Muslim Student Association celebrates 30th anniversary at Oxford

Freya Haque and Daniel Christian •

Isam Vaid and Amanda Copeland-Phillips

Oxford's Muslim Student Association brought together current students and alumni to celebrate 30 years of involvement in campus life.

March 18 was a day of celebration at Oxford College: Following an afternoon of spirited reunion at the first ever Spring Festival, the Muslim Student Association (MSA) hosted current students and alumni to celebrate its 30th anniversary, commemorating a long history at Emory that began at Oxford in 1991. All were happy to finally be together for the event, which was originally hoped to take place in 2021 but was moved due to COVID-19 precautions.

The anniversary kicked off with a reception where current and former MSA members exchanged stories and memories, followed by a dinner gala to honor those who have dedicated their time and lent their support to the association over the years. Those recognized were: Amanda Copeland-Phillips and Isam Vaid, the MSA’s two original student members in 1991; Reza Saadein, the association’s longtime faculty advisor and Oxford Associate Professor of Chemistry; and Zainab Salako, an Oxford sophomore and current co-president of the MSA. Salako and fellow co-president Fahd Kapadia announced the Reza Saadein MSA Scholarship, which will help current and incoming students achieve their academic goals.

“It was a joy to see 30 years of MSA members together at Oxford—all celebrating the Muslim Student Association, which has brought so much to our campus and community,” said Doug Hicks, Dean of Oxford College. “Many incredible students have been a part of the MSA over the years, and it’s a testament to their collective passion, devotion, and effort that the association is still thriving 30 years later. The MSA is a true reflection of the caring community that Oxford strives to be every day.”

Saadein gave the gala’s opening remarks, thinking back to his arrival at Oxford in 1987 and how he shared Iranian culture and Islam with a curious community on campus and beyond.

Dr. Reza Saadein has served as faculty advisor to the MSA for 31 years.

Dr. Reza Saadein has served as faculty advisor to the MSA for 31 years.

“I started to understand that there are a lot of misunderstandings and misconceptions about Muslims and Islam in the minds of people around me,” he said. “I was happy that the community was interested in having conversations with me regarding religion on campus.” 

Saadein was already carving out space for the Muslim community when, in 1991, on a fall day, he was out for a casual stroll on the Quad and found a nice bench outside Seney Hall to enjoy his chemistry journal. The rest is history: He looked up to see Copeland-Phillips and Vaid standing in front of him; they wanted to start a club and asked if he’d be the faculty advisor. He quickly and enthusiastically accepted. The MSA only grew from there, as its two original members engaged Muslim students all over campus and encouraged them to join in conversation and community. 

The anniversary was an opportunity for Vaid to reflect on fond memories, such as when—to increase awareness about the new club—the MSA hosted a campus-wide watch party for the game that ended up sending the Braves to the 1992 World Series. The sounds of the night, of the full Oxford community celebrating with the MSA, still ring in his ears. He also recalls working to establish the tradition of Salaat Ul-Jumah (the Friday prayer), which is an "anchoring weekly occurrence in the life of a Muslim community."

"Since leaving Oxford, there has been a desire and responsibility to stay in touch with and give back to the MSA in myriad ways—and a lot of joy in doing so," Vaid said. "At a personal level, the Oxford MSA has remained a foundational experience, an early leadership development experience, a community experience, and an experience of spiritual growth at the college level. It is a memorable reminder of the possibilities when a group of people come together."

Copeland-Phillips is proud that the association has not only survived this long, but has grown, becoming an integral part of the Oxford experience for many Muslim students. As she looked at students past and present celebrating the club she founded, she felt connected to the new faces around her: 

“Emory alumni are in such diverse fields and careers, and this gives current MSA students a gateway to us,” she said. “They may feel more comfortable reaching out to some of us at things like anniversaries or celebrations. It just starts the conversation… You know, it's overwhelming sometimes, just to think that it’s survived, and students are still interested in having an MSA on campus. And they are doing a whole lot of things that are exciting.”

With Salako, the association remains in good hands. Reflecting on her experience as co-president, she said:

MSA co-president Zainab Salako receives her "outstanding student" award at the gala.

MSA co-president Zainab Salako receives her "outstanding student" award at the gala.

“I definitely feel like being part of the MSA at Oxford has changed who I am as a person. I think the growth I've had here with leading such a good group that I connect with and that I love—and that I have long term goals and plans with—has really just made me reevaluate my [priorities]. Thinking long-term, in my career, I’m asking myself: Who are the people that I want to be always connected with? Because I feel so uplifted and supported.”

Oxford Chaplain Lyn Pace, who alongside Assistant Chaplain Alex Miller-Knaack directly works with each of the 10 religious and spiritual clubs on campus, highlighted the significance of the anniversary:

“To celebrate this important milestone recognizes a strength in the Oxford community–its commitment to religious and spiritual diversity and engagement through the years. I’m grateful to previous chaplains, student leaders and alumni, and Dr. Saadein for the constant support they provided to ensure the consistent community and religious practice of our MSA.”

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