Once in a while, you come across an experience that is both enlightening and transforming, and when it happens on campus, in your first year of college, it adds a whole new dimension to the learning experience from that point forward. Such an event took place, a few weeks ago, at Lone Star College, Cy-Fair Campus, on Feb. 24-25, 2016, titled First-Year Explorations Conference: Standing Together for Peace – Muslim Lives in America. The conference was designed by the Faculty of Education, as an immersion experience for first-time college students as part of their learning experience.
Avery Hines, a student, was deeply affected.
I wanted to thank all the panelists for really educating me and helping me comprehend things I was not sure about. I was very closed minded about the types of things Muslim culture faces in America. Most of my knowledge came from listening to what the media had to say about Muslims. The panelists helped open my eyes, and I realized that there are no differences between Muslims and American people. We all have the same concepts and goals, to become successful for ourselves and our families. I walked in the room that day not wanting to hear what they had to say, but by the end of the presentation, I wanted to know more. I want to help educate people on issues like this and help them comprehend and gain knowledge just like I did. The hardest part is how do I go about educating people on not just Muslims but all types of cultures and what can I do to help them?
I sat down with Professor Dr. Hilary Harris, Chair Department of Education, and Shamim Arastu, Assistant Professor, Department of Education. The entire faculty of the Department of Education were the chief architects of this First Year Experience Conference. This inaugural conference was designed as a specific component of EDUC 1300 First Year Experience Student Success curriculum, to provide a platform to discuss critical issues in a civil and educated manner.
As Dr. Harris explained,
The work of diversity is not tolerance; it is a celebration of the differences. With the current highly polarized political rhetoric in the country and the resulting hatred and bigotry being fed through the media, the college staff felt it was important to humanize the interactions among different communities that make up the American society. When any group is targeted, as Muslims have been targeted in the current political campaign by GOP candidates, it is incumbent on “the others” to rally around them for the common cause of social justice.
Lone Star College has a student population of 90,000 and a culture and value system of inclusion and mutual trust. Standing Together for Peace was a practical demonstration of the values of diversity and inclusion that are central to the student experience at the college. The commitment and support from the leadership of Lone Star College – Cy-Fair, particularly Dean LaPres, was critical to the success of the conference. In executing this project, the college built meaningful collaborations with several community partners including the Interfaith Ministries of Greater Houston and the Houston Islamic Speakers Bureau. While the overall focus was on Muslim lives in America, the conference program touched on various subjects including interfaith dialogue, shared humanity and values, building bridges of understanding, responding to the refugee crisis, Muslim women, Muslim men, a philosophical discussion of faith, and FBI collaboration within the Muslim community.
Camilyah Jones, a student who attended the Standing Together for Peace, said,
Prior to the conference, I felt torn between the two paths which had formed over the Syrian refugee issue; allow them in or keep them out? During the conference, I was presented with material about refugees that the media and people fail to disclose or do not know; it was a surplus of awareness, something that I took to heart and decided where my views would lie based on it. In the end, after the event had settled down, I found myself supporting the side that wanted to let the refugees in; the process and tremendous issues refugees had to deal with were both unfair and needed to be rectified.
Through Standing Together for Peace, the college faculty wanted to plant the seeds for considered thought and reasoning and educate the students in how to synthesize information and not jump to conclusions with a knee-jerk reaction to what is being fed them through modern media. Lone Star, being a community college, strives to be the catalyst that links the student body to the diverse community surrounding them. Through this experience, the students got a first-hand look at the lives and minds of Muslims that live around them in Houston. Multiculturalism is a big part of the culture at Lone Star College; through participation in this conference, the students witnessed an evidence-based understanding of the world around them.
Reflecting on the conference experience, another student, Abbie Daigle said,
To most people, the relationship between Islam and terrorist is just another standard idea accepted in today’s society and nothing more. Very rarely do we make the connection that there are several people who practice the same faith, but must find it very offensive to be stereotyped into the same category as the terrorists the media portrays. This is what my class learned when we attended the First-Year Explorations Conference.
Not only did the students find this experience enlightening and transformational, but the panelists and the faculty were also equally moved by participating in Standing Together for Peace. One of the women panelists, Tara Turk Zafran, was very enthusiastic about her participation and equally eager to discuss her experience after the event. Born into a multi-cultural household to an Egyptian father who grew up Muslim, and a mother who grew up Coptic Christian, of Armenian origin, Tara experienced first-hand the discrimination and isolation her mother felt when she married a Muslim man.
The conference provided a great opportunity for the students to understand and engage with a Muslim audience, especially Muslim women. The response from all attendees was overwhelmingly positive.
When we discussed the value of Standing Together for Peace with some of the young Muslim students, another insight emerged.
Ali Rizvi had this to say,
This conference assisted me in understanding that if I’m willing to voice my knowledge in Islam sincerely, there are people that are willing to listen. Rather than becoming furious at criticism, I should disprove any prejudice notions with a calm tone and factual information, or by countering a question with a question to make that person think about what they are saying. I understand that I must not return hate with hate and respond with love and respect.
Another panelist, Mustafa Carroll, Executive Director of Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Texas, was pleased that Standing Together for Peace demonstrated the diversity and strength of the Muslim community, particularly Muslim women. During his panel on Building Bridges of Understanding and after the meeting, several individuals including the Vice President of the Lone Star College reached out to him to engage in continuing dialog.
It brought focus to the involvement of Muslims in social justice issues affecting all Americans, not just the Muslim community. People got to see Muslims as real people in an open and honest dialog. This humanized the Muslims for the audience in a way that effectively countered the misrepresentation by the media.
The overwhelming response from organizers, panelists and participants was that Standing Together for Peace was a successful event, a positive step in the right direction, however, the conversation must continue, the exploration must endure. Encouraged by the participation and feedback, the Lone Star College has decided to hold a similar event in the Fall of 2016 for the incoming freshman student body. Stay tuned for more transformational experiences.