March 14, 2013

Muslim students gain a cultural center in Willard Straight

Muslim banquet
Jason Koski/University Photography
Arwah Yaqub and Alicia Leitgeb chat at the start of the Muslim banquet March 8 in Willard Straight Hall.

A student group's efforts to establish a Muslim Cultural Center (MCC) on campus has resulted in a space in 208 Willard Straight Hall.

The cultural center initiative was spearheaded by the Committee for the Advancement of Muslim Culture (CAMC), a student-led organization seeking to foster cooperation between communities of different faiths and backgrounds.

"Two years ago, when CAMC first put the proposal together, we were not expecting it to come to fruition so soon," said CAMC President Ihsan Kabir '14. "We are very thankful to the administration -- they showed us that they support Muslim students by understanding all of our concerns."

The room, in the Elizabeth C. Staley Center on the second floor of Willard Straight, will be in use part time by Muslim students this semester and formally dedicated to the MCC in the fall. The space is currently used by the Office of Student and Community Support for meetings.

"It's something I've wanted to do for a long time," said Dean of Students Kent Hubbell. "We had to find the staff and the space to make it happen."

Muslim students Ali Hussain '11 and Sara Rahman '12 initially approached Hubbell about the center in the fall of 2010.

"While there was space in Anabel Taylor Hall for religious observance, they believed that there were kids on campus who were really cultural Muslims -- they weren't necessarily participating in Friday prayers, but had a strong interest in broadly celebrating Muslim culture," Hubbell said. "So having a center that supported students like that became important. Ever since, they've been handing this desire down from one group of students to the next."

Kabir and CAMC Treasurer Maryam Mahmood '14 worked with Hubbell's office as final details of the proposed center were worked out over the winter break.

"It's incredible that our legacy and drive passed on to the younger members," Rahman said. "As a Muslim American, I had a difficult transition to Cornell. ... Now, when Muslim students come to Cornell, there will be a place for them to connect with others. ... There will be a physical space for alumni to come back to [visit], and create a stronger Muslim alumni network."

CAMC has about 10 active members, and its mission is to showcase the diversity and richness of Cornell's Muslim population, and serve as a support system for students identifying with a Muslim background, Kabir said.

"Their plan is to make sure everyone feels included," said CAMC adviser Renee Alexander, associate dean of students and director of intercultural programs. "We will be there to nurture and help them grow and help them sustain this space for the entire community."

The center's focus will be cultural Islam, with activities to include outreach to non-Muslim constituencies, fostering mentorship and making connections with Muslim alumni. The Muslim Educational and Cultural Organization (MECA) will continue to organize Friday religious services in Anabel Taylor Hall.

"CAMC is thrilled. This center is an important milestone in the development of Muslim student life here at Cornell," Kabir said. "We're hoping that this center will become a focal point for all Muslim student programming and will be used to engage the rest of the Cornell community."

Hubbell added: "The students are to be congratulated for their patience and persistence. They were always there reminding us of the need. ... They're a wonderful bunch of students, and it's a good fit with the other student organizations in the Staley Center."