Halimat Ipesa-Balogun ’16 seems a natural bridge-builder: She hails from two vastly different places—Nigeria, where she was born, and Indiana, where her family moved when she was 3—and she speaks both Yoruba and English. At Smith, she has found her niche as the social chair of Al Iman, the campus chapter of the Muslim Students Association of the United States and Canada. Her academic interest is in cognitive science, a self-styled major that combines neuroscience, education, psychology, computer programming and philosophy. Her aim is a career in assistive educational technology.Halimat Ipesa-Balogun Here, Ipesa-Balogun talks about Al Iman and its goal to nurture an environment where people who identify as Muslim feel comfortable being Muslim, she says—“whatever that means to them.”

Global membership: “We have students from all over the world and all over the United States. Some grew up in countries where everyone was Muslim; others were the only Muslim person in their schools. This year, a bunch of first-years from South Asian countries are familiar with a certain group of languages; many other students are from Arabic-speaking countries. Not only that, people come with differing understandings of what it means to be Muslim.”

Where she fits in: “I wouldn’t categorize myself as practicing or nonpracticing per se, but the idea of being Muslim, learning more about Islam and leading a Muslim lifestyle means a lot to me. Everyone brings different ideas to religion and spirituality, so our group tries to keep things as open as possible to encourage an environment where people don’t feel like they need to validate their Muslim-ness.”

Helping hand: “As the social chair, I do a lot of event planning and I act as the head of new students in our group. If they need anything, I reach out to them. Sometimes it’s small things; a first-year from Tunisia recently asked me to help her buy a plane ticket. Also, one of our major holidays was during fall break, and many of our international students didn’t go home. So, I helped plan a preholiday hangout for them. We set up a movie in Helen Hills Hills Chapel, plus we baked and had henna cones. It’s customary for people to do henna on that holiday, so it was fun for them.”

Non-Muslims? “Yes! We have members who have been to all our events who are not Muslim—just friends with people who happen to be. And given that we live in a post-9/11 era, people might wonder, ‘What’s a Muslim person really like? I didn’t grow up with one, so I’ll show up at this event and maybe meet someone and we’ll see where that goes.’ It’s nice to know that this is a space where people can interact regardless of whether they identify with being Muslim.”

Comfortable community: “I have younger siblings who say, ‘People associate being Muslim in the American context with terrorism, regardless of whether you’re shopping or at a religious event.’ Some people have a negative association with it. I don’t want Smith to be that place for people. I want it to be comfortable. Whoever you are, you can feel a part of this community and you don’t have to change yourself for anyone.”

This story appears in the Spring ’14 SAQ