Questions and Answers: U.S. Life for Muslim Students
How many international students are in the United States? How many students from my country?
Open Doors, a survey published annually by the nonprofit Institute for International Education, reported that approximately 564,766 international students were enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education in 2005-2006. You can look up the number enrolled from your country in this book, or your EducationUSA adviser should be able to tell you.
How common is the practice of Islam in the United States?
Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Estimates of the number of people practicing particular religions in the United States are not precise (the government does not gather official information on people’s religion because the U.S. Constitution legally prohibits government from interfering or being involved in religious matters, surveys are mainly conducted by religious organizations), but totals are currently estimated at 5 to 7 million individuals.
How will my religion affect how I am treated in the United States?
Religion is considered a private, individual matter in the United States and an individual’s religious beliefs are expected to be respected. Any discrimination or harassment based on religion is prohibited by U.S. law. A person’s religion does not affect their legal rights or social standing, and most Americans have friendships with people of other religions. The U.S. Constitution prevents any U.S. law from being based on religion or from interfering with the free practice of individual religion.
Are students from Muslim countries allowed admission in all disciplines? Is there such a thing as a list of subjects prohibited to them?
Yes, they are allowed admission to academic programs in all disciplines. No, there is no list of restricted fields. Individuals (of any religion, from any country) who are planning to study certain fields that are considered “sensitive” (mainly science and technology areas) are subject to additional security background checks at the time that they apply for a visa, but once they are approved for a visa they can continue on to study the field. A few U.S. research facilities restrict research opportunities to U.S. citizens only, but, again, the restrictions do not specifically target Muslims or individuals from specific countries. Discrimination against students or others because of country of national origin, religion, or ethnic background is prohibited by law in the United States.
Am I likely to be discriminated against or harassed because of the country that I come from or my religion? What do I do if something like this does happen?
No, such behavior is not common and is in fact punishable under U.S. law. If you do encounter such behavior, first of all report it to the proper authorities—the police if a crime has been committed or to the International Student Office if you believe discriminatory acts have taken place on campus. Housing discrimination can be reported to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; employment discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; discrimination in education to the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. Civil rights organizations such as the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC; http://www.adc.org) can also provide you with support and referrals.
What if a terrorist event occurs again in the United States for which individuals of my religion or nationality are held responsible?
Statistically, the risk of ethnically/religiously based hate crimes can indeed be expected to rise temporarily after such events, though such crimes were not widespread in the United States even after September 11. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that hate crimes against Muslim individuals (or individuals thought to be Muslim) went from 28 in 2000 to 481 in 2001, including between 3 and 7 murders (the ADC and other Arab and Muslim groups in the United States, which took reports on more minor incidents not reported to the FBI estimate that over 600 hate crimes took place against Muslims and Arabs in 2001, with most incidents involving name-calling or property damage).
Most crimes of this type took place in the days immediately after September 11, since which rates have declined. (The FBI recorded 128 hate crime incidents against Muslims in 2005.)
The ADC has issued an advisory statement providing suggestions on precautions that individuals can take to protect themselves during the critical 24- to 48-hour period following a terrorist attack or other events that may spark anti-Arab/Muslim sentiment. This “Advisory Statement to At-Risk Communities” can be found on the organization’s Web site at http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=328.
There are also steps that you can take to prepare for the possibility of such an event. The organization Human Rights Watch suggests becoming aware of the agencies within your jurisdiction that combat bias-motivated violence and knowing whom to contact within your jurisdiction in case you are a victim of a hate crime. You can also work with other Muslims in your U.S. community to establish on-going channels of communication and interaction with U.S. community leaders. Such groups may want to consider appointing a community liaison or an advisory council to facilitate interaction between the group and local government and other community leaders.
What are my legal rights, should I encounter legal or immigration problems in the U.S.?
Some basic rights include the right not to answer any questions posed to you by law or immigration officials if you so choose; the right to consult an attorney ; the right not to have your home/belongings searched unless you give consent or a warrant is shown to you specifying details of the proposed search; the right to see any such search warrant; the right to call your country’s consulate if you are arrested (as well as a lawyer); a requirement that any charges be brought within a limited time (usually forty-eight hours) if you are arrested; the right to a hearing to set bond for your release if you are detained; and the right to a hearing before an immigration judge on any deportation charges. The ADC has published a brochure on this subject, titled “Know Your Rights,” which can be found at http://www.adc.org/index.php?id=275. Your university’s International Student Office should also be able to answer questions related to your rights and to provide information on local lawyers knowledgeable about immigration issues.
What is the crime rate in the United States?
