Ailya Vajid has kept busy since arriving on the Gustavus Adolphus College campus in St. Peter, Minn., last fall. She launched a new Muslim student association, regular Friday prayers and an “Ask a Muslim” panel.

The liberal-arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) might seem like an unlikely workplace for Vajid, its new Harvard Divinity School-educated Muslim spiritual adviser. But campus leaders say Vajid will play a key role both in supporting its growing Muslim student body and sparking eye-opening conversations about faith.

Gustavus is sharing Vajid with St. Paul’s Macalester and Northfield’s Carleton colleges. Meanwhile, Minneapolis-based Augsburg College, another ELCA school, also hired a Muslim spiritual adviser last fall.

“College students are at a stage of life when they are asking the big questions and trying to figure out where their faith fits in,” said Vajid, a California native whose official title at Gustavus is multifaith adviser.

The 2,400-student school serves about 25 Muslims, a combination of international students and Americans of immigrant descent. It is building a new multifaith center on campus.

“We really feel it’s important for our college to support the faith practices and faith journeys of all of our students, and that includes our Muslim students,” said Siri Erickson, the campus chaplain.

Besides counseling students at a time of ever-more-heated political rhetoric about Islam, Vajid’s job is to dispel misconceptions about the religion. Along with experience in a similar position at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Vajid brought a “beautiful mixture” of a gentle personality and major smarts, Erickson said.

“Ailya has a warm and welcoming presence,” she said. “Our students are really happy to have her around.”

Vajid meets with students one-on-one to address a variety of quandaries, from selecting coursework to reconciling family expectations with personal ambitions. She is starting the school’s first formal Muslim student group. She helped pen a joint statement against Islamophobia in December.

After the Paris attacks by Islamic extremists, Vajid helped host a prayer vigil at the campus chapel. Erickson said Vajid’s presence reassured Muslim students: They showed up — and opened up. A couple of them spoke about how distraught they were by the loss of life and by the attackers’ use of Islam to justify it. They spoke about fears that the assault would trigger a backlash against Muslims.

More recently, Vajid solicited anonymous questions for an “Ask a Muslim” panel with students, faculty members and staff scheduled for next week. She says she and students helping to organize the event were pleasantly surprised by the range of questions submitted to a campus box: How do terrorists come to twist the meaning of the Qur’an? Have the Shia and Sunni denominations within Islam ever sought to reconcile their differences? What do Muslims make of the presidential bid of Donald Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration?

“I’ve found an openness here and people who are really interested in getting to know the Other,” Vajid said.


Mila Koumpilova 612-673-4781