As students and their families filled more than 30 round tables festooned with centerpieces of miniature mortar boards and covered by tablecloths wishing graduates well, 17-year-old Yumna Junaid took a seat at one and thought of children who weren’t anywhere close to graduating.
Junaid was one of more than 50 middle school, high school and college students invited by the UW-Madison Muslim Student Association and three Madison-area mosques to a community-wide, honorary graduation ceremony for Muslim students on Sunday in Verona — the first of its kind in Dane County.
Junaid, a Sun Prairie High School senior, said Sunday evening’s event, while specifically intended to recognize her 3.8 grade-point average and the academic success of students like her, was also a chance to provide Muslim youth a way to feel more confident in the face of bullying and ignorance about their religion. She said both have become bigger problems under the candidacy of Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has expressed suspicions of Muslims during his campaign.
“Being a Muslim in the United States — it’s not easy,” said Junaid. “So to celebrate that we’ve overcome this stuff — we have gone through the education system, we have overcome a lot of challenges — I think a moment to celebrate that right before the holy month of Ramadan is really important.”
Junaid said her family moved to the United States from Pakistan when she was a few months old and only in recent months has she felt and feared more bullying because of comments Trump has made regarding Muslims, including one that addresses terrorism by calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
She said an event like Sunday’s graduation ceremony can show young students just now entering middle school that the bullying they may fear can be withstood.
“For me, it’s personal,” said Junaid. “My entire family — we’ve lived here for a really long time. To me, I don’t think I’m just Pakistani. I’m a Pakistani-American. For him to be saying this stuff — it’s sort of like he’s taking that away from me. I’ve grown up here. I’ve grown up with this culture. I don’t think of it as just another country I’m staying in. This is my country for me.”
“For our community, it’s really important to show that the kids … have this positive attitude,” said Junaid Azam, 44. “They have goals and they just want to achieve their goals. Their dream is not different than any other kid’s dreams. It’s important to show they are just like any other American, and that they feel included.”
UW System vice president Jim Henderson urged the students to consider higher education as their next step.
“I think the key to a successful career, in so many cases, is a college education,” he said. “It not only prepares you for a single career, it prepares you to be adaptable.”
The students belonging to the UW-Madison Muslim Student Association organized the event to work toward unifying the communities of the area’s mosques, said the association’s vice president Najeeha Khan, 20. The honorary event supplemented traditional graduation ceremonies the students attended at their own schools.
“We just really wanted to do something to have different mosques’ communities come together and to show our youth that we have their backs and are proud of them,” Khan said.
Story and photos by Molly Beck, Wisconsin State Journal, originally published on madison.com.