It was a role few would have envisioned for the girl from the Bronx who first arrived at Barnard.
Khadijah Abdul-Nabi—who served as the Arab student group Turath's president and now wears a headscarf and conservative attire—was a self-described nonpracticing Muslim before she arrived at Columbia.
"My whole undergraduate career I was interested in anything pertaining to the Middle East whether it be religion, political activism, history," Abdul-Nabi said. "When I became a sophomore I took leadership of the organization and I tried to revamp it."
Current Muslim Students Association President Suzanne Motwaly praised Abdul-Nabi for doing just that. "She improved the agenda and built the infrastructure," she said. "She was president, secretary, treasurer ... She was everything."
Raised in a mixed racial environment in which she spent little time with Arabs outside of her family, Abdul-Nabi found her experience at Columbia eye-opening. "It [Turath] was the first time to ... mix with other Arab-Americans and Arabs from overseas and learn my culture and history and heritage."
Her activism was also partially a response to tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions on campus, and she was galvanized by the controversy surrounding the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department several years ago.
Although Abdul-Nabi continued to commute from the Bronx and work part-time, she increased Turath membership from just a few people to nearly 50 members.
She has also been a vocal presence off-campus. Ehab Zahriyeh, co-founder of the Arab Alliance at City University of New York's Baruch College, described Abdul-Nabi as "a leader for building a network for Arab student organizations."
In addition to participating in an Al-Jazeera English interview on women and faith, she was featured in a PBS documentary on tensions between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine factions in colleges, and was involved in interfaith initiatives.
Her friends and colleagues suggest that she may not surrender her activism so easily after graduating. "She has great vision," Reim Atabani, BC '08, said of the ideas that
Abdul-Nabi has entertained for future ventures. "These are dream plans, honestly. They range from wanting to make a movie one day to wanting to create a clothesline of modest clothing for Muslim women. I wouldn't be surprised if she realized these goals."
"It's like she has a quiet storm within her," said former teaching assistant Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins. "It's kind of unique to see someone engaging in the world with such confidence and clarity. You could call it courage."