This fall, Bilal Ansari, former Muslim chaplain and associate director of the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA), began working at the College again as the assistant director of the Davis Center. This is a slightly different position from his job at the College from 2011 to 2014 when CLiA was in its earliest few years as an organization.
Even before he came to the College, Ansari was heavily involved with his neighboring community, social justice and education, working both as a retention specialist in a federal women’s prison and in higher education for several years. At the College, he focused on minority students who had a hard time finishing their academic careers and helped them with their future and career planning.
Ansari recalled his favorite part of the job back then as interacting with students at the beginning of their time at the College through the Where Am I!? First Days orientation program and seeing them grow throughout their four years at the College.
“As chaplain, students are going to come with their woes. But seeing them become more confident and sure about themselves, I became appreciative to walk along their journeys with them,” Ansari said.
He also believed the two jobs he had back then were greatly related to one another. “I’ve always worked as an organizer within the neighborhood or the state and engaged with the community as chaplain – whether that was in a college, hospital or a church,” he said.
“At Williams, it felt like I was able to bring all of who I am for that role,” he said with a smile.
Ansari recalled the time when he worked with 300 churches in his state to receive universal health care before the National Health Care Act was approved.
Despite fulfilling his given roles to the best of his abilities, Ansari left the College three years ago to support his wife, who had become the vice president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in California. He and his wife had already been working on different coasts before his departure, but he had promised her that he would help her with her career once it fully took off.
“The goal was to help Zaytuna College gain accreditation, which normally takes five to eight years,” Ansari said. “But we got accreditation in two years, which was unbelievable.”
Ansari recalled that the hardest part of accreditation was teaching the faculty and staff how a higher institution worked. “The core of my job was taking what I’ve learned here [at the College] and applying it over there. … So that included setting up core programs and, at the same time, managing, hiring, recruiting, building a mission, taking care of student affairs, residential services and activities,” Ansari said. “I had to write everything from scratch.”
Even though he has only been away for three years, Ansari expressed optimism about the changes the College has gone through during that time. He came to the College in 2011, only a year after President of the College Adam Falk took office in 2010.
“Before I came here, I read all about what President Falk had to say about his vision for the College. And I think [throughout the years] there were really good hires that were brought on to make this place a more inclusive and diverse place,” Ansari said.
He believed that a lot of Falk’s vision regarding diversity had manifested throughout the years and realized the administration had included “more of a rich variety of people that are serving the rich variety of students.” He described the process as a mirror. “At first it was just an aspiration. But now you can actually see and feel that the work is actually being done,” Ansari said.
Now that he is back at the College, he seems more than well-prepared to take on his new role at the Davis Center. “I don’t think my job will be that much different [than my last job at the College],” Ansari said. “Instead of Where Am I!? at the chaplain’s office, the Davis Center holds ROOT during First Days. Instead of the Muslim Students Association, I now work with the Minority Coalition.”
The Minority Coalition is an umbrella group for the 18 different minority student organizations on campus. “My job is to make sure that all the students are thriving, living, learning and seeing, and making sure that they feel like they have support in this space [the Davis Center] that is not too far off,” he said.
Ansari is most looking forward to working closely with students at the College again. “The Davis Center is not about ‘us’ as staff,” he said. “It’s about the students and what they are passionate about. No one has an agenda in this office. We work to support what is coming up within the underrepresented voice, and how can we echo that throughout the community,” he said.
As his final words of advice to students beginning the school year, he borrowed the words of a young African American poet from Los Angeles, Kendrick Lamar, and said, “We gon’ be all right.”