We want every student to feel that they are part of our community, accepted for whoever they are, whatever their background, so that they stay and thrive in their university journey. But in an institution like ours, which has a diverse student population numbering around 30,000, creating a sense of belonging for all has its challenges. Belonging, community, inclusion – these mean different things to different people, so creating that special something that says, ‘I belong here’, requires a creative and can-do kind of approach.
It’s a lot easier when students themselves come up with the ideas, as was the case for our ‘prayer space project’, an initiative to extend our existing on campus multi-faith provision into our two Library and Resources Centres. The drive for this initiative came from a group of Muslim students who described the challenges of balancing the demands of study with their faith commitments when working in the library spaces. Practicing Muslims are required to observe mandatory prayers five times daily which for many students means repeatedly packing up bags, books, and laptops to leave the library and take the short walk to the multi-faith centre to pray. Although it isn’t far, the time it takes to do the walk, perform Wudu (the pre-prayer purification ritual) and observe prayer, adds up, especially if performed multiple times in a day. Rather than lose precious study time, some students choose instead to pray near their desk, or in the library corridor or even in fire escape areas, a situation that is far from ideal for either Muslim or non-Muslim users of the spaces as well as posing potential risks to health and safety.
A collaborative partnership was formed to develop a proposal to trial two prayer spaces, one in each of the Centres. The collaborative partnership included the President of the Islamic Society, the Library and Resource Centres’ user-experience consultant and members of the Widening Access and Student Success team. Key stakeholders were consulted including representatives from the Students’ Union, the Chaplaincy and the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion team. When the proposal was finalised, it was taken for approval to the University’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Board and a two-month trial period was agreed, extending across the spring exam period. Although initially informed by Muslim student experiences and driven by representatives of that student community, it was also agreed at this point that the trial would be for a multi-faith space, so that any student wishing to find a quiet place to pray without moving far from their study area could do so.
The trial finished at the end of May, and the feedback gathered to date has been overwhelmingly positive. Survey responses from 157 students described the benefits of having somewhere to pray near to their studies:
During the month of Ramadan, I didn’t have to rush back home for the prayers because I could easily perform prayers in the library without any inconvenience
Saves you from praying in a random place in the library where some people could feel ‘intimidated’ / you could feel nervous to do so
Many students also expressed gratitude that the University had even considered their faith-related needs.
Of course, the initiative has not been without its challenges. Finding available rooms was only possible because of the slow return to campus after the pandemic peak had passed. The spaces provided were segregated into male and female spaces so that Muslim students, the original proposers of the initiative, could use them in accordance with their faith requirements. This meant finding two separate spaces in each library and thinking about the potential for exclusion as well as inclusion. The initiative also had implications for the housekeeping team not only for managing the rooms themselves but also for the use of the nearby washrooms for Wudu. Other teams who were central to the initiative’s success were the frontline staff and security team, both of whom had to understand the rationale behind the initiative to be able to support students using the spaces. Deciding what to call the rooms, ensuring accessibility and providing storage for prayer mats were just some of the many practicalities that were discussed by the group before and during the trial period.
Going back to that all important ‘sense of belonging’ and trying to understand what our students need in order to feel they belong, we have to recognise that faith is an integral part of some people’s lives which does not change when they become students. Showing that we are willing to support initiatives where students’ religious beliefs and student identities can be integrated in a way that supports both study success and personal wellbeing, is just one way of contributing to that ‘I belong’ feeling.
Dr Julie Vuolo, Deputy Head of Widening Access and Student Success, University of Hertfordshire
Prayer Space Collaborative Partnership – Pete Hanna (User Experience Consultant), Rameez Nazir (President of the Islamic Society), Matt Maddock (Student Success Officer), Maryam Zaman (former Widening Access Officer), Syeda Zara Haram (Elected Officer, Hertfordshire Students’ Union)
Photo: Tim Mossholder