Goodbye Williams, with love

As I reflect on my three years at the College, I cannot help chasing the good thoughts with tears of joy and love. I cannot help but think about the 1000 students, led by the Minority Coalition, who signed a petition to administration to open a Muslim chaplain position. Despite senior administration at Williams having no clue of what that would mean or could mean to have a Muslim chaplain, they courageously listened to the student population and provided an open door. President Adam Falk was in his first year then, and this was exactly the type of daring change of diversity and institutional breadth he wished for Williams going forward. The limits of such daring change were pushed even further when the Muslim chaplain position was expanded to a full-time position that included an associate coordinating role with the Center for Community Engagement.

When I was hired, I felt obligated to touch at least 1000 lives. I prayed for this daily, working  tirelessly to either hug or touch 1000 students in gratitude and service. At the same time, I felt a deep commitment to work hard for my president and to help bring about a more diverse and deeper community engagement experience for Williams and the world it touches.

My time and commitments at the College were both anchored and facilitated by the love of my fellow chaplains, Cantor Bob, Father ‘G’ and Reverend Rick. It was remarkable to have a group of colleagues who genuinely loved each other gather every week to think, rethink and challenge one another anew about our service to students. Outside of the Chaplains’ Office, Steve Klass and Sarah Bolton worked hard to create a similar forum to allow all Student Services workers to communicate and collaborate; this really helped to create a team prepared to care for the whole student body. This same energy and synergy was the force behind the creation of the Center for Learning in Action. Paula Consolini, who is a spring of hope and ideas, helped to support the way in which Williams strives to connect the curriculum in the classroom to the community. Finally, engaging with faculty on Claiming Williams and the Community Diversity Committee after their classes and office hours really imprinted on me a genuine admiration for this dedicated community at Williams. These peers and dear friends embraced me personally and professionally as an equal team member, and the more I am squeezed and equitably embraced, the more I ooze service and love.

My legacy at Williams is but a footnote in the voluminous legacy left by the great people of Williams in the world. Honestly, I was just honored to have worked closely with senior administration on providing support for our neighbors in Williamstown who happened to be the most in need. My first days at the College, I lived near Kaatje and Rob White, who were just awesome neighbors and dear friends. Students on Lehman Community Engagement really inspired me with their drive and deep compassion to serve. Muslim Ephs made my time and commitment at Williams the most meaningful because they were not an isolated community at all. Rather they came together as Muslims to collectively spread love and genuine joy in being, working and serving with other fellow Ephs. Thus the group changed its name from Muslim Student Union to Muslim Ephs because that is how we perceive ourselves at Williams – simply Muslim Ephs for life.

My departure for Zaytuna College as Dean of Student Services is bittersweet. Bitter in that I will miss the people, the mission and purpose and the service and community at Williams. Sweet in that I leave Williams for a place that could not be in any way better or more suitable to whom I am today. I leave Williams for a place with a bold idea of creating a Muslim liberal arts college. I leave with 200 years  of Williams wisdom and the institutional DNA blueprint of greatness deep in my soul. I hope to infuse into a lifeless, nameless, endowment-less upstart liberal arts school called Zaytuna College the life and vitality I learned at Williams in its administration, staff, faculty and students. There is a verse in the Qur’an that inspires me in this regard which says: “You will not attain righteousness until you give of what you care and love for; and whatever you give, surely God knows it” (Qur’an 3:91).

In closing, in every office at Williams – Academic Support, the Davis Center, Student Life, Dining and Human Resources – I had faces that met me with a sincere smile and deep appreciation. There is no Williams without the students of Williams both past and present. Every one-on-one conversation, every vigil, hospital visit, prayer, controversy or simple committee work was infused with what colors Williams purple and gold: its caring students. I love my Class of 2015 more than any other class, as it was the class at Williams that I began with, but I leave in love with every class at Williams for the joy and love it showed me during my tenure. God bless all those I care for and love at Williams.

Bilal Ansari is the former Muslim Chaplain and Assistant Director for the Center for Learning in Action. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.