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Saba Ali

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SABA ALI A faculty member’s ties to Islam, Appalachia, and now Iowa inform research on education, culture, and career.

Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, it didn’t take long for Saba Ali to see how economics and education steered young people into certain jobs. The daughter of two physicians, she received the support and resources to take whatever path she chose. Not everyone had that chance.

“When I graduated from high school, each of us got one of three different diplomas—‘general education,’ ‘college preparatory,’ and ‘vocational technical,’” Ali says. “They were listed by our names in the commencement program.”

Today an assistant professor of psychological and quantitative foundations in the College of Education, Ali specializes in developing career education programs that help small-town kids chart their futures. Coming to Iowa provided her with new yet somewhat familiar ground for her work, but it also drew on her roots in a way she never expected.

In part, it was a matter of timing. Ali, a Muslim, started her UI postdoctoral fellowship on Sept. 10, 2001.

Almost immediately, she found herself serving on panels, speaking before classes, and drafting articles and book chapters aimed at helping counselors understand their Muslim clients. She emphasizes that she’s not an Islamic scholar, just a single, ordinary representative of a vast and diverse faith.

“I begin every presentation by saying, ‘I’m one voice in 1.4 billion, and the next Muslim you hear from will say something completely different,’” Ali says.  “People crave information, and I want to provide it in a way that’s open and not defensive.”

It’s a skill she honed back home in Beckley, a community of about 17,000 with only a handful of Muslim families.

“I’ve had to explain who I am and what Islam is from the very beginning. I can remember doing it as far back as age 5 or 6,” she recalls. 9/11 wasn’t the first time world events turned attention on Ali—the Iran hostage crisis flared while she was in elementary school.

In part, Ali’s career education work focuses on helping students understand who they are and where they come from. She’s designed a curriculum that asks high school students to consider the community, cultural, and family factors that shape their career goals and opportunities.

With support from the Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust, she assessed variations on the program in Columbus Junction, Muscatine, and West Liberty—three Iowa communities with sizable immigrant populations, mostly of Mexican descent.

“For many of these students, family support is a strength,” Ali says. “Their parents came here because they wanted their children to have a better education and a better life.”

Students who took part in the program showed more confidence in their ability to find meaningful employment, as well as higher expectations for their own futures. Ali has applied these findings to a partnership she’s developing with the UI health sciences colleges and the Iowa Center for Health Disparities. The goal: helping prepare students—particularly underrepresented Latinos—for health professions.

Throughout her career education research, Ali aims to develop programs that are effective and practical for local school districts.

“Schools have limited time and limited resources,” she says. “Not every school has a university in its backyard, so we want to offer a program that’s sustainable.”

Another research project merges Ali’s interests in Islam and career. She’s launched a study of Muslim women and workplace discrimination that compares the experiences of women who cover their hair with the traditional hijab and women who do not.

Her preliminary results show that women who don’t wear the hijab actually report discrimination more often than those who do. “One thing we hear is that women who want to wear the hijab choose not to because they experience or expect discrimination,” Ali says.

She’s also collaborating with a colleague from the UI School of Social Work, Motier Haskins, on an article that examines Islamophobia, drawing on issues and rhetoric raised during the 2008 presidential election.

Prejudice based on religious or ethnic difference happens everywhere, of course, including coal-mining communities and college towns. Ali likes to point out similarities—the intertwined roots of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, for instance, or the close family ties common to Muslim and Appalachian cultures. When she encounters ignorance or anger, she responds calmly with compassion and humor.

“People are curious, even when they don’t phrase their questions in the most politically correct way,” Ali says. “But if they genuinely want to know, I feel a responsibility to answer them.”

Story by Lin Larson; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

Nov. 19, 2007