increase in their spiritual and religious practices. This indicates a greater need for mental health support and spiritual wellness among Muslim students. One respondent wrote, “It’s been pretty tough as my social life has significantly decreased and I am a very social person. My anxiety and depression ha[ve] increased significantly (I am diagnosed with anxiety and depression) so this situation hasn’t helped. I appreciate what MSL has done in offering different opportunities for students to engage in at this time. I hope more people take advantage of the services offered by MSL (Muslim Student Life) and MSA (Muslim Student Association).”   

In response to these demands, a group of chaplains of the Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University recently met with the therapists from the counseling center to discuss the intersection of mental health and religion/spirituality, and to explore additional ways of collaboration. One initiative that already came out as a result of this discussion was a grief group co-facilitated between a few chaplains and therapists.  

Our belief is that students across religious traditions are most likely experiencing similar challenges. As a result, university administrations would do well to invest more in mental health support and spiritual guidance by hiring more chaplains and mental health professionals. For instance, Shenandoah University has recently hired a Muslim chaplain for the first time 

Healthcare concerns have increased too. One student wrote, “My family all have COVID. I am the only person able to care for them. It requires 24/7 attention. I am very overwhelmed between this and schoolwork. Prayers needed.” Balancing between the healthcare needs of students and their families on one hand, and their schoolwork on the other creates even greater pressure on students’ wellness. Faculty and administrators (including chaplains and counselors) need to be aware of this situation. About 16 percent of students reported having health insurance through their colleges, while 7 percent stated having no insurance at all. This is a very vulnerable population, and the question is what will happen with the students who have graduated and have lost their health insurance. Perhaps the universities could consider continuing health insurance for these students until they have secured a job.  

On that score, job uncertainty and reaching academic goals are great sources of worry for Muslim students. Close to 68 percent of Muslim students are worried about the COVID-19 impact on their academic objectives. Almost half of all students surveyed reported that they felt their ability to apply for jobs and internships has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Career and alumni services need to step up and come up with creative ways of helping the students to address these concerns and worries.  

International students are particularly vulnerable due to economic uncertainties, and to visa and work limitations. About 16 percent of the surveyed Muslim students are international. One such student wrote, “My graduation plans are uncertain. My family lives in Pakistan. They are very much worried about me and I’m very much worried about them. Things are changing so quickly. My brothers and parents are having big losses in their already small business due to the Coronavirus outbreak.” The international students’ ability to pay the tuition fees may be drastically reduced during the pandemic. Their mental health may take a toll due to the inability to travel and visit their families, as well as the global uncertainties amidst the crisis. Lack of summer funding and support may create serious economic problems for these students. 

In economic terms, Asian and African/African-American Muslim students evidence much higher levels of economic uncertainty, compared to white Muslim students. Even though the absolute numbers of those concerned with their economic well-being was still relatively low, the discrepancy between the minority populations and white students was telling. For example, 12 percent of Black/African-American students and almost 13 percent of Asian students were worried if they would have enough money for gas and food, as compared to only a little over 2 percent among white students. Job security was a concern for 16 percent of Black/African-American and almost 15 percent of Asian Muslim students, and only for less than 7 percent of white students.  

One area of accommodation for Muslim students is prayer space on campuses. Almost 54 percent of Muslim students surveyed report practicing five daily prayers. As the prayers are offered at specific times and require space accommodations, colleges and universities are highly recommended to provide such prayer space. It could be a specifically Muslim prayer space or an interfaith prayer space that fulfills the requirements for Muslim prayers. Syracuse University has had a Muslim prayer space in the Hendricks Chapel, together with the accompanying ritual ablution washing stations in a nearby restroom, since the 1990s. Today, the university offers a few other similar spaces across the campus and designated rooms for the daily prayers in almost all of its residence halls. Besides, Hendricks Chapel renovated the Main Chapel in July of 2019 and featured new interlocking chairs in place of the first six rows of pews to accommodate growth and offer more flexible use of the space, including Friday services/Jumuah. Shenandoah University provides an interfaith prayer room in its Goodson Chapel, which also accommodates the prayer needs of Muslim students. 

About 88 percent of Muslim students evidenced fasting during the month of Ramadan. As this month is based on a lunar calendar, it shifts about ten days earlier every year. In 2021, Ramadan is expected to begin around April 12 and end around May 11. This places Ramadan near the end of the Spring semester and during final exams. Faculty and administrators can plan in advance to accommodate Muslim students’ needs during the fasting month. Many Muslim students may only eat one meal in the cafeteria during Ramadan, so dining services may be willing to accommodate their meal plans during this month too. With regard to the dietary needs of Muslim students, about 50 percent report eating only halal meats (Islamically permissible, similar to Kosher). Syracuse University has been a pioneer in this regard as well, as it has had halal meats available for Muslim students in some dining halls since the late 1990s. Currently, halal foods are available in all five dining centers. Halal menu items are indicated in the key on its online menu, and students may also scan the QR code on the labels in the dining centers to determine if a menu item is halal. Food Services has been working steadily to increase the variety of halal foods in all of the dining centers.  In addition, the current recipes are under review to determine how they may be produced halal. Other colleges and universities may want to follow this lead and provide halal and halal-friendly meals to Muslim students as well. One student respondent wrote, “as a Muslim student in a very white state, it was already hard finding halal meat and such resources but now [during the pandemic] it’s straight-up impossible.” 

On the upside, the majority of the surveyed Muslim students (about 55 percent) have confidence in their school’s ability to effectively respond to their needs. Likewise, 68 percent and 53 percent believe the same for their local Muslim organizations and university chaplaincies, respectively. On the other hand, fewer than 8 percent have such confidence in President Trump, about 11 percent in the US Senate, and close to 17 percent in the US House of Representatives. This gap between the confidence in national vs. local institutions is jarring.  

As we are all getting ready for an unusual Fall semester, Shenandoah University has instituted a ShenFlex approach – a simultaneous, hybrid online/on-site instruction plan. Syracuse University already started welcoming students on campus and will follow an accelerated academic calendar this fall. Institutions of higher education can achieve greater inclusion and diversity by incorporating our recommendations and other findings of the survey. You can access the full report at the CICW website. 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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