When Kelly Stone arrived at Macalester in 2014 as the new College Chaplain, she immediately felt a void in the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. The school did not have a Muslim religious leader.
“Occasionally I’ll meet with Brian [Rosenberg, the College President], and last fall I said to Brian, if you had a request from me, it’d be for a Muslim chaplain,” Stone said.
Between increasingly vitriolic political rhetoric in the US and terror attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam around the world, 2015 had already been a difficult year for Muslim students, “and it seemed like things just kept getting worse.”
In November of last year, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a series of attacks that killed and injured more than 500 people in and around Paris. Shortly thereafter, the eventual Republican nominee for President Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States.
“Last year was a really painful year globally, both with instances of violence and terrorism being enacted around the world under the name of Islam. It caused a lot of deep personal pain for students, and the political rhetoric has also been part of that,” Stone said.
“I felt within myself, even as I was supporting and counseling students, there were limits where I could only empathize and not fully understand what it must be [like] for students to be grappling with the issues they were grappling with,” she continued.
That lack of support for Muslim students was apparent to Stone immediately after she arrived at Macalester from Wellesley College just outside of Boston in the fall of 2014.
“I’d come from an institution that had a Muslim chaplain on staff, so I’d seen first hand the value of having that person to support the community through that,” Stone said. “I’d been in Boston when the marathon bombing happened, and my school had students on the route.”
“It was so abundantly clear to me — and it was clear to me when I arrived at Macalester — that this was such a deep need. I would again and again in meeting with students hear that a Muslim advisor or teacher would be incredibly valuable.”
The growth in Islamic influence on college campuses — including the formation of new Islamic studies departments — echoed the similar growth in Jewish studies and the number of Jewish students and professors on college campuses, in the years and decades following the Holocaust and World War II.
Last winter, Stone went ahead with her recommendation. “I prepared a proposal for the position that went to Donna and was sent on to Brian. Donna did some incredible advocacy, and Brian was very supportive.”
It was always a straightforward process. “Kelly did the really important work of pushing this through the administration—and this took a great deal of effort,” said Barry Cytron, the Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life and a longtime professor at the college.
The Muslim Student Association (MSA) was involved throughout the process. Said MSA President Eman Ahmed, “Kelly really felt like we needed this, and then people supported her idea. It was time for us to have a Muslim chaplain—and it went along well with the current political situation.”
The position was approved last spring, with the goal to have a Muslim chaplain in place for the start of this academic year. In the end, Stone said, the best candidate for the job was someone that Macalester was already familiar with: Ailya Vajid.
“Ailya had been doing some part-time work with us in the spring. We did a full search and looked at a broad range of applicants, and Ailya stood out as exceptionally qualified.”
Vajid, who graduated from Swarthmore with a degree in Islamic Studies and had been working at her alma mater before her personal life brought her to Minnesota, was all too happy to take the job—despite the fact that her commute to campus is currently an hour-and-a-half.
“What drew me to Macalester was the small liberal arts context. Being at a school that is values- and social justice-driven, with students who really care about what is going on in the world, makes the work really meaningful,” Vajid said.
Vajid started at Macalester on August 20. “It’s a real delight to have her here,” Stone said. “She’s an exceptionally kind and gifted person. I really encourage people who want to get to know her to make an appointment and stop in to see her.”
One of the goals in hiring Vajid is for her to become one of the faces of Islam on campus. When the school didn’t have a Muslim chaplain, Stone said, “It put some of our students in the unfair place of having to be educators for the whole campus community. Women who wore hijabs were told ‘Oh, you can explain Islam to me!’”
Said Vajid, “Part of my work is educating the wider campus community and bringing a human face to Islam.”
One of the potential added benefits of having a Muslim chaplain is that, according to Vajid, “[a]s soon as a position like this comes in, more [Muslim] students can come [to Macalester], because it’s easier for families to send their students knowing that there will be spiritual support.”
The focus for now, however, is to support students who are already here—especially in the current global climate surrounding Islam. In that regard, having a Muslim chaplain is unquestionably a benefit.
“Those are layered and complex things to unpack for a student. It feels really important to have a religious leader who comes from that context to help students make sense of those challenges,” Stone said.
Vajid agreed. “It’s nice for students to be able to come and talk without having to explain their stories and why they see the world the way they do,” she said. “I already understand some of those things.”
Already, Vajid admits, “I think I’ve sent out more condolence and sad emails than I thought I would coming into this work.” Just two weeks ago, a series of bombings in New York and New Jersey were, allegedly, executed by a Muslim-American.
The general atmosphere of Islamophobia that has colored much of our political discourse in the last two years is being felt as well. “Inevitably, as we get closer and closer to the election, it’s going to be felt more and more. It’s always in the background. We’re always experiencing it,” Vajid said.
Vajid splits her time between Macalester and Carleton, who also created a position for a Muslim chaplain earlier this year. “Macalester is not alone,” Stone said. “We saw a rise in the creation of Muslim chaplaincies across the country. We were a part of a national trend.”
Vajid joins an InterVarsity team that includes Stone, a staff volunteer, and chaplains from the Buddhist, Catholic and Jewish faiths.
Said Cytron, “This is a very complicated time to be a Muslim in America. There is this incredible propensity towards assimilation, and the way you have to look American — whatever that means — in addition to everything else that’s going on in the world.”
“This [new position] potentially provides a very meaningful and very powerful source of privacy and council for our Muslim community here,” Cytron continued.
It’s been a success so far. “A lot of people felt like they needed someone to represent them. Since she’s been here, she’s been a huge help to the community. We always have someone to go and talk to,” Ahmed said.
“At a certain level,” Stone said, “this is an institutional commitment to supporting the global community that is gathered here. This is one way that we have really invested in supporting our students in new and creative ways.”
And though there have already been a fair number of difficult moments, Vajid is off to a good start.
“I love this work. The students here are very thoughtful and reflective, and inspiring to be around. Being with students as they begin to figure out who they are, and discover who they are, that’s very exciting to me,” she said.
“I can see myself here for a long time.”