When University of Washington biology Professor Bryan White met with one of his Muslim students in Bothell after final exams last year, he asked her about something that puzzled him. Her grades steadily improved throughout the quarter, but dropped sharply on her final exam.
The student told him she’d been having trouble focusing because it was Ramadan, the holy month in Islam where Muslims fast during the day. White was bothered by the notion that there was something he could have done.
This year, when another Muslim student mentioned to him that Ramadan was coming up, White remembered his conversation and decided to do something more.
White held two sessions of final exams on Wednesday for his Introduction to Physiology class: one at the normal time in the morning, and one at 10 p.m., after the sun went down and students got a chance to eat. Two other UW professors have decided to do the same.
“To me, this was a very simple thing,” White said. “It’s not uncommon for me to be at work until midnight anyway.”
But the gesture has meant a lot to his students; junior Zoha Awan said when she first saw the email, she was shocked. All of her Muslim classmates in Bothell and Seattle are talking about it, she said.
“This might not seem like a lot to Dr. White, but it really means a lot to us,” Awan said. “To see even something this small … it does make a big difference.”
During Ramadan, many Muslims have to stay up at odd hours, eating very late and very early. Many don’t drink water or coffee when the sun is up, and for Awan, who drinks at least two cups of coffee a day normally, that makes studying and testing harder.
Another of White’s Muslim students, Indira Ongarbaeva, is also a huge coffee drinker, and said she felt “emotionally prepared” knowing she’d be able to eat right before the test. On Wednesday night, she broke fast at 9:04 p.m. with dates and jumped in the car to drive to her final. It was the first time she’d skipped prayer during the holy month.
Two other professors at the UW heard about White’s gesture and decided to do the same. One of them, Rania Hussein, is also Muslim.
White says that besides the food and the timing, students who feel they belong do better on tests.
“I’ll have my students chant, ‘I am meant to be in this Intro to Physiology,’” White said. “I know that’s corny, but … I want them to think, ‘this class really cares about each other.’”