The most important way I worked to develop my spirituality was by sharing it with others. Being open to questions and discussion on faith was integral to strengthening my own
I have been fortunate enough to have the two very different types of college experiences. For my undergraduate career, I attended Loyola University, the Jesuit Catholic University of Chicago and lived at home during that time. Recently, I have moved to a small town in Missouri for my graduate studies. Needless to say, this shift was quite drastic and required much more adjustment on my behalf.
At Loyola, I found myself among a very diverse crowd and a wide assortment of Muslim classmates. Because starting at a new university is always a challenge, it was very important for me to find a strong Muslim support network in addition to non-Muslim friends. Logically, I started at our university's Muslim Students Association. Here I was able to meet an intermixture of different students with varying degrees of faith. I found that the best way to identify trustworthy and supportive friends was by being open, clear, and proud of my own identity and beliefs. In this way, it was easy to understand similarities in order to develop friendships and to use the differences to facilitate propagation of our faith and tolerance, instead of conflict.
Because I was a commuter student at the time, I did not face the struggles of dorm life and diet and lived quite comfortably at home. I had the luxury of being on campus in order to become involved in student activities and volunteerism as well as going home when studies got demanding. During this time, I worked to maintain a strong commitment to my religious obligations. I quickly understood that being out of my parents' supervision meant that I would hold the sole responsibility of carrying out religious duties. Maintaining a strict prayer timetable between my classes and extracurricular commitments was vital to establishing other spiritual habits. For example, I made sure to be prepared when night classes ran through the time for breaking the fast during Ramadan and spoke to professors about Muharram commitments ahead of time.
Yet the most important way I worked to develop my spirituality was by sharing it with others. Being open to questions and discussion on faith was integral to strengthening my own. This applied to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Working as a campus liaison for our MSA gave me the opportunity to create interfaith events where many different faiths and cultures were able to come together and discuss our beliefs and heritage. Last year, we held a "Building the Peace, Breaking the Fast" event on a day in Ramadan that coincided with a Christian and Jewish fast. Our organizations used this opportunity to spread knowledge about our beliefs while standing together on the shared objective of peace between our religions. Events such as these allowed for campus harmony and also supplemented my spirituality as well.
Having graduated from Loyola, I have moved on to graduate studies in a very small homogenous town. Not only is this my first move away from family, it also an environment drastically different from Chicago. The nearest mosque is a three-hour drive away and there is only one Muslim in our class of 172 students. Even so, I do not fear the loss of spirituality nor disconnection from my faith. I have found that the most important way to bring faith and comfort into my life is by surrounding myself with Islam at my apartment on campus. This may be from the simple use of Adhan alarm clocks to pictures, or even various forms of iconography or symbols. These things can be a great reminder and bring in a sense of familiarity into a new home.
The Internet is also a wonderful tool when one lives far from religious centers. Live online broadcasts of events at a local mosque are a great way of feeling connected to significant religious holidays. Many websites also offer invaluable audio and visual resources, including articles on current social and political events. The availability of such sites helps maintain and increase religious awareness and spirituality on a daily basis.
Of course, being the only Muslim in town also has its perks. It allows me to represent my faith and speak on Islam's behalf on a daily basis. This may be from the simple act of smiling at neighbors to welcoming questions on currents events and religious issues. Again, the act of sharing knowledge to others has become one the most important ways of bettering myself.
Unfortunately, losing a network of Muslim companions also makes it more difficult to find Halal outlets for social life. In this situation, it is best to evaluate what one finds personally comfortable and where their social limits lie. I have found that the same activities I did with Muslims are enjoyed by non-Muslims. Shared dinners and movies are a great way to establish friendships. Being of Pakistani descent also allows me to introduce friends to traditional cuisine and cultural trends, such as henna painting, which opens up new outlets for shared interests and entertainment. So far, however, my biggest concern is the lack of Halal food options, but there are ways of working around this as well. Freezing food from home and being open to vegetarian ethnic cuisine seem to be the best options. Having lots of macaroni and cheese and instant meals is also a great help!
Overall, adjustment to university life may be difficult, but it is very possible. Finding ways to stay spiritual and balanced always lead to success in all aspects of college life.
This article originally appeared in a previous issue of Islamic Insights.