I imagine leaving high school is somewhat similar to being released from prison. After all, school is a lot like a prison: a comfortable, cossetted prison, but a prison nonetheless, even down to the uniforms. I certainly felt like I was incarcerated in Year 12. I’d count down the days until I was done, imagining all the great, exciting things waiting for me beyond the classroom walls. When I finally emerged at the end of Year 12, I was pumped and ready to go. I didn’t know it then, but I was about to go down a fairly predictable path. Of course, at the time it was all unfamiliar and exhilarating. Islamic Awareness Week? What a novel idea! Scooping up burnt onions onto bread to serve up to a queue of hungry diners? Sign me up!
Now that I’m just a little bit older, I realise that leaving high school and coming to uni was perhaps more like going from a maximum security prison to a minimum security one. Uni certainly had a lot less rules and regulations than high school, but it was still largely buffered from the outside world of office cubicles, tax returns and awkward water cooler moments. Like high school, it has its cliques and squabbles, especially when people are involved in activities on campus. While I was never heavily involved in the MSA, I saw enough of it to realise that there were constant tensions simmering under the surface that occasionally bubbled over into outright political battles.
Now that I’ve had my little philosophical ramble, let’s get into the life cycle of the Muslim uni student, transitioning from a caterpillar into a big fat butterfly.
There are two ways the first year of uni tends to go for a Muslim student:
1.) G’day MSA
Some people bolt straight from the school gates to their uni MSA, seeing it as offering a promise of safety amidst the big bad world of uni. It acts as a guiding post and a place to just be. The bake sales, da’wah stalls and weekly lectures are all thrilling and new at first, but pretty soon they’re well into the swing of things and volunteering their little hearts out. Typically these people either know few Muslims at their uni, thus compelling them to seek out people in the MSA to be their friends, or they already know lots of people in the MSA either from their year in high school and are thus at home right away.
These people are earnest, sincere and have plenty of time on their hands to change the world. (Or try to, at the very least.) They often attend MSA events at other universities just to scope them out and see what their friends from high school are doing. They’re generally quite squeamish when it comes to the opposite sex and keep their distance wherever possible.
2.) Party Up, School’s Out
These people will think they’re being totally rebellious and testing all kinds of boundaries, but what they don’t realise is that plenty of Muslims before them have done the exact same things upon entering uni. The mixed guy-girl friendship groups, the many hours mucking around at the library and the parties, it’s all happening.
As with above, these people tend to fall into one of two categories. Many of them may have gone to schools where they were in the minority as Muslims, and now that their little Muslim support group isn’t as available, they suddenly find themselves swayed by other currents. The other category are people who attended Islamic schools and who now feel the urge to test out their new ‘freedoms’ by doing everything their high school made a feeble attempt to restrict them from.
No doubt their Muslim friends will be watching their Facebook profiles with some consternation, but they’re too busy living life to really notice or care.
So our Muslim uni student has survived their first year of uni, red-faced, sleepy-eyed, but still kicking. Second year tends to see the path taken in first year solidify. If the person became active in the MSA in their first year, they’ll now be an integral part of it. They’ll be less squeamish now when it comes to the opposite sex, and often crushes and little interests developed in first year will now take a more serious, marriage-orientated turn.
If the Muslim uni student drifted away from the Islamic scene in first year, it’s unlikely that they’ll steer themselves back this soon. The hang-out sessions will continue, albeit with slightly less enthusiasm now that people are starting to realise that they’ll actually need to make connections outside of the classroom to establish a career.
Third and Fourth year
By now, our caterpillar has started to well and truly form its wings. The shiny-eyed enthusiasm of first year will have given way to a weary cynicism for all but the most fervent MSA kids. At this point, many will start to branch out and become more focused on what’s to come once uni ends, thus leaving them with a lot less free time to set up stalls and participate in working bees. If they’re really dedicated, they’ll most likely have a mentoring role and will delegate the more involved tasks to the new recruits. A decent proportion of these people will also now be either in steady relationships or in the frame of mind to enter one, which also leaves less time to bake cupcakes or review feedback forms.
As for our other category of Muslim uni students, many of them will now start to pull back from their uni friends and their exploits. Their wild oats will have been well and truly sown and many of them will start to think about serious things like career plans and fulfilling their parents’ expectations.
Fifth and Sixth year
If people are still at uni at this point, they keep their presence on the low-down. They tend to only be on campus when they need to be and as such rarely attend MSA events, only socialising when they see people at the musallah. Even if they wanted to get their hands dirty, they wouldn’t know anyone there well because most of their friends would’ve moved on to greener pastures. They’ll generally be nostalgic about their glory days in the MSA, despite the fact that they’re still technically at uni. Only the most die-hard MSA devotees will still take a keen interest in its activities, but even if they do it’ll be in an advisory rather than a participatory capacity.
What stage are you in at the moment? Did you go through these sorts of changes as you went through uni?