Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2006


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CC´s first Muslim chaplain hopes to create a comfortable environment where students can ´figure out who they are´

CC´s first Muslim chaplain hopes to create a comfortable environment where students can ´figure out who they are´
Chaundry and Husband Rumee Ahmed.

Julie Novak

Canadian-born Ayesha Siddiqua Chaudhry, Connecticut College´s first Muslim chaplain, never questioned her Islamic faith until she visited Damascus, Syria, as a college student studying abroad.

Until then, she covered her face with a veil, something she had done since high school after reading a conservative translation of the Koran. She often felt the need to defend her choice — a common but not universal custom for Muslim women — and explain why she did not believe it was oppressive.
In Damascus "I saw all these Muslims being Muslim in different ways," she said, realizing she did not need to be so strict in her observance. Now she wears only a head scarf. "It was not a way I had thought of Islam before — I realized that human beings are all individuals, and there is a difference between religion and culture. Our differences really are a strength, not a weakness," she said.

It is that compassion for difference that Chaudhry brings to the Connecticut College campus. She joins four other chaplains who are Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Unitarian.

Chaudhry sees her role as part counselor, part mentor and part educator.
"My main goal is building community," she said. "I want students to feel comfortable in their living environment so they can ask questions and figure out who they are. In a residential setting like a college campus it´s easy for them to feel isolated and in the minority."

With the growth of international students on campus and the departure of former dean of religious and spiritual life Patrice Brodeur, who specialized in Islamic studies, the need for a Muslim chaplain has increased, said Claudia Highbaugh, dean of religious and spiritual life. There are 14 students at CC who have identified themselves as Muslim.

"College and university campuses across the country used to be composed of Judeo-Christian Americans, but now we´re in a period of growth and change," Highbaugh said. Mirroring the national trend, she added, "We´re trying to increase the visible support for students across all religions represented on campus."

Chaudhry, who is working on her doctoral degree in Islamic studies from New York University, started her new position in September. Her husband, Rumee Ahmed, is the first Muslim chaplain at Brown University. He accompanies her to CC once a week, and the two work as a team on both campuses.

Chaudhry brings to campus an extensive background in the study of Islam. As an undergraduate she majored in political science and philosophy and minored in Arabic at the University of Toronto where she later earned a master´s degree in Middle East civilization and women´s studies.

Prior to starting the master´s program, Chaudhry spent three summers at the University of Damascus in Syria studying Arabic and traditional Islam. While abroad she studied to earn an ijaza — the Muslim word for permission — in Koran recitation. In order to receive the honor, students must be able to teach their subject of study to another person.

Chaudhry´s ijaza certificate hangs in the office she shares with her husband at Brown. It lists the name of her teacher, the teacher who taught him and so on the list of teachers, called the "chain of transmission," dates back more than 1,000 years.

In addition to her academic work and CC duties, Chaudhry is working in residence life at Brown. She also has served as an advisor to students at NYU as both a teaching and resident assistant.

A native of Toronto born to Pakistani parents, Chaudhry is excited to get to know CC students´ needs and expectations.

"College is such a great time for reflection and discovery. Students have faculty, books and so many resources available," she said. "I want to help them answer the tough questions about who they are and who they want to be."

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