Ryan Chartrand

Naiyerah Kolkailah, a biology senior and president of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), is no different than any other student on campus. And while she wears the traditional Islamic dress every day, she feels comfortable practicing her faith at Cal Poly.

“I’ve been dressing like this since I was 10 years old,” Kolkailah said. This is one way that she makes Islam a way of life and said that if people are going to make personal attacks against her it doesn’t make her want to assimilate or stop practicing her faith.

“It gives me strength,” Kolkailah said. “You tend to become resilient.”

Luckily, Kolkailah said that after five years at Cal Poly, she is accepting of people’s curiosity and only rarely experiences discrimination.

In part, her involvement with MSA is one way to counter the effects of ignorance in and around the community. MSA is one of the few organizations that Muslims and those interested can go to meet other students of the faith and increase awareness about the true Islam around campus.

“MSA has 10 to 15 members and there’s probably a lot more that we just don’t know about,” Kolkailah said.

Architecture senior Saleem Azad is currently involved with the Persian, Indian and Muslim clubs. He believes these activities to be a great opportunity to meet people of different cultures and faiths, but still feels that there could be more avenues for Muslims at Cal Poly.

“I’m really involved with other ethnic clubs, but it’s what I have to do so I don’t go crazy,” Azad said. For him, these clubs are his only means of practicing his culture and faith in San Luis Obispo. After coming from San Jose’s diverse population, Azad gets involved as much as he can.

The minority enrollment at Cal Poly is horrific, Azad said, and believes the university has a responsibility to increase campus diversity.

“I love Cal Poly, but on this one issue, it’s not their strong suit,” he said. Azad said he noticed the low diversity in the graduating class photos in the electrical engineering department.

“Go look at the pictures of the ’50s and ’60s and you’ll see there were a ton of Asians and Indians, but it gets slowly more white and every other university went the other way,” Azad said.

While it may be astonishing that Cal Poly’s diversity seems to be declining, the lack of a Muslim presence on campus has made it difficult for students like Azad to find ways to express their customs.

“For me it’s impossible,” Azad said. “In my religion we aren’t supposed to drink or go to the bars; to be Muslim here we have to be hermits.”

And as far as having other Muslims to practice with, the area around San Luis Obispo doesn’t provide the best environment for the small population.

“What a Muslim is on paper is different than a practicing Muslim,” Azad said, estimating that there were probably only five or six practicing Muslims at Cal Poly.

Yet, even with the difficulty of practicing his faith on campus, Azad said he has not experienced many adversities.

“I’ve never felt threatened, but then again I’m not identifiably Muslim,” he said.

Similarly, freshmen biological medicine engineer Tarik Ahmed did not face discrimination, but also felt as if he blended in well with the student population.

“I look white, but I’m 100 percent Middle Eastern,” Ahmed said. “No one believes me when I tell them and it’s really hard for me to stay focused.”

But Ahmed said he has experienced a positive attitude toward his religion. “While the majority is white, they respect my Muslim religion and they look at my actions, manners and morals and they learn from that,” he said.

Yet, Ahmed said he didn’t realize the Muslim student population was so small when he entered as a freshman.

“I honestly don’t know any other Muslims at this school and I don’t talk to one in my social circle,” Ahmed said. Ahmed had tried visiting a MSA meeting but found an older crowd of mostly juniors and seniors that were already friends.

What made Ahmed’s situation even harder was the fact that he just came back from a 12 day stay in the Middle East over winter break. “I really wish I would have considered going to the Middle East to go to school because I was comfortable in my religion there,” he said.

Life was simple, Ahmed commented; in the Middle East one can walk to a mosque to pray and others would be doing the same.

In San Luis Obispo, there is a mosque located on Santa Rosa Street in which students may go to pray on Fridays. However, during the week, a practicing Muslim would have to find places around campus to pray five times a day.

In the future, MSA and other active Muslim members in the community are looking to move to another mosque and build a school to be more of an Islamic center.

But for now, life at Cal Poly just can’t provide the same opportunities that Ahmed found in the Middle East.

“I’m just some outside guy trying to find some culture, some Islam,” Ahmed said.

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