Lisle, Illinois ~ People have a natural desire to “fit in,” be it in their families, schools, workplaces or communities. But according to clinician and Psychology Today contributor Karyn Hall, Ph.D., fitting in is the biggest barrier to what he should be striving for: belonging.
According to Hall, to belong is not to conform, but to have the courage to let yourself be seen and known as you really are. An audacious concept, but perhaps easier said than done – especially if you have traveled far from home to attend college, or are attending a university that affiliates with a language, culture and religion that are not your own.
Benedictine University is a Catholic university with a high concentration (26 percent) of Muslim students. In an effort to further promote interfaith dialogue and to help better meet the spiritual, academic and cultural needs of the University’s Muslim population, Benedictine President Michael S. Brophy, Ph.D., appointed Ali Yurtsever, Ph.D., Muslim faith advisor.
“This is a unique opportunity for someone with university experience to work with Muslim students. Every day we have Catholic religious leaders on campus, leading worship and serving as a resource. Now we also have a faith expert on campus serving our Muslim students,” Brophy said.
“I am looking forward to working at Benedictine,” Yurtsever said. “I would like to contribute in a way that brings about respect and understanding between adherents of different faith traditions.
“I have been in communication with Dr. Brophy for some time about the need for a Muslim leader in the Benedictine administration. Eventually, God brought us together in this capacity to work (with) Muslim and non-Muslim students in the university setting.”
Yurtsever will work within the Office of the President to advise faculty and staff as they support Muslim students. He plans to create campus activities that promote interfaith dialogue, such as lectures, workshops and symposia. And to help ensure that the practice of Islam is available to interested individuals, he will organize campus services on Islamic holy days and provide spiritual guidance and counseling to Muslim students.
“There are two types of Muslim students at Benedictine – those who were born and raised in the United States, and those who came to the United States for a university education,” Yurtsever said. “These two types need different kinds of attention.”
U.S.-born Muslim students, Yurtsever says, may struggle in terms of their ethnic and religious identity when they arrive at a Catholic university. For international Muslim students, Yurtsever plans to develop an orientation system that will help them acclimate to their new setting and to American culture.
“By being a mentor and someone to help them in their daily struggles, I believe my contribution would be very valuable for their university experience,” Yurtsever said.
His drive to create harmony and understanding between religious groups began early in his seasoned career as an educator. During his tenure as a math professor at Georgetown University, a Jesuit institution, he led interfaith gatherings on campus. He also served as president of the Rumi Forum, a leading organization in interfaith dialogue in Washington, D.C.
In 2012, when Yurtsever became the president of American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago, he carried his interfaith background and ambitions with him.
“I joined AIC with the intention of reviving the college from scratch,” Yurtsever said. “I started with interfaith dialogue activities and continued to give it the upmost importance.
“There are many interpretations of Islam,” he added. “I am in an understanding called Sufi Islam, which promotes love, mutual understanding, reconciliation and respect for all human beings. So in my tenure at AIC, I promoted this approach to diversity of thought to educate students and the community in various themes of religion.”
He didn’t waste any time. The first lecture he coordinated at AIC was given by his good friend and Catholic priest, Fr. Thomas Michel, S.J., who worked for the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
“In my experience, it is at religiously oriented schools that more attention is given to such values as diversity, acceptance, love and peace,” Yurtsever said. “Non-Muslims and Muslims alike can benefit in terms of gaining insight and tolerance.”
From his very first visit, Yurtsever was impressed by Benedictine’s global campus.
“I was amazed to see the diversity at Benedictine,” he said. “In a globalized world, universities must give their students the notion of world citizenship. It’s also important in terms of networking, which is instrumental in all aspects of life, especially in business.”
Benedictine has long been a leader when it comes to both diversity and experiential learning, providing students with hands-on opportunities to learn more about other cultures and engage in interactions that may be outside of their comfort zone.
Yurtsever’s appointment is another example of Benedictine’s proactive approach to cross-cultural education and interfaith inclusion. Students who have the tools to communicate with, understand and respect people from different backgrounds and ideologies will be better equipped to succeed, professionally and socially.
“As leaders in our communities, we have to be very careful about what we offer our next generation of leaders,” Yurtsever said.
“I am dreaming of a world in peace where everyone is able to see others as brothers and sisters,” he added. “Even if it seems like an impossible dream, I must do whatever I can to contribute to its possibility.”
Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. A 2016 PayScale Inc. report ranked BenU one of the top 10 colleges in Illinois for return on investment and in the top 20 percent nationally. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit ben.edu.