Hanaa Unus has joined Shenandoah University as chaplain and Muslim community coordinator.
Unus started July 29 in the Office of Spiritual Life on the university's main campus in Winchester. She is the first clergy person in the school's nearly 150-year history who does not identify as Christian.
"Shenandoah is open to people of all faiths, or no faith, exploring their belief system and being leaders in this world for the greater good," said Dean of Spiritual Life Justin Allen, D.Min. "Hanaa provides the opportunity to be what we always say we value, and that's a place that cherishes religious diversity."
Unus will work with both Muslim and non-Muslim students to address their spiritual care and needs, creating a safe and understanding space where they can practice their faith and discuss their concerns. She will work with Rev. Dr. Allen and the Office of Spiritual Life on education through interfaith programs.
In January, the Center for Islam in the Contemporary World (CICW) opened on Shenandoah's Loudoun campus at Scholar Plaza. Unus will collaborate with the center in support of its goals to promote teaching, acceptance, research and recruitment of Islamic studies, principles and students.
Part of Unus' job is to enable Muslim high school students to see Shenandoah University as a potential "home." She will also educate students of other religions about Islam and the Muslim culture. Her goal is to create a peaceful environment both on campus and locally.
"College is a delicate and defining period in a person's life," Unus said. "Hopefully, if students can learn about different faiths and different cultures, they can go out into the diverse world and be the change-makers Shenandoah hopes they will be."
The Office of Spiritual Life has had community partnerships with various religious and faith-based groups and leadership for years, but Allen felt it was necessary to bring someone on staff who could not only inspire students, but also enlighten them.
"We've always wanted to be more inclusive and more diverse," Allen said. "It was about finding the right person. We hired Hanaa to increase student readiness in the world outside of higher education. We want to prepare business and health leaders to work in a diverse world. We're not far from an environment in Northern Virginia that is religiously and racially diverse. This is an opportunity to teach students to be great leaders in a diverse world."
Unus served for five years as the education coordinator at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, where she developed and maintained programming that emphasized ways youth could practice and live simultaneously as both Muslims and Americans.
"Often, youth and young adults feel like they have to choose to be one or the other," she said. "We hope to offer a space where they can confidently be both."
She also worked with the International Interfaith Peace Corps in Herndon, where she organized international conferences focused on empowering imams and religious leaders to counter violent extremism through promoting interreligious dialogue. She also had stints at the Islamic Society of North America and the Muslim Youth of North America, both in Indiana.
There are now six employees in Spiritual Life, including two clergy and three laypeople who all identify as Christian.