Class of 2014: Lives of Meaning and Purpose
Muslim student on Catholic campus promotes dialogue, enhances her own faith
When Saadia Ahmad ’14 was a junior, a College official told her she accounts for 20 percent of the Muslim student population at Providence College.
Ahmad smiles at that.
“A lot of students said I was the first Muslim they had talked to in person,” said Ahmad (South Brunswick, N.J). “It wouldn’t be for the benefit of anyone if I kept quiet.”
Ahmad came to Providence College from a large public high school in New Jersey. Religion wasn’t on her mind. Finding a college with excellent academics was, and a family friend recommended PC. Ahmad visited and the fit seemed right. It was a Catholic college, but she knew she could attend prayer services at the Brown Muslim Students Association on the city’s East Side.
At her freshman orientation, Ahmad introduced herself to the College chaplain, Rev. James Cuddy, O.P. ’98.
“He brought me into Campus Ministry and invited me to Mass,” said Ahmad. “I wouldn’t have thought to do it on my own. I never thought I’d be involved in Campus Ministry. It hadn’t occurred to me.”
Sharing her faith with Catholic students, and building relationships with Father Cuddy and the other Dominican friars who teach and work on campus — especially Rev. Joseph J. Guido, O.P., assistant professor of psychology, and Rev. John E. Allard, O.P., assistant professor of theology — sparked Ahmad’s interest in interfaith communication. In discovering more about other faiths, she strengthened her own.
“I would say, in a sense, it became another way to deepen my own relationship with God,” said Ahmad. “I’ve learned you don’t have to only grow in your own religion — you can benefit from other religions, too.”
Opening an interfaith dialogue
In January 2012, when Ahmad was a sophomore, Logos, the newsletter of the Office of Mission and Ministry, published a reflection she wrote.
“Among the most tranquil places I have found to pray reflectively on campus is St. Dominic Chapel. I would not substitute it for a Muslim house of worship — to do so would be to disrespect both religions. Nor would I overlook its ever-growing importance in my life as a sanctuary of peace and comfort, a place to remember God after long days and nights of classes and meetings.”
She regularly attended the “Last Chance Mass” at 10:30 p.m. Sundays with other PC students and did not find it so very different from her own services.
“I was struck by how similar they were,” said Ahmad. “The ideas of caring for one another, a strong relationship with God — we could more or less be sitting in a mosque and hearing this same service. Of course there are differences I don’t want to undermine, but there’s more than enough for us to work together and share values.”
Halfway through her freshman year, Ahmad proposed an Interfaith Dialogue Group under Campus Ministry to allow students, faculty, and staff to meet and learn about different religions and to support non-Catholics on campus. After 18 months, it was officially recognized and granted its own budget.
Last fall, the Interfaith Dialogue Group and the Office of Institutional Diversity, where Ahmad is a student-worker, co-sponsored an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner and discussion. It was a kosher meal at which representatives of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism spoke about the importance of giving thanks and the need for dialogue. The dinner was voted Outstanding Multicultural Program of the year by the Office of Student Activities-Involvement-Leadership (SAIL).
Praying in the College chapel
Ahmad said her adjustment to college was helped by the “solid support” she found from faculty, staff, and students, and by three retreats she attended freshman year: Transformations, offered by SAIL; Horizons, offered by the Student Multicultural Activities Office; and Connections, offered by Campus Ministry.
“It gave me space to think about issues, realizing everyone has his story, his own struggle, his own sources of happiness,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad majored in political science with a minor in public and community service studies and a concentration in theology. Her family is from Pakistan and speaks Urdu; she can read, write, and recite Arabic.
In addition to spending two years on the Campus Ministry Pastoral Council, Ahmad worked as a photographer for the Office of Student Affairs and the Division of Marketing and Communications. She was photo editor of The Cowl, the student newspaper. She is a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, inspired by a middle school teacher who also encouraged her to write. She especially enjoys keeping a journal.
“A Catholic school should never be called upon to revoke or apologize for its Catholic name; such a request is inherently un-Islamic,” Ahmad wrote in Logos. “God forbid that there should ever be a threat to the Catholic name and identity of PC. Trust that I would stand in the forefront of those fighting to defend and protect the school and faith … As a student, as a friar, and as a Muslim, that is my responsibility.
“I put my complete and utter support behind all religiously affiliated schools to uphold their identities in our ever-increasingly globalized, diverse world. I hope and pray for the strengthening of their own religious identities — but not by ignoring the presence of religious diversity.”
Moving to Milwaukee
In August, Ahmad will begin a year working with the Interfaith Conference of Greater Milwaukee through the Episcopal Service Corps. Until then, she’ll work with Dr. Arthur P. Urbano, Jr., associate professor of theology, to research religious diversity in the College’s early history, specifically the experience of Jewish students.
At the Academic Awards Ceremony the day before commencement, Ahmad will receive the Sister Thea Bowman Award, presented to a senior in recognition of outstanding service to the College and the community. The award “recognizes characteristics of openness to and respect for others, regardless of race, creed, or social status.”
Dr. Jeffrey D. Pugh, assistant professor of political science, nominated Ahmad. He met her in his International Conflict Resolution class. Pugh said Ahmad ensured inclusiveness for different religions “through hours … of conversation with numerous stakeholders around campus, lots of personal reflection and scholarly study, and an open approach to experimentation. … I have never seen a more persistent student activist.”
“Saadia is, in many ways, the conscience of our College,” said her academic advisor, Dr. Joseph P. Cammarano, associate professor of political science and of public and community service studies. “She is a Muslim who is more faithful than many of us Catholics on campus, and one who actually listens to the word of the Liturgy and homilies. She seeks from us — the bearers of tradition at the College — to live our words, not just preach them.”
— Vicki-Ann Downing