Prior to November 6th, 2017, non-Christian St. Kate’s students were forced to make a tough decision about observing religious holidays: miss class and face a potential academic penalty, or put their faith tradition on the back burner and go to school. Thanks to the hard work of Sadia Farah, Nursing major, ’19, that decision no longer needs to be made.
Farah has spent the past year and a half working on the St. Catherine University Religious Holiday Accommodation Policy, which states that “students may observe religious holiday without academic penalty.” The policy was unanimously approved for implementation by a faculty committee on Nov 3.
When the religious accommodation policy made it to a faculty committee, it was approved and implemented very quickly. Farah has overseen the project since its infancy in the spring of 2016, when she hand-wrote the first draft of SCU’s Religious Holiday Accommodation Policy on the back of a library handout, after attending school on a holiday. Farah felt a gap in the St. Kate’s administrative legislature first as a sister to a student; Farah wondered why her sister attended class on holidays and expected things to be different when she got to college. They were not: the first time Farah saw pictures of her family celebrating a holiday without her on social media she was left with the feeling that she “shouldn’t do that again.” As a previous board member of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), Farah also had an idea of how of how some other students felt about the lack of enumeration regarding religious accommodation.
One of Farah’s preparations to present her policy was to take statements from students describing how they would feel if it was passed in one word. Some common answers: acknowledged, accepted, relieved. Farah later said, “students of color especially make a lot of sacrifices, and then their needs aren’t met because they think of others and not themselves.” For many students, the prospect of asking a professor for an extra absence or two was too daunting and intimidating to even try.
One student, Raya Israelson, Political Science major, ’18 never asked to miss class for Passover because she was unsure if her professors would be familiar with Jewish holidays and customs at all. Rather than face a professor potentially thinking a part of her faith tradition was a made-up excuse, Israelson has gone to class on holidays for the past several years and been “really mad” about doing so, privately. According to Israelson, “I was like, I’m gonna have to put being Jewish on hold while I go here.” Israelson is “not disappointed at all that [the policy] got passed, but I wish it happened earlier.”
Alan Silva, Provost was also surprised to find that St. Kate’s previously had no religious accommodation policy on the books. Farah began collaborating with Provost Silva last spring when he was Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences. This was the first time Silva became aware that students were concerned with religious accommodation at all. Silva, who supported Farah’s policy, took on the lengthy task of figuring out in which committee the conversation should take place. The policy again received overwhelming support when Silva first brought it to the weekly dean’s meeting, who then took their time deciding which committee could best ensure that the policy would be enacted. The deans were in agreeance that “this would really be a policy that would affect the way professors make policy for students in the classroom.” Silva’s only regret about the process is how long it took.
A new religious accommodation policy seems like a logical step for St. Kate’s, as other ACTC schools have had similar policies for several years, it was met with no resistance from the administration, and its passage left several non-Christian students feeling “relieved” and “welcome”. However, according to students, it is the first important step of several to make St. Kate’s a more inclusive environment. The cafeteria does not serve Kosher (or Halal) options, and many students do not feel like they can change their surroundings. Many students feel uncomfortable asking their professors for accommodation, and Israelson “had no idea” that she or other students were capable of making an administrative change, though according to Dr. Silva, the administration always welcomes student suggestions. Nonetheless, the passage of the St. Catherine University Religious Holiday Accommodation Policy is a step in the right direction, when Farah left the meeting in which her policy was passed, “I kinda twirled, and I took a Snap video. Then I started skipping.”