FBI statistics show a U.S. crime rate for 2005 of about 3,899 violent and property crimes occurring for every 100,000 individuals in the U.S. population. Violent crimes (murder and non-negligent homicide, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery) accounted for about 469 crimes per 100,000 individuals over the year, with the remainder of crimes being crimes against property (burglary, larceny theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson).
Who can guarantee my safety while I am studying in the United States?
No one can “guarantee” anyone’s safety but the university that you are attending has the responsibility to try to make sure you are safe. The U.S. university’s international student adviser is the individual who has particular responsibility for seeing to the welfare and safety of international students. Campuses also have their own police or security staff, and, of course, every U.S. community has police, fire departments, hospitals, and other community resources that work to ensure the safety of anyone living in or visiting that community.
How can I check how safe a particular campus is?
Reports on crimes on every U.S. college and university campus can be found at the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site at http://ope.ed.gov/security. In using these numbers, however, remember to consider context. A large institution is likely to report more crimes, for instance, simply because of the larger size of its student body.
How common is AIDS in the United States?
AIDS is a problem in the United States just as it is in other countries. The U.S. Center for Disease Control reported approximately 1 to 1.2 million people out of the 300 million in the United States were living with AIDS or HIV in 2005, most of the latter not even aware of their HIV-positive status. An estimated 40,000 cases of new HIV infection occur in the United States each year. College students are a particularly high risk group because they tend to not believe infection could happen to them and often follow unsafe sex practices. The condom is the only contraceptive that has been proven to block the transmission of AIDS. But even condoms sometimes fail; they break about 2 percent of the time.
What types of health costs can I expect (with insurance)? What can I do to minimize them?
Insurance plans typically do not cover routine eye care or dental services. Typically, a standard insurance plan will also not cover “preexisting conditions”. If you have an already diagnosed health condition for which you expect you may need continuing coverage, talk with your university international student adviser about whether and how you should purchase additional coverage.
Even with insurance, you can expect to have some health costs, such as copayments on doctors’ fees and prescriptions (you pay part of the cost—often a small amount such as $10 or $20—the insurance pays the rest). Read your plan and be aware in advance what your insurance covers.
Where you go for care will make a difference in cost—most universities and colleges with students living on campus also have health care facilities on campus, and these can provide an affordable source of quality care, but extent of services available varies and often this type of care is available for students only and not their families. Your FSA should be able to provide you with information on other sources of medical care in the community, including private physicians, group plans, and urgent care centers. Hospital emergency rooms should be resorted to only in a true emergency when you may have to be admitted to the hospital—care there tends to cost far more than an appointment with a doctor or urgent care clinic, and insurance may not cover costs if the insurance company does not authorize such care in advance or judge the health problem to have been a sufficient, urgent threat to merit waiving such authorization.
More details and advice on U.S. health care and insurance can be found in two booklets published by NAFSA: Association of International Educators—To Your Health: Health and Wellness for International Students, Scholars, and Their Families and To Your Health: Medical Insurance for International Students, Scholars, and Their Families. Order information and on-line copies of these booklets can be found at http://www.nafsa.org/publication.sec/international_students.
How much control do universities generally maintain over students who are attending? For example, will female students be chaperoned?
No, U.S. universities expect students to act as the adults they are and to take responsibility for their own behavior. However, universities do generally seek to control how students act on campus, for example regulating or prohibiting alcohol use (which is prohibited by law for all students under 21 years old in the United States in any case) and enforcing rules based on respect for others. In addition, universities will provide support for students who seek it—for instance international student advisers, residential counselors in dormitories, and other staff on campus can mediate where necessary and help students with any situation about which the particular student feels uncomfortable.
What types of support services will be available to me on campus?
Your college or university international student adviser will be your first stop for many types of questions. Part of this adviser’s job is to serve as a liaison between international students and other resources in the campus and community—if your adviser can’t answer a particular question themselves, they can probably refer you to someone who can.
At most U.S. colleges and universities, you will also be assigned an academic adviser. This person will generally have expertise in the field that you are planning to study and will provide guidance on your institution’s requirements as well as responding to other questions you may have about your course of study. If you want to change your academic adviser for any reason (maybe you find the person you are assigned to difficult to talk with, or you have decided to change majors), that is very common—usually you can choose a professor who you like or think would be helpful and ask them if they would be your adviser.
Many universities have counseling centers designed to help students with a variety of more personal problems, from working out family difficulties to diagnosing learning disabilities. You don’t have to have a “serious” problem to visit these centers—they offer a chance to get some professional, confidential support and guidance if you, for instance, are stressed out over exams or homesick. Different institutions offer different levels of support and organize it differently—this should be covered during orientation.
