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Friday, April 27 News

Muslim, woman, bio-chemist: Fairfield U. grad refuses to be defined by stereotypes

The recently released photograph of the 276 kidnapped Nigerian school girls -- each wearing a hijab, or head scarf, as a symbol of their forced conversion to Islam -- prompted Fairfield University senior Bayan Abunar to declare that no religious group should force their beliefs on another.

The Jordanian-born Abunar, 21, whose family now lives in Fairfield, wears a hijab by choice and has spent the last four years at the Jesuit university not only seeking to achieve academic excellence, but hoping to erase stereotypes by advocating religious tolerance and freedom, and building community.

Abunar will graduate in commencement ceremonies on campus Sunday with a degree in biochemistry and a lengthy resume that includes president of the university's Muslim Student Association, a resident assistant, facilitator for a Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics -- or WISTEM -- initiative, and a winner of a Student Achievement Award presented to only eight members of the class of 2014. Abunar also is in the honors program, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and received the university's Senior Outstanding Biochemistry Award.

The Student Achievement Awards recognize outstanding seniors who have enhanced a specific university program. The senior's commitment to this activity must have resulted in the program or organization attaining a new level of achievement not possible without the senior's leadership and guidance. Abunar was honored for her commitment to WISTEM, the Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics living and learning community on campus, as well as the Muslim Student Association.

Abunar "is an exceptional, special student. She is high-achieving in the classroom, has built significant relationships, and outside the classroom she continues to be high-achieving," Fairfield University Dean of Students Karen Donahue said.

Abunar's leadership, and particularly her work through the Muslim Student Association, has augmented the school's efforts to create a culture of acceptance and encourage students to share their faith traditions with the university community, Donahue said.

When Abunar joined the MSA, which was founded in 2008, it was basically a social group that held no outreach events. Under Abunar's presidency, the group has introduced an annual Islam Awareness Week, and within that a Hijab Day, which invites campus women of all faiths, or none, to wear the scarf all day and then gather to talk about the reactions they got to it and how they felt wearing it.

"Part of my efforts here with the Muslim Student Association on campus has been to share what being a Muslim is and what it means to be Muslim in America. We understand the roots of the religion but how do we implement those roots or those values to our society today, in a different environment or country," Abunar said.

"That's what's so helpful about being at a Jesuit university: The ability to be open about your religion and explore it. Religion is part of this university; it's integrated into it," she said. And while it is Catholic, it embraces students from all religious backgrounds. Abunar mentioned St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of Jesuit order, and fundamental questions he asked: "Who am I? Who am I called to be?"

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That resonates with students, Abunar said. Being in a religious environment and engaging in conversations with people of other faiths about God and the purpose of life "the boundaries of religion go away. For seconds you forget you're from different religions," she said.

Religion "should connect us more than divide us. We're all under one God," said Abunar, the daughter of an Islamic Imam, who has lived in Jordan, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, Bridgeport and Fairfield. "I am most proud of the events that the Muslim Student Association has put together year after year not only to educate the campus about Islam, but most importantly it was the commitment to fostering a deep understanding between people of all different faiths and beliefs," Abunar said.

Abunar is also passionate about science. After graduation Abunar will work for AmeriCorps in a healthy choices service learning initiative in Bridgeport before heading to medical school. She plans to become an obstetrician/gynecologist.

Such a career path is not available to Muslim women in some parts of the world, but Abunar said nobody told her she couldn't do it. While American women have the freedom to choose their careers they are under-represented in the STEM fields. As an example, Abunar said there are only five women in Fairfield University's undergraduate engineering school.

With the WISTEM initiative, Abunar has created mentoring opportunities for undergraduate women who are matriculating in programs related to STEM fields and monthly lunches at which faculty from STEM-related programs meet with students and share their stories.

Abunar is responsible for the connection between the faculty and students. "She has created that community," said Ophelie Rowe-Allen, director of Residence Life.

Some of the WISTEM students who had mentors will become mentors for incoming freshmen next semester because of Abunar's initiatives, passion, influence and desire to educate and inspire women in under-represented fields.

"She has left that legacy," Rowe-Allen said.