When I started the process of applying to undergraduate schools in the United States, I never thought about whether America would be a welcoming place for a young Muslim student. I read articles that talked about the diverse America, the melting pot America, and the land of dreams America.
I had conversations with friends who were already studying at American institutions; they reassured me that there was nothing for me to worry about.
When I received my acceptance letter from the College of St. Scholastica, a Catholic school in a very small town in northern Minnesota, I did not even look up how many Muslims go to the school.
But maybe I should have looked for these answers. Muslims have a lot of differences from Christians. Like Jews, Muslims are not supposed to eat pork, and we can only eat Halal meat. Halal meat is meat slaughtered or prepared in the manner specified by Islamic law. Muslims do not drink alcohol at all. We also pray five times a day between sunrise and late evening, and must be cleaned and showered before each prayer.
If you are studying in the States right now, look around and see if your campus is warm and welcoming to Muslim students. Is there an Islamic center or a mosque? How about even just a small prayer room? Does your cafeteria know that Muslims do not eat pork? How many special dishes for Muslims do they make for every meal? Let me help you by mentioning some food that contains pork: pepperoni pizza, sausage, hot dogs, ham.
Yes, America is a very diverse country, but not every spot of it. Small towns are not as diverse as the big cities. There is no mosque in Duluth, only a small Islamic center that is sort of far from campus. Nor is there a place for Halal food in the city.
My college, the College of St. Scholastica was very welcoming to me as a Muslim student. Staff and students were delightful and sympathetic. It is “Minnesota nice,” after all. However, Scholastica had only two Muslim faculty and three Muslim students at the time I started. So even though people were very nice to me, it was also very hard to readjust to this new environment.
People have little knowledge of Islam and Muslims, and I did not feel comfortable praying in public or when my roommates were around. As a result, I found it hard keeping up with my prayers.
It was quite shocking to some people here that I am 21 years old but do not consume alcohol. Significant numbers of college students expect you to drink or get drunk, and equate drinking with having fun. I never had problems explaining to people why I do not drink alcohol, or ordering soft drinks while attending parties, but it did create some tensions. It was also irritating to me that some people insisted that I should try eating pepperoni or ham, especially when there was no other meat option.
Did all of that affect or slow my transitioning to the new life in Duluth. Sure, it did. But do I regret coming to a Catholic school? No, not at all.
I now understand what it means to be a minority in the middle of nowhere. This experience has absolutely shaped the person am this moment, and I am indeed grateful for every second of it.
To my Muslim friends out there in the world, do your search and know what you’re getting into before coming to the United States of America.