MENA Student Association leads efforts to increase MENA visibility on campus


Illustration by Angeli Mittal

NU’s Middle Eastern North African Student Association is leading the effort to increase MENA student visibility on campus, including calls for increased programming.

Pavan Acharya, Reporter

When Weinberg sophomore Sara Ibrahim first arrived at Northwestern as a freshman, she said she struggled to adjust to a community with a smaller Middle Eastern and North African presence than her hometown. 

“I thought it was really odd how there wasn’t a single programming for MENA students done by the University,” Ibrahim said.

As the president of the Middle Eastern North African Student Association, Ibrahim now works with other students to increase MENA programming and student support on campus. 

Ibrahim, a former Daily op-ed contributor, co-sponsored Associated Student Government legislation last month on MENA student visibility.

The legislation calls on NU to create a dedicated MENA space on campus, increase MENA representation in Multicultural Student Affairs programs, establish programming for Arab American Heritage Month in April, recruit more prospective MENA students and create a MENA census box on all NU forms.

Federal forms and NU’s breakdown of student body demographics do not recognize MENA as a distinct racial category. Instead, MENA students are either classified on forms as “white” or have to select other options on census forms, such as “African-American” or “Asian-American,” according to Ibrahim.

“There is currently no data on our community,” Ibrahim said. “We are completely invisible.”

Ibrahim said lack of data on the MENA community is one reason it has been difficult to increase visibility on campus. She said the community does not “exist on paper.” 

ASG’s MENA Senator and Weinberg freshman Mahdi Haseeb, author of the ASG legislation on MENA student visibility, said including a MENA box on NU forms would be “revolutionary” and could set a precedent for other universities. Haseeb, who is also the MENA Student Association external relations chair, added NU could increase its efforts to reach prospective students in the Chicago area from MENA backgrounds.

“There are neighborhoods and suburbs that are known to have a very predominant MENA population, such as Lombard and Hinsdale,” Haseeb said. “If (NU) went into those neighborhoods and suburbs, that would be most ideal, especially considering there are a lot of private schools that are known to cater to MENA students.”

The MENA Student Association also plans to offer a mentorship program, Ibrahim said. She said the program would offer essay revisions and mentorship for any MENA person applying to NU.

In addition to recruitment, Ibrahim said the association is also demanding the school establish a MENA-focused content expert and graduate student assistant within MSA. She said creating these positions could lead to more programming for MENA students. 

In the meantime, the group has been exploring its own ways to increase such programming. The MENA Student Association funds and hosts the dance group Harakat and the prayer group Coptic Bible Study, she said. Neither are official organizations on campus yet.

MSA currently holds programming for Latinx Heritage Month, Native American and Indigenous Heritage Month, Black History Month and Asian, Pacific Islander, and Desi American Heritage Month, but it did not host events for Arab American Heritage Month in April. MSA Assistant Director Matthew Abtahi said programming for Arab American Heritage Month could be possible if MENA-specific positions were created within MSA. 

However, the decision to create such positions is not up to the MSA, added Abtahi, who is also the MENA Student Association’s advisor.

“I look forward to ways my colleagues and others at the University advance what students are asking for so that we can meet the promise of providing them an enriching university experience,” Abtahi said. 

Ibrahim said the MENA Student Association has been in communication with NU administrators about the changes proposed in the ASG legislation. She was “optimistic” after a recent meeting with Vice President for Student Affairs Julie Payne-Kirchmeier, Ibrahim said. 

“We are very hopeful, but we also will not stop putting pressure on the University until these very, very basic demands are met,” Ibrahim said.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @PavanAcharya02

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