Q&A: Jawad Awan, co-president of the Muslim Student Association
This week, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian is honoring student activist groups at the University of Massachusetts. Jawad Awan, a senior psychology major and the co-president of the Muslim Student Association, answered several questions about the MSA and its contributions to the community.
Stefan Geller: What kinds of things does the MSA do for the community?
Jawad Awan: The MSA is a pretty diverse group, not just by our constituents, the members of the MSA are from every corner of the country and the globe, but also on the spectrum of spirituality. We often serve as a spiritual group, often as a cultural group. The goals of MSA this year have been split up in three ways. We try to direct 30 percent of our resources toward religious services and activities, 30 percent toward activism and advocacy and 40 percent to social events and community or cultural, fun things to bring people together.
SG: What kind of activism do you do?
JA: We’re pretty big on education and empowerment. Coming from an orthodox religious community, we have a lot of flak with sharing the spotlight with our sisters a lot of the time. We try to set up things to combat this and share opportunity with the sisters of our congregation. We’re involved a lot in interfaith work, working with the Hillel community and groups from Newman, other groups on campus. We meet, talk about things we agree with and have respectful conversations about things we disagree with. When we’re not doing that, we’ve had peanut butter and jelly drives where we’ve got together and made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the local soup kitchen. We have an event community up called “Hoops for Syria,” a basketball tournament, where the proceeds go to serve refugee families that have suffered from conflict.
SG: How did the MSA respond following the president’s travel ban from Muslim countries?
JA: It’s really tough for us on campus, probably, most obviously from our very limited sphere of influence. It’s not like we can call up our governor friends and say, “Hey we voted you in, figure this out.” Our responses were threefold. One, reach out to the people that were directly affected and see if we could be a support group to them. Two, advocating to the greater community here at UMass, trying to show people who don’t realize why this is wrong, or don’t feel like it affects them yet, to share and show them why it does. Third, was to reach out to the people that supported us and thank them and respond with solidarity to the things that they’re often struggling with.
SG: How has the community responded to the MSA during this period?
JA: Extremely supportive. My reflection of living in Amherst and being part of UMass has been exclusively gratitude and optimism. That’s it. Every time something like this happens, like when the spray paint incident happened on the Fine Arts Center, or the Muslim ban, or after some dummy performed some stupid terror attack…The reason it’s so good being in Amherst, the reason I feel this optimism and gratitude is because anytime something like that happens people always reach out. We’ve had Amherst communities reach out and invite us to breakfast, the Immanuel Lutheran Church invited us to come speak and have a discussion and share some warm coffee, and it means a lot. We’re very, very fortunate.
SG: How many members does the MSA have?
JA: Membership is very diverse. At a Friday prayer we might have 70 to 90 to 100 people. It fluctuates.
SG: What stands out most in your experience with the MSA?
JA: Being woken up at 4:30 a.m. by somebody intoxicated, talking about, “Hey, I’m having a really hard time with this feeling or experience, ‘X’ is going on,” and they hope that you or somebody they identify with will be there for them. I’m not a professional, I don’t have the training, I’d love to hear you as much as I can, I’d love to be a friend for you, but I can’t help you resolve this problem; let me do my best to connect you with the professionals that can. And we try to support them cross that bridge. I think that’s most striking for me, because it’s people that you don’t expect.
SG: How do you think the MSA will approach this political climate over the next four years?
JA: I think that, I don’t know what it will do, but I hope that we’ll continue to do what it does best, which is empower activists from the group, be supportive to [Registered Student Organizations] outside [us], provide religious services that are needed in the community and come together as a community and just do the fun things that Muslim Americans do. Honestly I think that’s the best thing…I think the people that are so strongly opposing the Muslim community or support the ban, I don’t think they’ve ever seen a Muslim community from the inside. I think they’ve probably heard the pundits and formed an opinion and they’re gone. I don’t think it’s every Muslim’s obligation to reach out to them and have good press for the Muslim community. I think we should just keep getting together, have a fun time and act in service to the UMass and Amherst community. Let the storm pass, as long as we stand with others, and we stand for the ethics and morals that we believe in, and just be active citizens I think we’ll be alright.
Stefan Geller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @StefanGeller.