Originally published in Girl Talk HQ – April 26, 2018
If there is one particular demographic in America we are inspired by right now, it is students. It has been really exciting seeing the youth of today step into their power, raise their voices for issues they care about, and organize in their communities with the type of maturity well beyond their years. Today’s teens are certainly putting some of us adults on notice, and we’re not even mad about it!
We love to especially highlight young women who are exhibiting leadership traits among their peers, those who show us the future is in good hands. One of these Sheroes is Aaeshah Siddiqui from Richmond Hills, Michigan. She is an online student in the Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, and is also the founder of the Academy’s Muslim Student Association.
Committed to combatting the pervasive negative stereotypes and misconceptions found in media about Islam, Aaeshah wants people to be informed about what Islam is – and isn’t. Her passion during a class presentation about her faith was infectious, and her peers’ positive response to her message of peace inspired her to start the MSA, the first group of its kind at the online school. At a time when we are seeing discrimination toward the Muslim population on a political level, it is vital to see communities being strengthened with kindness and understanding, exactly how Aaeshah is doing this.
Under Aaeshah’s leadership, the MSA brings together an interfaith group of students to learn, share experiences, and give back to their communities. They host clothing drives and volunteer at area shelters, and come together for face-to-face and online meetings – a packed agenda for students who attend school entirely online! Aaeshah is determined to build a culture of acceptance and support amongst her peers, and is proving that communities can grow stronger through education, kindness and service. We had the opportunity to chat with this amazing young woman about her goals for the MSA, and the messages she hopes they will impart to those they come in contact with.
Tell us how you founded the online Muslim Student Association at Michigan Virtual Charter Academy?
I started at MVCA in ninth grade. It was a tough year, for the switch from a brick-and-mortar school to online was different and difficult. I was not expecting to accomplish much, was planning on taking regular classes and going on to attend a local college in my area. However, meeting my English teacher and learning about other students and what they do changed all that.
There was a session in particular, that one of my fellow classmates lead, where she discussed all the leadership opportunities that she participates in, how she makes a change, that really made me think and get excited. My English teacher, Mr. Hoofman, in that session, said, “You’d be good at doing something like this.” I specifically remember saying, “What would I say? This girl has done everything and I haven’t done anything.” However, I was extremely inspired by her, and when Mr. Hoofman brought up the idea to start a Young Democrats club, the ideas went flying.
I was interested in his idea, but I shared another idea that I had, which was to create an Muslim Student Association (MSA), like other public schools. He immediately agreed to sponsor it and that is when it started, April of 2017. Since the school year was basically about to end, we just had a small group and discussed different topics in Islam and prepared for the 2017-2018 MSA, but it was a great start to a wonderful club.
One of your missions is to combat the pervasive negative stereotypes and misconceptions found in media about Islam. How do you do this?
My idea for MSA was prompted by the increase in stereotyping of Muslims. I was tired of hearing my fellow Muslims say, “The other day, a person asked me if I had a bomb underneath my scarf.” It really disturbed me and I vowed to change it, immediately. I deemed that the best way to do so would be to share my knowledge, allow more people to be aware of what is true, and allow them to learn from a Muslim, not the media. Therefore, a big part of the MSA is learning.
I encourage people to ask me questions, so that I can find them authentic answers, through my own knowledge and extensive research. As a result, more people learn, and more stereotypes are broken. I also try my best to keep the MSA as a judge-free zone, because some people are afraid to ask questions for fear of being judged or scared that their questions are offending others. Learning is the best way to steer away misconceptions, and I strive to keep it as a big part of my MSA.
What are some of the most common questions you get from people, and the most common misconceptions about Islam you discuss with non-Muslims?
The most common question that I’ve received from people is, “What is the hijaab, what is that all about?” In the near future, I plan on devoting a whole session to the hijaab and everything surrounding it. Since there are so many women who wear hijaab nowadays, it is a very controversial topic and many people are curious as to what it is all about. In terms of misconceptions, there are misconceptions on basically every aspect of Islam, from clothes to food to religious obligations. I like to address them by using my knowledge and doing further research, and then I share my findings with the group, as we discuss it. Our discussions are very interesting because we have multiple different and diverse perspectives in the room, so everyone learns something new.
Your group is also includes people of different faiths, can you tell us about some of the topics you all have in common and how you work together?
Our group mainly discusses Islam, but we are all teenagers who live in America, so we share the same thoughts on most concepts. We are also all online school students, so we relate in many ways. In terms of working together, I try to keep my MSA as open as possible. Everyone can suggest new ideas at any time and I make sure that they have a strong say in what we are doing. For example, we had a discussion on the volunteer opportunities that we wanted to do for this year, and although I’m not too fond of animals, the group voted to go to an animal shelter and since it was majority vote, I went with it!
