The path Kaiser Aslam was supposed to follow seemed clear enough.
A self-described “childhood science nerd,” he was majoring in biology at Elmhurst College and preparing to move on to medical school after his 2012 graduation. Then, as Aslam told a group of current students from the College’s Spiritual Life Council who had come to hear him speak on campus in May, his story took an unexpected turn.
Halfway through his senior year at Elmhurst, Aslam was elected national coordinator of Young Muslims, a nationwide network of Islamic youth groups. The job would turn out to be a life-changer. Aslam found himself spending chunks of every school day on Young Muslims business, responding to mountains of email, juggling conference calls and managing a growing to-do list—all while trying to keep up with his coursework in Developmental Biology and other classes. Most weekends he spent on the road, visiting Young Muslim groups from New York to Dallas and from Atlanta to Flint, Michigan. He was soon logging enough air miles to make a seasoned business traveler proud. Amid all the new demands on his time and energy, Aslam found a renewed sense of purpose. And he began rethinking his career plans.
So with letters of acceptance from medical schools appearing in the mail, Aslam told his parents that he would not be studying medicine after all. Instead, he now planned to do graduate work in Islamic studies.
“Their response was something like, ‘What?’” a grinning Aslam told the Elmhurst students gathered in the Blume Board Room of the Frick Center. “You have to understand that changing from medicine to my field is the kind of thing that causes parents to have heart attacks.”
Parental shock notwithstanding, Aslam is today working toward a pair of master’s degrees, one in Islamic studies and one in chaplaincy, at Hartford Theological Seminary. He plans to become a chaplain at a college or university. And while his term as national coordinator of Young Muslims is now over, he continues to serve on the organization’s board of directors.
In blazing this new path for himself, Aslam says, he hopes to create new avenues for others, as well. He sees college and university campuses as places of promise, where Muslim students can develop their spiritual identity and become leaders.
“The change that happens at colleges and universities is the change you see in general society 10 years later,” he says. “Muslims can find a place for themselves in society. That makes these exciting times for Muslims in America.”
Aslam has already lived through historic change in his young life. He was in sixth grade in west suburban Villa Park when terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001. It was not long before his quiet neighborhood experienced repercussions—small, but achingly personal. One of Aslam’s grade-school friends told him that he would no longer be welcome at the boy’s house. The boy’s father had heard Aslam’s “foreign-sounding” name and decided that Aslam would not be a fit friend for his son.
Already wrestling with his own questions about the place of religion in his life, Aslam admits he suffered moments of doubt. “I asked myself, ‘What has this identity ever done for me except make people label me unfairly?’”
It was around this time that Aslam attended a Young Muslims gathering for the first time. The appeal was immediate, if not exactly spiritual.
“I thought it was awesome, because I got to hang out with the older kids,” he laughed. He began spending Saturday nights with his local chapter—in Young Muslim vocabulary, they’re called “neighbornets”—for get-togethers that mixed dodgeball, religious discussions, prayer and community service, like cleaning up local parks or shoveling snow for neighbors. Amid the fun, Aslam discerned a deeper purpose. “Eventually I saw that there was a real need in the community to reach people who had lost touch with their faith.”
Aslam remained active in the group, and when he was elected to the national coordinator post in 2012, he became responsible for some three dozen Young Muslim local groups nationwide. The job was demanding, especially given Aslam’s already full academic plate. But he credits Elmhurst with making it possible for him to take on a leadership role.
“You are given room to get involved at Elmhurst. The need to feed the spiritual and personal side of students is recognized and encouraged,” he said. “And that can be transformational for students.”
Elmhurst’s chaplain, the Rev. H. Scott Matheney, says that Aslam himself is an example of such a transformation.
“His work with Young Muslims was a huge thing. So how did this little college produce this kind of leader?” he asked. “It’s what we do. We empower people to do big things.”
For Aslam, as he prepares to begin his own work as a college chaplain, that remains an important message.
“College shouldn’t just be about credentials and competition,” he said. “It should be a transformative experience.”