Akande Vows to be International Students’ ‘Shield’ in Wake of Executive Order
BY JIM MALVEN
Westminster President Benjamin Akande held a town hall meeting in the Coulter Science Center Lecture Hall Tuesday afternoon to answer questions about U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting entry into the United States for nationals of seven Muslim-majority countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, for at least 90 days.
During the meeting, Akande offered support to the students who have been impacted by the order.
“Let me assure you that as president of this institution, we will protect you,” Akande said. “We will be here for you. We will ensure that no harm comes your way, and we will do whatever is necessary to ensure that at the end of the process, your education in this country and your peace and tranquility are not affected or interrupted or impacted in any way. We will be your shield.”
More than 10 percent of Westminster’s population is international, and six students are from countries listed in Trump’s executive order, including Khaled Khalili, ’19, a Syrian refugee of Palestinian descent and Muslim faith. Although Trump’s mandate does not include the words “Muslim” or “Islam,” White House Cyber Security Adviser Rudy Giuliani told FOX News that Trump originally wanted to enact a “Muslim ban.”
“It has been quite the experience, to be honest with you,” Khalili said, describing his perspective on the mandate. “When I woke up on the weekend and heard that this [executive order] had happened, I was first shocked, and I wasn’t sure how to act, but I was most definitely worrying. I worried for my safety; I worried for my future, and I worried for what the next actions would be.”
To address concerns like these, Akande, other administrators and faculty members are encouraging communication between them and concerned students, as well as communication among students. In an email he sent on Monday to announce the town hall meeting, Akande stated that the Center for Faith and Service is “reaching out to all international students studying at Westminster who are potentially impacted by the order to discuss their concerns” and that the Global Initiatives and Churchill Institute for Global Engagement “will continue to conduct ‘Listening Posts’ with international students to discuss issues of importance.”
According to Dr. Kurt Jefferson, assistant dean for Global Initiatives and director of the Churchill Institute for Global Engagement, listening posts are forums where international students can discuss their concerns behind closed doors without the presence of domestic students. The only domestic individuals allowed to attend are Jefferson and Director of International Student Services Roxanne Seidner. The next listening post will be held on Wed., Feb. 8 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Hazel 112.
Akande has also taken steps to protect students legally and physically. He said during the meeting that he has been consulting Westminster’s legal counsel in the District of Columbia, to seek understanding on the order and to relay information to students as it becomes available. He said that he has called the office of Fulton’s congressional district’s representative to “ask for clarification and to ask to speak to [him] on this issue.”
Akande added that he plans to have Westminster’s legal counsel speak to the college’s international students and answer questions they have.
“That’s something that we’re trying to arrange in the next week or two,” he said. “It may be a conference call, or, if she’s able to get down here, it may be face to face.”
Akande also said that he is “looking forward to” meeting with the six students who are from countries named in Trump’s executive order.
“I will share with them new information that we receive from our legal counsel,” he said. “I would also assure them that they are part of a family that wants them to know that we will take care of them and we will be there for them.”
To physically protect students, Akande and Interim Vice President and Dean of Student Life Dan Haslag have been working with the Fulton Police Department and the Callaway County Sheriff’s Office to increase awareness on both sides, the president said on Tuesday.
He also said that he has “alerted” Westminster’s campus security officers to be “more vigilant.”
“We’ve asked them to be more focused on looking ahead for possibilities of issues of violence and things that may impact us as a community,” he said. “We’re being more proactive to be careful to be sure that we’re protecting each other,” adding that last year’s active shooter drill was intended to teach law enforcement officers how to minimize the damage of a firearm-based threat.
However, Akande said that he is more focused on preventing violence, rather than controlling it, and he said that one way to prevent violence based on individuals’ religious, ethnic or political backgrounds is to have more open conversations.
“These kinds of opportunities will be critical for us moving forward, and I will ensure you that we will do more of these, even in smaller groups, to ensure that people have the confidence of being able to speak their mind and to express their concerns,” he said, adding that he is “very open” to suggestions from students on how to prevent violence.
