Governors State University (GSU) Assistant Professor Dr. Lamise Shawahin eats a dinner of grape leaves, a staple in her Middle Eastern culture, while she reflects on her relationship with counseling and her psychology students.
“I’m like the vine that goes everywhere and connects different parts of the trellis,’’ said Shawahin. Her strong and extensive networks in the Arab-American and professional communities form the wooden support structure in her analogy. Students bear the fruit.
A 2016 graduate—she earned her doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology from Purdue University—the Chicago native had earned a bachelor’s degree in Psychology at Evergreen State College in Washington before returning to the Midwest to pursue advanced degrees. She served veterans at the Edward Hines Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital for her post-doctoral work and soon after joined the GSU Division of Psychology and Counseling in the College of Education in 2017.
The fiery advocate immediately embraced ambitious students eager to make changes in the world for Muslims. And she went to work making much-needed connections—on and off campus—so she could connect her students with the resources and people who could best help them on their professional paths.
“My main mission is to support students in attaining their goals,’’ said Shawahin, who was recently inspired her to gift psychology majors with student memberships to professional organizations to help them establish networks of their own.
Shawahin's passions cover a broad range of issues related to Muslim mental health and health disparities, cultural competence, counseling considerations for diverse populations, anti-Muslim prejudice, and social justice.
An associate editor for the Journal of Muslim Mental Health, Shawahin serves in leadership roles for multiple other professional organizations. She's program coordinator for the Muslim Mental Health Conference, a steering committee member of the American Middle Eastern North African (AMENA) Psychological Association, and she's also a board member of Arab American Family Services.
The daughter and granddaughter of Muslim Arab-American community organizers, Shawahin says she has seen anti-Muslim backlash since the September 11th terrorist attacks and is disheartened by recent anti-immigration policies.
A tireless organizer, she encourages students to use their voices for increased awareness and is proud to work with a university that boldly supports Muslim students—especially women.
“Look at the Governors State billboards. It features a hijab-wearing woman. I think that’s wonderful. It sends a message, ‘You wear the hijab, and you belong here.’ It's powerful.”
GSU Newsroom: Growing up, your father was outspoken in the community. You also remember where you were on Sept. 11, 2001. How did those factors impact your career choice?
Shawahin: Former Mayor (Richard M.) Daley named my dad to the city’s Arab-American Council, and I grew up going to meetings with him all the time. My grandfather also was a community organizer, focused more on the South Side of Chicago, where there is a large Arab community.
On the morning of 9-11, I was at school. Then, I attended the Muslim Community Center Full-Time School and was in eighth grade. I remember they sent us home, and later on someone threw big rocks through the school windows. The next day, kindergarteners were going to the gym and had to walk around the broken glass.
I didn’t understand then, but I have since realized we live in a world with a lot of injustice. I could be angry and sad, but I choose to channel it by doing good and helping people connect to something that will help them do good.
GSU Newsroom: In your dissertation, you define the faith community of Muslims by race. Why?
Shawahin: "Who are Muslims?" is a real question. A lot of research that describes the Muslim population leaves out big chunks. Most people hear, ‘Muslim’ and think, ‘Arab.’ In the U.S., the Muslim population is a little less than a third of each: Arab, south Asian, and African American, and the remaining is Eastern European and Latino. I aimed to capture all those groups in the sample that ultimately examined Psychosocial Risk and Protective Factors Among Muslim Americans.
GSU Newsroom: You seem especially interested in the African American Muslim population. Why?
Shawahin: Most of the research that's been done focuses on Arabs or south Asians, so we don’t get a good picture of the Black Muslim population.
I didn’t realize that until I started working with Black Muslims who shared their experiences of being racially stereotyped in immigrant Muslim mosques. I was very saddened to hear this, and it made me aware of this issue for African American Muslims. The men I worked with noted that members of the congregation treated them poorly, made assumptions about them, and accused them of wrongdoings. I saw a parallel in the literature on Muslims which similarly excluded and marginalized Black Muslims. I didn’t want to contribute to this problem as a researcher.
GSU Newsroom: With the current administration’s policies on immigration, do you feel Muslims in America suffer more?
Shawahin: In 2016, the number of assaults against Muslims was higher than it was in 2001, and Muslims are experiencing an increasing amount of surveillance and issues of entrapment. We’ve also seen research that suggests even witnessing this can take a psychological toll. Yes, this is a hard time to be Muslim in this country.
GSU Newsroom: What special traits do GSU students offer to help you promote wellness in the Muslim community?
Shawahin: On the clinical side, the field of psychology is not very diverse as far as practitioners. We need multicultural students who are resilient and have grit. We need them on the other side of counseling—administering it—because they carry knowledge and experience that is very difficult to train.