Although Ailya Vajid ‘09 knew entering the semester that she was only guaranteed to stay for six months, she was optimistic and hoped that her role could continue for longer. Vajid quickly established herself as a present force in the religious community, serving as an advisor to Muslim students. With her tenure nearing its end, members of the Interfaith community are now realizing how much of a hole her departure would leave.
Vajid came to Swarthmore this January as a part-time Muslim student advisor and consultant for investigating the sustainability of such a position on campus. She is being paid with a $7,500 seed grant from the President’s discretionary funds. Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development Liliana Rodriguez originally requested the money to have Vajid on campus.
In an email, Rodriguez described Vajid’s position as “consultant that understood our campus culture and the needs of Muslim students with the goal of establishing community partnerships” and referred to Vajid’s ability to support Muslim students as an advisor as “an added bonus.” She cited the objective of the position as a way to gain “a firm sense of the possibilities for such a position [as Muslim Student Advisor] in our area.”
However, the Swarthmore Religious Advisors and Staff webpage and others involved with religious and spiritual life refer to her colloquially as the Muslim Student Advisor. As such, the precise nature of her role seems unclear.
Not including Vajid, Swarthmore has four religious advisors, three of whom support Christian life on campus and one of whom supports Jewish life. As a secular college, Swarthmore does not pay its religious advisors directly: they are all supported by outside organizations, including Hillel and Partners in Ministry. These organizations pay the religious advisors; specifically, Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor Joyce Tompkins and Jewish Advisor Kelilah Miller are paid as part-time employees.
Vajid described the primary focuses of her job as providing mentorship and counseling for students. While she described support for the Muslim community as her main focus, she stressed the importance of “educat[ing] the wider campus community as we educate ourselves.”
Religious and Spiritual Life Advisor and Interfaith Coordinator Joyce Tompkins recognizes that the seed money is not a sustainable source of funding in the long-term, but she hopes that the funding might be extended as they seek other sources. “It’s not forever, it’s to help bridge until other money can be found,” she said.
The model of funding Swarthmore’s other religious advisors would be difficult to apply to the position of Muslim student advisor. Vajid attempted in vain to find institutions similar to Hillel or Partners in Ministry. “As I’ve been here, I’ve found that we don’t have those structures in the Muslim community,” Vajid said. “The Muslim community is more nascent in the United States: it’s still growing. But I think even more than that, the Muslim chaplain position is so new that the Muslim community is still building awareness around it.”
Salman Safir ’16, president of the Swarthmore Islamic Society (formerly BLISS), agreed with the sentiment. “The problem with that method of funding is that it only allows for groups that are privileged enough to have organizations that are willing to fund people to be at colleges to have religions advisers,” he said. Safir saw this imbalance as an even more compelling reason to have a Muslim student advisor on campus.
As such, Vajid has been working with members of Interfaith and the Dean’s Office investigating alternative methods for funding the position. Many of Swarthmore’s peer institutions fund religious advisors from within, but a few obtain funding from outside sources. Positions include a mix of full-time and part-time positions. “I think we’re unique in being one of the few places where everyone is funded from the outside,” Vajid said.
Some colleges combine the position of chaplaincy with other campus positions. At Williams, the Muslim chaplain is also involved with community engagement. Vajid is investigating the possibility of applying for a position in Residential Life that she might hold in addition to her position involved with religious and spiritual life.
Tompkins and Rodriguez suggested endowments as an additional possibility.
Vajid has helped facilitate events on campus that were previously difficult or impossible to hold. Tompkins pointed to the recent scriptural reasoning event. “The model doesn’t work without an Islamic scholar,” she said. Additionally, Tompkins, Vajid, and Miller recently participated in a panel on women in faith.
Safir likened the college’s attitudes towards religious life to “trying to catch a fish without a fishing rod.”
“The college’s current model claims to want religious students, but there’s no structural commitment to that,” Safir said.
Many students have found Vajid’s presence on campus to be comforting. “It’s really comforting for me to have someone that I can go to directly that I know is going to understand where I’m coming from,” said Asma Noray ’17, soon-to-be co-president of the Swarthmore Islamic Society.
Several students appreciate Vajid’s position as an alum, believing that it allows her to relate to their experiences as Swarthmore students. “Being a Muslim student this is the first time I’ve had somebody to go to who kind of gets what it’s like to be a Muslim at Swarthmore,” said Safir. “And that’s something that’s really hard to explain, that’s hard to, no matter who you go to, whether it’s your parents or your professor, there’s just certain components you can’t explain until you’ve lived through it.”
“To have someone like Ailya representing a major faith tradition in an intellectually valid way on our campus is just so important,” said Tompkins.