At the University of Pennsylvania, dual-program student Nayab Khan is creating a new level of understanding between people of different faiths.
A biology major in the School of Arts & Sciences, Khan is simultaneously pursuing a graduate degree in nonprofit leadership from the School of Social Policy & Practice.
She grew up in the borough of Queens in New York City, a culturally diverse, interfaith community. Her parents, immigrants from Pakistan, wanted the best available education for Khan and her three siblings. So, though her family was Muslim, she attended Catholic schools from pre-K through eighth grade. At home and on the weekends, Khan practiced Islam and went to Sunday school for Muslims at the local Mosque.
Her interfaith upbringing led Khan to question why the teachings between Islam and Catholicism differ and to embrace her religious studies. She says it also left her with an open-minded outlook on religion.
“Whether it’s Islam, Judaism or Christianity, there are connections and the values of all religions align,” Khan says. “At the end of the day, we all believe in the same God.”
At Penn, she serves as a leader in the religious community as one of the co-chairs of PRISM, Penn’s Spiritual and Religious Life umbrella organization, which she joined in 2016. She furthers its mission to foster dialogue, collaboration and fellowship among diverse campus faith-based groups.
“PRISM is focused on opening up the eyes of students, in terms of how they perceive religion and spirituality,” Khan says. “Through PRISM, I get to know people of different faiths that I might not have met otherwise.”
As its co-chair, she helps to organize PRISM’s interfaith events, which showcase love across different religious communities. Khan says she has seen participants reach a deeper appreciation of their own spirituality.
“People often have rigid ideas founded in institutionalized religion and they leave in awe because they now have seen how beautiful religion can be,” says Khan. “Your faith should be how you define it. It’s your own personal connection with God. No one else can tell you how you should believe in your own faith. What it all boils down to is ‘love,’ caring for your fellow humans and treating one another with respect.”
Khan also serves as the vice-president of the Muslim Students Association, which connects the Muslim community and provides students with information about finding a Muslim roommate, housing, where to pray on campus and a guide rating the Halal authenticity of nearby eateries.
As a practicing Muslim, Khan wears a hijab, a traditional headscarf worn by women who follow Islam, and she prays five times a day. At the same time, she is dismantling misconceptions about what it means to be a Muslim woman. She says that when some people see her in a hijab, they assume that she must be oppressed.
“They think that I don’t have fun. They think that I’m forced to wear the headscarf, which I’m not, and they think that I’m not allowed to do certain things,” Khan says. “But, I’m out there doing things that people don’t expect: I’m an outspoken activist and a Muslim. I’m always the first one to speak up.”
She spoke up when the initial travel ban was enacted by the current administration. In February at an interfaith gathering in front of the LOVE sculpture on campus, Khan noted how proud she was of the healthy amount of religious diversity at Penn and outlined how PRISM fosters dialogue to create understanding despite differences.
Since coming to Penn, Khan says she has noticed an ideological movement that’s rooted in independent thought and may pave the way for global peaceful co-existence.
In addition to her faith-based work on campus, Khan has worked as a research assistant in the Perelman School of Medicine’s Lu Lab since the fall of 2016.
After graduation, she plans to attend dental school.
Her dream is to open up her own dental non-profit organization and work toward establishing policy that enables more access to affordable dental care.