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Learning to Lead

Kaiser Aslam was parked at a table in the Frick Center on a recent Tuesday morning with his laptop and, he was pleased to report, no plans to go anywhere for a while.

It was a rare respite for the senior biology major.

Since December, Aslam has spent most of his weekends on the road, logging enough air miles to make a seasoned business traveler proud. If last week was Dallas, next week must be Atlanta. And the week after next must be New York. Or is it Flint, Michigan?

Aslam’s dizzying travel calendar comes with his role as national coordinator of Young Muslims, a nationwide network of Islamic youth groups. Since he was elected to the post last year, Aslam has been busy hustling to conferences and making visits to local chapters of the group.

“There are always conference calls to schedule and emails to be returned, and the travel takes a toll,” he admitted. “But I’m passionate about Islam and about Young Muslims. We’re reaching out to young people that everyone else has neglected.”

Aslam has been a member of Young Muslims since he was a twelve-year-old growing up in Villa Park, where his family was active in their mosque. His introduction to the group came when he was invited to attend one of the local chapter’s summer retreats for high-school students.

“I thought it was insanely awesome. I mean, I got to hang out with the older kids,” Aslam remembered. “But later I saw that there was a real need in the community to reach people who had lost touch with their faith.”
The Villa Park chapter—in Young Muslim parlance, they’re called “neighbornets”—boasts about 120 members, all males. Young women may join a related group called Young Muslim Sisters. The group’s Saturday night meetings, Aslam said, are a mix of raucous dodgeball games, group discussions and prayer, with an occasional break for community service, like cleaning up parks or shoveling snow for neighbors.

“The idea is to make it such a positive environment that once you come, you will stay,” Aslam said. “It doesn’t help that society has such a negative view of Islam. So many people see Islam as strange or foreign and that’s the only representation they get.”

Aslam’s two-year term as national coordinator has brought big changes to his life. He has postponed plans to attend medical school—he has already been accepted at Western University in California—to devote himself to the job. The six hours or so he spends on Young Muslims business each day, he said, has eaten into his study time. And even with his graduation just weeks away, Aslam can’t help worrying about his coursework.

“I’m a little concerned about my developmental biology class,” he admitted. “It’s been a struggle to keep up with the reading. There are a lot of people asking for my time now.”

Taking on his leadership role in Young Muslims, he said, has turned out to be an education itself. He is learning to navigate the inevitable annoyances of business travel. He is learning how quickly an email in-box can fill up. He is learning, rapidly, to delegate parts of his administrative to-do list.

“I like that saying, ‘Don’t let your education get in the way of learning,’” he said. “My four years here have gone by really fast and it’s great to be graduating. But now it’s, ‘What’s next?’”

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