For academic problems, tutoring centers or services on campus can help, providing support from one-on-one help with particular classes to workshops on writing or research skills.
Some other common campus resources include centers or courses providing English language training, housing support offices, offices that arrange support for students with disabilities, student groups including groups of international students; career centers that may provide help writing resumes and finding internships and other professional opportunities…the list goes on. Attend campus orientation programs and talk with your international student adviser so you’ll learn exactly what your particular campus and the community around it have to offer you as well as how to access these resources.
Why is there a special office for international students—won’t my university treat me the same as its other students? I don’t think I need special treatment….
The office is intended as a service for you, an addition to the regular campus resources serving all students rather than a replacement. International students usually have to deal with special issues and concerns that U.S. students do not face. Of course the extent to which you use office services is up to you.
I am a U.S. citizen. Do I still use the international student adviser?
You may want to, especially if you have spent a significant part of your life outside the United States. The international student adviser helps not only with visa concerns but also with practical and cultural adjustment issues.
Will it be all right to wear hijab/my headscarf in the United States?
Yes, and if you are in a city or other area with a significant Muslim population you will see others wearing hijab as well. Most U.S. campuses do not have dress codes. If yours does have a uniform or dress code, you will want to discuss with the international student adviser what to do but generally wearing your head scarf should not be a problem. Of course some U.S. areas have only a small Muslim population so your friends or others may be curious as to why you wear hijab.
What if I want/my wife wants to be fully veiled?
Again, this is a personal matter and should not cause problems. Wearing a full veil is unusual in the United States so you should expect it to attract curiosity.
In the United States, to what extent do men and women have separate facilities?
Most commonly, men and women mix in all public activities, including work and school. Some private colleges do exist that enroll only women and there are a large number of private single-sex private schools at the secondary and elementary levels. Availability of single-sex dormitories or floors on college campuses is common (though not universal) and campuses generally do not assign men to be roommates for women or vice versa.
Bathrooms, toilets, and gymnasium changing rooms at public facilities are usually entirely separate by sex. Bathrooms and toilets in private homes and on some campuses are shared by both genders, but privacy is expected to be provided to individuals using these facilities. Most campuses have special activities and facilities for women, such as “women’s centers” and “women’s groups” where female students can spend time together and get help regarding gender-specific issues. All-female exercise facilities also exist, sometimes on campus and commonly in the community, especially in urban areas. On-campus Muslim groups will often offer separate prayer rooms and wash areas; public mosques generally do.
Will my U.S. friends and professors understand if I follow Islamic practices?
Yes, they will definitely try to understand and are also likely to appreciate you sharing information on your beliefs. Since Islam is not yet a widely practiced religion in the United States, many Americans will not be knowledgeable regarding Islamic practices. If friends or professors do something that makes you uncomfortable, just explain that this conflicts with your religious practices or cultural background and suggest an alternative that would work better for you.
Does U.S. culture treat men and women differently?
In educational settings that receive any U.S. government support (almost all U.S. institutions of higher education with the exception of a few conservative religious institutions), men and women are required by law to be treated equally. Women also expect to be treated equally in professional settings, and women are represented in all types of careers. Men commonly participate in raising children, cooking, and other household responsibilities, with equal involvement being the ideal in most sectors of U.S. culture. Cultural expectations regarding gender differences remain but these are individual rather than being institutionalized—discrimination based on gender will generally be frowned upon where it is not specifically prohibited by law.
Are certain areas of the United States more positive about Islam than others?
No, there are not differences that can be generalized. Some areas, particularly cities and parts of the U.S. Upper Midwest region, have larger Muslim populations and so people living there are likely to have greater familiarity with the cultural and religious practices of particular Muslim groups, but that does not imply that people in other geographic areas will be less tolerant—some may actually be more welcoming because you are something new to them and they are interested in learning more about you. Diversity and respect for religious and cultural difference are strong traditional U.S. values.
How can I find other Muslims on campus? In the U.S. community where I live?
Almost all U.S. colleges and universities have at least one student organization designed to allow international students to meet and interact with one another and some universities have groups specifically for Muslims on campus and/or for international students of particular nationalities. Some universities have their own prayer facilities for Muslim students on campus.
There are also a number of U.S. associations organized by and for Muslims. Some of the larger associations, many of which have local chapters throughout the United States where you can meet other Muslims, including:
Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada (http://msa-national.org)
Islamic Society of North America (http://isna.net)
Islamic Circle of North America (www.icna.org)
Council on Islamic-American Relations (http//www.cair-net.org)
Islamic Network Group (http://www.ing.org)
Islamic Education Foundation (http://www.islamidedfoundation.com)
How can I find a mosque in the United States?
