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UPDATE: Misinterpretation of employment policy led to RA applicant rejection based on faith

Editor’s Note: The Vision removed the original article from its website Tuesday due to factual errors in the story. Belmont does hire non-Christian students in a variety of student worker positions. Student workers–including RAs– are not required to respond to the university’s mission, values and vision statement. The Vision apologizes for the error and recognizes its obligation to correct the mistake in order to present full and accurate stories to its readers. Below is an updated version of the original article published on Thursday. Please see the companion story about what Belmont is doing to ensure fairness in student hiring practices.

This was it. After a long process of filling in blanks and soul-searching, Kawal Jooma turned in the application for resident assistant.

She waited until a few days before the Jan. 19 deadline. She wanted to make sure she could give her all to what she considered her calling–helping freshmen with the college transition just as her RA had helped her, she said.

Jooma is a freshman, a member of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority and a recently-declared social work major. She hoped she could add RA to that list.

A few days later, she heard the results.


She talked to her Residence Director Melanie Vincent to find out why she had been denied. It didn’t take long for the reason to become clear.

Jooma was told she was rejected because she happens to be a Muslim.

“It hit me so hard in the heart,” she said. “I have never felt so humiliated and disrespected in my life.”

However, Provost Dr.Thomas Burns said the university did not follow its policy by rejecting her application based on her faith. The Office of Residence Life found “as many as six applications” which could have been unfairly rejected for any reason, faith-based or otherwise, said Burns.

“We made a mistake. We are sorry and we’ve apologized to the students impacted,” he said.

Belmont is a Christian institution and as such, faculty and staff are all Christian. Faculty members are required by the university to respond in writing to Belmont’s mission, values and vision statement, which states they “uphold Jesus as the Christ and as the measure for all things.”

The university sees student workers as “students first and employees second,” which means the “Christian hiring preference” the university applied toward faculty should not apply toward students, said Burns.

Jooma is no stranger to Christian schools. Growing up in Knoxville, Tenn., every school she attended was Christian, yet she had always felt actively included.

Her middle school allowed her to say a traditional Muslim prayer in front of the entire school before its Thanksgiving program; her high school encouraged her to share her perspective in class, she said.

“It was in the back of my head, ‘What are they going to think because I am Muslim?'” she said. “But it never clicked that they wouldn’t accept me because of that. I’d never been disrespected by schools.”

Even when she discovered her application hadn’t been approved, Jooma still didn’t associate the denial with her faith. She scheduled a meeting with her RD about how she could improve for next year, how she could better meet the standard Residence Life looks for.

However, when Vincent told Jooma the only section in which she received a negative score was the one about faith, it began to sink in.

“She said, ‘The main reason you weren’t chosen was because you’re Muslim,'” Jooma said. “That really upset me.”

Jooma takes pride in her culture and her faith, and remains vocal about both. She refused to lie on the application just for the sake of the position.

Jooma’s situation is not isolated.

Another non-Christian student, who requested to remain anonymous, had a similar experience when she submitted her application.

She knew she was capable, she felt confident upon turning it in and she received the same faith-based rejection, this time because she was Hindu.

“It changed everything I thought I knew about myself,” the other student said. “No person should have to feel this way–it’s an injustice.”

Both Jooma and the other student said their complaints are not directed at any one individual, but how the policy itself was carried out. Burns said the issue stemmed from the perception of policy instead of actual policy.

Jooma said she met Director of Residence Life Anthony Donovan Wednesday and he expressed “heartfelt apologies” for causing her or anyone distress.

“He told me what they intended with the policy was not expressed in the way it was carried out,” she said.

As a means of rectifying the situation, Jooma and other applicants will be given an opportunity to continue in the interview process.

Jooma appreciates the administration’s willingness to talk to her and work towards a satisfying conclusion, she said.

“It’s really exciting,” she said. “It was not a fun way to begin, but the difficult start turned into something that was worth working towards – a positive change.”

And the implications reach far beyond the walls of the Residence Life office or the responsibilities of an RA position. Jooma said this development changed her life in a positive way.

“I feel more confident in myself. My heart told me to tell the truth. I advocated for change in a positive way and seeing the results unfold has been freeing.”

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