However, since the MSA had a slow start at the end of the 2016-2017 year, I’ve been testing out new ideas as I go, building on what I already have. It’s hard to get people to continually stay involved, as it is an online school, so I do my best. However, I do plan on building a team behind me for 2018-2019 school year and beyond, and that way, all the participants can have an even bigger voice in their club, be an active part of it, and help me out.
As an online student, how does running a club like the Muslim Student Association allow you to connect with your peers?
When I joined MVCA in ninth grade, I was very scared that my life was going to take a turn for the worst, because I was used to doing sports, hanging out with my friends all the time, and being in a social environment. That fear turned out to be a reasonable one, because for the first half of ninth grade, it was hard. MVCA had clubs, but no students would really connect with each other outside of school and that was very tough on me, because I needed social interaction. That is why the MSA is my life. It has allowed me to not only make friends in an online school, which is hard enough already, but make strong friends.
We all became close fast and have online group chats going always, the chats on there can keep you busy for hours on end. The MSA has also met up in person to just hang out and to volunteer, which is my favorite thing ever! Volunteering aside, I believe that the MSA’s open and comfortable nature allowed everyone to become friends and connect with each other, even outside of school. We’re a strong group and I am very thankful for my friends and the MSA.
How have your teachers supported you in sharing your passions and taking on this leadership opportunity?
My wonderful teachers. Oh, I could talk about them all day. To start with, Mr. Hoofman, or Hoof as I like to call him. Since the first day of ninth grade, he has been my biggest pillar of support, always encouraging me to go further, and helping me out in every way possible. Hoof is the main sponsor of my MSA and he encouraged me to form it!
He is constantly helping me out when I’m not sure where to go next and listening to my crazy ideas about all the goals I want to accomplish. He has also driven down from Grand Rapids to Detroit countless times, for MSA meetups and activities. I really, truly appreciate him for all he does. In terms of all my other teachers, they are always there for me, if I need an extension on an assignment because of the activities going on, and they are also very encouraging.
This past February, I presented at MVCA’s Professional Development meeting, and they were all so supportive and helpful about what I presented. They understood my perspective about student leadership in an online school and wanted to assist in increasing it. I love them all, and I thank them for making me the way I am today. I am definitely more confident in my abilities because of them and ready to take on anything that comes my way. They are the true leaders
Your group is involved in a lot of community volunteer efforts. Can you tell us about these?
Every time I ask for ideas and thoughts on a project that the MSA should get involved in, I say one thing for sure: “It needs to help the world, whatever it may be.” Half of the MSA is helping out, because the MSA is meant to make a change, to help people and make a change. Volunteering is one of the best ways to do that, so I try to make sure we get in a few volunteering hours, as best as I can.
This year, we volunteered at a food drive for the homeless people at a mosque, and it was an experience to remember. I believe that volunteering helps people in two ways: it definitely helps the people who you are volunteering for and it impacts you, the volunteer. It makes you grateful for what you have, it makes you feel happy because you helped someone, and it leads to overall contentment. When we think of online students and being active, those two do not seem to correlate.
By volunteering as a group and being active in our school, making a change as online students, we are breaking more stereotypes and showing the world that yeah, online students do not just stay at home and do school; we bring change, we bring the unexpected. I am a strong believer in the power of volunteering and I have made it a big part of my MSA, and will continue on to make it even bigger.
We love that you and the MSA are focused on building a culture of peace through education. Can you share why this is important to you right now in America?
Education. Something that is undervalued in this modern day, when we need it most. Education has lead the people of this world to continue living, for without the knowledge that we have today, the Earth would be shattered, and people would be shattered. We would not be where we are today, if everyone was uneducated. Education, I believe, is the best way for people to let go of misconceptions and learn the real truth.
The MSA’s main purpose is to clear common stereotypical misconceptions that people have about Islam and help the world understand Muslims better, coming straight from our mission statement. Education is the best way to do this. Nowadays, people learn all their information from the media, which is a major source of incorrect information. Whatever people see and hear, that is what they believe to be true, and that is why there needs to be more action towards spreading knowledge of the true Islam. People need to spread awareness and be aware of the reality of Islam, but because of the events that take place in America and the thoughts that people carry around, it is hard for Muslims to speak out.
It is hard for them to be heard, for people to actually listen to them and value what they have to say. However, the more people are aware, the more they will support us, and that will change everything. The more people learn about Islam, from authentic and credible sources, the more misconceptions will be broken, and the more people will understand Muslims better and be aware of the truth. Education and awareness will make a change, as they always have.
What would you like other prospective students to know about MSA if they are interested in joining?
We would love to have you join us! The MSA is open to all people, regardless of faith, and I’d like to emphasize that. Everyone’s free to ask questions, it’s a platform where everyone can feel comfortable and enjoy themselves. I encourage you to join, for it is a way for you to make friends in MVCA, learn more about Islam, and help the world! Our face-to-face meetups are fun too!
To learn more about Michigan Virtual Charter Academy, visit https://mvca.k12.com/.