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Forging Connections

A year ago, Amer Ahmed joined Swarthmore as Intercultural Center (IC) director and dean of the sophomore class. A native Midwesterner, Ahmed previously was associate director of the University of Michigan’s Multiethnic Student Affairs and Trotter Multicultural Center. Ahmed frequently speaks around the country on Islam, hip-hop, and intercultural issues in higher education. This spring, Ahmed spoke with Bulletin editor Sherri Kimmel.       

Tell me what’s been happening since you started at the IC.

It’s a really exciting time at Swarthmore. We’ve been building infrastructure that supports community development, cross-cultural engagement, and intercultural leadership across a number of student organizations, groups, communities, identities, and experiences. We’re seeking to balance supportive community spaces with the need to challenge students’ comfort zones to engage beyond their own groups and identities. We employ a social-justice lens that seeks to prepare students with the skills that will help them enact the change that they want to see in the world around them.


What led you to this work?    

I was raised in a traditional South Asian Muslim family in a small community in Ohio, where most folks are either black or white. I was moving between different worlds. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was having an intercultural experience. When I went to college I studied cultural anthropology and black studies and studied abroad in South Africa and Nepal. I was interested in culture and the ways in which people were being marginalized. While getting my master’s degree, I started organizing a lot around hip-hop and trying to create social change through the urban arts. I didn’t want to just talk about it anymore; I wanted to do something. Working in multicultural affairs in various institutions has given me the opportunity to be in an intellectual environment where people think about these things but also demonstrate how to instill those skills and capacities in students. This allows me to expand the ripple.


Can you explain your affinity for hip-hop and how you use it in your intercultural work?

I believe in the arts as a way of transforming lives—as a form of storytelling and healing, especially in how we cope and deal with pain, oppression, and marginalization. And it’s a form of communication. I’m really passionate about the idea of the culture of hip-hop being a tool for my generation. Hip-hop was a huge component of the Arab Spring. We’re seeing it literally topple governments, just as music was powerful in the ’60s and the civil-rights era.


One new group affiliated this year with the IC is SOLIS (Swarthmore Organization for Low Income Students). A lot of alumni are interested in these issues.

There could be a great benefit to alums having a direct relationship with SOLIS and working with us to foster and support them. SOLIS has done some programming, and the IC staff has connected with the financial aid staff about working together to address needs and concerns that are raised by SOLIS. 


How else can alumni connect with the IC?

Whether it’s LGBTQ or other identities that are related to the work of the IC, we’re interested in opening up conversations with alums who have a passion and an interest in the work of the IC and the groups that are affiliated with the IC. We want to connect them with students to support them in these learning processes so they’re prepared to be really impactful when they go out into the world.