Why Catholic colleges attract Muslim students

Wiaam Al Salmi has gotten used to raised eyebrows when she passes through customs in U.S. airports. 

The eyebrows don’t go up when she approaches the desk. Nor do they go up when she answers their inquiries about why she’s flying into the United States from her native Oman. The simple answer, “To go to school” is par for the course. 

Rather, eyebrows go up when the customs officials ask the inevitable follow-up question: “And where do you go to school?” 

Al Salmi’s answer? The Catholic University of America. 

“They can’t understand why a Muslim would want to go to a Catholic school,” Al Salmi told Our Sunday Visitor. “They’re always surprised.”

Rising enrollment

Surprising as it may be for U.S. customs officials, however, her choice to study at a Catholic university is not all that unusual. At least not anymore. 

Nationwide, the enrollment of Muslims at Catholic schools has risen substantially in recent years, with Catholic colleges and universities now boasting higher percentages of Muslim students than both public and non-Catholic private four-year institutions. 

That trend is born out by the numbers of Muslim students at Fordham, which has risen by almost 25 percent between 2004 and 2011. It’s even more pointed at Catholic University, where the number of Muslim undergraduates has gone up by 72 percent, while the number of Muslim graduates has risen by 166 percent. The combined increase is 122 percent. 

What accounts for the rising popularity of Catholic schools among Muslim students? 

No one is entirely sure, although administrators believe it has at least something to do with the pride of place given to religious expression on Catholic campuses. 

“Religiously affiliated universities are places where students feel they can talk about their faith and live it out, regardless of what that faith may be,” said Monica Esser, associate director for international admissions at Fordham. “At other schools that’s not as encouraged.”

Faith factor

At least in the case of Fordham University student Muhammad Sarwar, she’s right. The Catholic identity of the school is one of the very things that attracted the Pakistani-raised Sarwar to Fordham. 

Fordham University student Muhammad Sarwar

“Faith is a big part of my life and being a person of faith I wanted to study in an environment where faith was not a non-topic,” the sophomore business major told OSV. “It’s important to me to learn about other people’s faith and explain my own. I wanted my faith to be part of a conversation.” 

“Plus, I wanted to see how a Jesuit university operated in this day and age, what it would be like and what shape inter-faith dialogue would take at such a school,” he added. “All of that was a huge part of the attraction for me.” 

Not all Muslim students at Catholic schools share Sarwar’s reasoning. 

“I wasn’t looking for a religious school at all,” said Mohammed Diop, a freshman premed student at Boston College who was born and raised in Washington, D.C. “Actually Boston’s Catholicism was a drawback for me when I was looking at colleges. But it came down to academics. Their program was one of the best at the schools I got into.” 

The same holds true, Diop continued, for most of his Muslim classmates at Boston. 

“Everyone has different reasons. Some wanted to stay close to home, others came here because this is where they received a scholarship, or because of the great academics. Really, just the same reasons anyone chooses a college,” he said. 

While a school’s Catholicism may not be a major factor in why all Muslim students are attracted to a particular college, it can become one of the major factors in their overall happiness and satisfaction with their college experience. Such is the case with Al Salmi. 

The junior electrical engineering student came to the United States from Oman in 2002 with her parents. They returned home several years later, but Al Salmi decided to stay in the States to complete her education. In 2009 she enrolled at a state school in Louisiana, but experienced what she described as “culture shock.” After a year there, Al Salmi’s older sister, a student at CUA, persuaded her to transfer north. 

“At the time the religion of the school didn’t matter to me,” she said. “I didn’t know the difference between a Catholic school and a non-Catholic school.” 

But that soon changed. 

“It very quickly became a positive thing,” she said. “Here, I made friends who were taking their faith seriously, who were encouraging each other to pray, be honest, and make good decisions. They would talk about how they had seen Jesus in their week and what he was doing in their lives. That impressed me a lot. I discovered I had a lot more in common with students here than at Louisiana.” 

Word of mouth

Experiences such as those are one of the reason Christine Mica, dean of admissions at CUA, says many of her school’s Muslim students have become de facto “admissions counselors.” 

“They go out of their way to share their experience with other Muslims, so by word of mouth it gets around that Catholic is a great place for Muslim students to study,” she said. 

While one would expect some Muslim students to struggle at least a little bit with life on a Catholic college campus, none of the students interviewed expressed any difficulties. 

“I expected there would be some issues, but it just hasn’t turned out that way,” said Diop. “In fact, it’s been easier. People are friendly and open and willing to talk about differences. There are places I can pray, and even opportunities to get involved with campus ministry. It just hasn’t been an issue.” 

Nor do the students take issue with the religious education requirements in the curricula. 

“It’s actually been a great thing,” said Diop. “They have so many different courses, and you get the chance to learn about aspects of religion you normally wouldn’t.” 

The opportunity to learn more about Catholicism has been one of the better parts of Sarwar’s time at Fordham thus far. 

“Being here has given me a new perspective on Christianity,” he said. “You can read a book on Christianity or watch a YouTube talk by a Christian scholar, but until you meet someone who knows the Faith and lives it, you can’t really understand it. To see friends going to Mass and praying the Rosary and honoring their Catholic traditions has helped me see how much more we have in common.” 

“It’s also deepened my own faith,” he added. “I’ve learned more about Islam by talking about it and having to explain it to others.” 

For Al Salmi, who plans to return to Oman after completing her degree, a new understanding of American culture may be one of the most valuable things she’ll take with her. 

“At home, the television portrays this image of Americans as not religious at all. All you see is people having sex, going to bars, and doing terrible things. But then I came to this school and discovered that there are Christians who believe their faith and live it,” she said. “It’s sad the TV doesn’t portray that. It gives the world the wrong impression of Catholics, just as it does of Muslims.” 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.