NEW YORK: When Umar Qadri arrived as a freshman at Yale University three years ago this September, he felt the prospects for Muslim religious life on campus were grim.
At most, two dozen students showed up to weekly Friday prayers. Religious celebrations and interfaith events were difficult to arrange without help from the university's administration. Infighting dogged the Muslim Students Association (MSA), which steadily declined in membership, recalls Qadri.
He can point to the exact moment when things began to look up: July 1, 2008, the day the university appointed Omer Bajwa as its first Muslim chaplain. Bajwa is one of a growing number of Muslim chaplains on American campuses serving an estimated 75,000 Muslim college students, according to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
"He gave legitimacy to the Muslim community here," said Qadri, a 21-year-old near Eastern languages and civilization major. "Membership in the MSA has increased, as well as attendance at worship and events. I've noticed my attendance increase since he's been here."
Bajwa sees the increasing numbers of Muslim chaplains on college campuses as the result of a shift in the makeup of the American Muslim community.
A recent study found that more than one-third of American Muslims are between the ages of 18 and 29. And they are more likely to go to college than many other groups. At least 40 percent of American Muslims have a college degree; they comprise the second most educated religious group in the United States after American Jews, according to the 2009 Gallup Center for Muslim Studies report.
Since the 1999 appointment of Imam Yahya Hendi at Georgetown University (http://www.america.gov/st/peopleplace-english/2007/September/20070914141043bcreklaw0.5827448.html ) in Washington as the first Muslim chaplain on an American college campus, more institutions have been looking to fill the void.
"Hiring Muslim chaplains is becoming more of a normal practice," Hendi said. "In wanting to meet the demands of their students, universities are starting to make sure that all communities have access to prayer on campus. If you want your students to be served well, you have to serve them well spiritually too."
Although no official statistics document the exact number of staff at universities, experts suggest at least two dozen institutions employ full-time Muslim chaplains and point to increasingly frequent job listings.
"It's becoming something the students expect," says Marcia Hermansen, director of the Islamic World Studies Program at Loyola University Chicago. "University-age students are at a crucial stage in establishing their identities, and religion can be very healthy. It's good to have these resources available on campus - they're important for identity and socialization."
For many Muslim students, the campus chapter of the Muslim Students Association is often the only outlet for their religious needs. In many cases, the MSA is responsible for arranging worship service, coordinating religious celebrations and planning interfaith events.
Some students, like Zacharea Katerji, a junior pre-medicine student and the incoming president of the MSA at Loyola University Chicago, relish the responsibility. Despite the availability of several off-campus mosques nearby, Katerji, 20, said he and his fellow students don't mind the work that goes into booking space and speakers for religious celebrations or serving as the public face of Islam on campus.
"Having an on-campus option is preferable to many students. It's our mosque, our students, our friends. People seek it out not only for convenience but for community as well," he said.
But with the challenges facing American Muslims, some wonder whether it's fair to ask young students to take on a task for which chaplains spend years training: acting as ambassadors for their faith.
"Muslim students are being called on to deal with all kinds of issues that they may be enthusiastic about but are not qualified to address. Other communities, like Christian and Jewish students, often have other people to bridge the gap for them," said Timur Yuskaev, director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
Yale's Bajwa agrees. "In a post-9/11 world, Muslim students have special needs. You can't expect 18-to-22-year-olds to engage with other faiths, explain themselves or be in charge of religious life on campus as well as seeing to their studies. Universities are recognizing the need to have people on campuses that are committed to doing this, that have an actual skill set."
For now, those skills can be acquired only at Hartford Seminary. The Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford enrolls only 20 students at a time, with specialized training for hospital, prison, military and university chaplaincy.
"We're training these students to be able to deal with diverse Muslim student populations, which is extremely important in the States, where Muslims come from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and religious understandings," Yuskaev said. The ability to juggle interfaith relationships, both on campus and off, is an integral part of the chaplaincy program.
Despite the common acceptance of faith communities on campus, there are some who dismiss out of hand the presence of religion at colleges and universities.
To them Yuskaev responds: "If you negate spirituality and the religious aspect of people's lives, you're not fulfilling your role as an institution of higher learning, as a shaper of students' lives."