When asked by Professor of Transnational Studies Dr. Jeremy Straughn about how the campus can foster inter-student respect, Akande replied that he would like to see more active acceptance and celebration of diversity by campus organizations. He listed examples of fraternities and sororities having open houses for international students and SGA sponsoring discussions on diversity and Islam.
He also challenged faculty to develop courses and create forums that further explore these concepts.
“I would hope that we can develop seminar courses, have a series of one-credit-hour seminars that will form into a three-credit-hour opportunity that will give our students an opportunity for an elective in those areas,” he said. “And, I will hope that those creative developments in curriculum will come quickly.”
Akande said that diversity is one of the best things about the college and the country, stating that Westminster has been “proudly educating students from other lands” for more than a century and calling diversity one of the United States’s “remarkable facets,” adding that international students “enrich” the college experience for students and “widen our scope.”
In addition to appealing to organizations and faculty, Akande implored students to be proactive regarding the current situation and Trump’s executive order in particular.
“I want to appeal to you to reach out to our international students, to just let them know that you’re thinking about them, about the fear that may exist nowadays,” he said.
Junior Jon Antel reinforced this point during a Q&A session following the president’s address:
“I think this is an excellent opportunity for students who are not in the minority to extend a helping hand to those who are, whether that’s, ‘You need me to walk you home?’ or ‘You want to get dinner?’ or just if you see someone who is not looking too happy, to say, ‘Can I help you?’”
Akande said that his ultimate goal for Westminster in dealing with the executive order is for the campus community to fight against it.
“Let’s not put ourselves in a situation where we’re fighting the politics of this,” he said. “Let us rise up to address how wrong this is, because regardless of what politics is, wrong is wrong; right is right. To deprive our international students the ability to come to this great country and study, to deprive them the ability to go home, to deprive their parents to come visit them or others to come to this country based on their religion and based on their original country is un-American.”
In order to rally around this cause, though, the Westminster community has to be unified. And, in his speech, Akande said that he hopes that the college can become an institution united, a place where individuals collaborate regardless of their different religions or cultures.
“I want to be at an institution where there’s no difference, where we don’t see any difference in terms of our religion and we find a way to find a commonality between us,” said Akande, a Southern Baptist who learned religious tolerance by continually reciting Muslim prayers in school in Nigeria.
Still, despite his goal of uniting against Trump’s executive order, President Akande recognized that there may be opposing viewpoints on the topic and that there are certainly opposing viewpoints on various topics that have come up since Trump’s election. In fact, he welcomed debate between sides, as long as those debates are respectful.
“I hope, and I appeal to every single one of you here that as we move forward and as new developments come up, that let us understand the value that disagreement is not disrespect,” Akande said. “Let us come to an appreciation that we are citizens of humanity. Let us understand that no matter how difficult and challenging the debate may be, that we understand that one thing is not negotiable, and that is hate is not allowed as part of our conversation and that respect is a firmament, that we will never, never relinquish it.”
As polarizing as Trump’s executive order has been, Akande remains confident in the United States.
“One things that’s very wonderful about this country is that at the end of the day, things always work out,” he said. “It may seem that it’s going to take eternity, that’s it going to take forever to change, but I’ve been in this country long enough to see moments come and go, and at the end of the day, American values always rise to the top.”
Khalili, too, while saying that the order has been “a horrible thing,” stated that he has an optimistic attitude.
“I look at [the glass] half-full because I’ve lived through a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve been a refugee my whole life within Syria. Actually, my family’s from Palestine, so I live in Syria as a refugee, and then I left Syria as a refugee, so I’ve become a double-refugee. Yet, I’ve been trying as much as I can to function like everybody else, and at some points, I’ve been successful, and I think those successes keep me pushed, keep me looking forward.
Khalili also credits his optimism to his “support network” of friends, students and faculty members.