The number of mosques in the United States grew by more than 42 percent between 1990 and 2000 and there are now approximately 2,000 mosques around the country. Your university’s international student adviser should be able to give you information on local mosques and prayer facilities (as noted above many universities will have on-campus facilities of some kind).
What kinds of housing do international students live in?
It varies. Students may choose to live off-campus or on (some universities require undergraduate students to live on campus the first year). Types of on-campus housing also differ widely: there may be a special dormitory for international students and/or individuals with international interests, dormitories that are single-sex or have single-sex areas; special housing for married students; and other options. When you first come to the United States, you may want to look into opportunities to take part in a “homestay”—this is not permanent housing but provides the chance to live with a U.S. family for a short time, which can provide a good introduction to U.S. culture.
If I want to try a homestay, will my religion be a difficulty?
No. Homestay families expect and even want to work with students from different cultures and it is your university’s job to match you with a family that is appropriate for your individual preferences and needs. You should feel free to discuss your needs and practices openly with the family in advance, especially if they are not themselves Muslim, as they may not be aware of what your practices involve (early morning prayers, halal food, etc.) Your international student adviser can help you with such discussions and in making appropriate accommodations.
Can I get housing that is for men or women only off-campus?
Yes, and it is culturally acceptable (and common) to specify that you wish to share housing with your own gender only. Most colleges and universities have a housing office that is designed to help students find appropriate accommodations, or your institution’s international student adviser can help. You can also place an ad on campus or in a local newspaper specifying the type of housemate that you are seeking, or you may be able to find suitable roommates through international student associations or campus/local Islamic organizations.
Can I keep a halal diet in the United States?
Yes. Some universities provide meal plan options for students with special diets, including halal diets—you will need to check with your university to learn what your on-campus options are. One good Web site to help you in locating stores and restaurants selling halal food is http://www.zabihah.com.
What are U.S. teaching methods? What will my professors expect from me?
Different classes may have different structures at your university. While some classes, especially beginning courses in the sciences, may be large and structured primarily around a professor lecturing to students, other classes will take a “seminar” approach, with much smaller enrollment and a focus on discussion among students and the professor on assigned reading or other class-related subjects. Large lecture courses also often include smaller “discussion groups,” often led by a graduate student teaching assistant, which meet in more of a seminar format to talk about the class and address student concerns. Especially in science and language classes, “lab” sessions allow for hands-on practice of skills being taught, speaking and listening or conducting experiments.
Even in large lecture courses, you are expected to attend all classes. In seminars, “class participation” is usually an important factor in calculating grades. This means not only attending classes but actively taking part in them, asking questions and contributing to discussions.
Classes may be less formal than you are used to—students may address a professor by his or her first name; some people may bring food to class or arrive late. Don’t make any assumptions, however—the professor is still in charge and different classes may be conducted differently. Watch and get a feeling for what the situation is in the particular class that you are attending.
U.S. education emphasizes original, critical thinking and analysis. Rather than simply learning the ideas of great thinkers or memorizing formulas and vocabulary, you will often be expected to apply theory to new situations, give your own opinion and interpretations, even develop and test your own theories. It is not considered disrespectful to question or to (politely) disagree with someone else’s ideas, even your professor’s.
When you quote someone else or even paraphrase someone else’s ideas, you always need to acknowledge the source. Otherwise, you may be accused of plagiarism, “stealing someone else’s ideas,” which is a very serious offense that can lead even to expulsion from school. Your university orientation programs should cover plagiarism as well as the specifics of how to cite sources in greater depth.
What if I find I need help with my English?
Many colleges and universities have on-campus English language centers where you can study, or offer individual English as a second language courses. Your university’s International Student Office can also direct you to language classes and resources in the community as well as tutoring services where fellow students may be able to provide you with one-to-one assistance.
What if I have to miss a class for religious obligations?
When you register for classes, you will often be able to schedule them so that they do not conflict with prayer times. If you encounter difficulties, speak with your international student adviser before registering and/or to your professor before classes start and explain the problem—they should be able to accommodate your needs. If you occasionally need to miss a class for religious reasons, let your professor know in advance. Religious obligations are taken seriously in the United States and the professor should understand and try to help. Often professors provide class notes either on a course Web site or upon request from students who have had to miss a class, or you can get notes from other members of your class—while class attendance is considered important in the United States, it is understood that students will occasionally need to miss.