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Muslim student is a trailblazer at Vt. military school

Sana Hamze is the first student to request a religious accommodation to the NU Corps of Cadets uniform to accommodate the hijab at Norwich University.
Sana Hamze is the first student to request a religious accommodation to the NU Corps of Cadets uniform to accommodate the hijab at Norwich University. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

NORTHFIELD, Vt. — As a freshman at Norwich University, Sana Hamze is focused on the rigors of military college just like her fellow cadets: showering in less than five minutes, not looking superiors in the eye, and hiking up a mountain with a 50-pound pack.

But whether she thinks about it every day or not, the 18-year-old is also making history at the country’s oldest private military college. She is the first student at the school to ask for a religious accommodation to wear the headscarf that is central to her Muslim faith, a request the school granted.

Now, with the fall semester underway in the hills of this central Vermont town, the fact that one student wears the hijab is turning out to be what Hamze hoped it would — not a big deal.

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The quiet milestone contrasts with the uproar that greeted Hamze last spring when she asked The Citadel, the historic South Carolina military school, for the same accommodation. The school admitted her, but denied her request, saying the hijab would interfere with its goal of uniformity.

“I just go about my day, and I do what I have to do,” Hamze said in an interview Tuesday on Norwich’s tree-lined campus. “If I am representing Muslims, then I am, but I don’t really see it like that, I just see it as me going to college.”

Norwich president Richard W. Schneider said he based his decision on the federal Department of Defense uniform policy, which was recently changed to allow case-by-case exceptions for religious reasons.

“I just go about my day, and I do what I have to do,” Sana Hamze, said.
“I just go about my day, and I do what I have to do,” Sana Hamze, said. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“It’s the right thing to do, too,” he said in an interview.

Not all students or alumni supported Norwich’s decision, at least not at first, the president said. Hamze knows she is subject to closer scrutiny than other first-year students.

“When she came here, a lot of eyes were on her,” said Chapel Rose Guarnieri, an executive officer in charge of cadet training corps 16-1, of which Hamze is a member.

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People waited to see whether the Muslim student would act differently or expect to be treated differently at Norwich, which has 2,400 students, including 1,600 in the corps of cadets. But that didn’t happen.

Indeed, Hamze said her faith has proved integral to surviving the beginning of school at Norwich, where freshmen cadets, known as “Rooks,” endure exceptionally strenuous training and high standards.

Like many Muslims, she pauses five times a day to pray. She prays in a room the school provided for her in the chapel, in her room, or whereever she prefers.

“It gives me a break,” Hamze said. “It’s a way to breathe.”

Hamze’s mother is from Massachusetts and her father is from Michigan. She was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she said her family attended mosques and observed Ramadan, a month of fasting. Further back, some of her family is from Mexico, some from Lebanon, and some from the United States.

Hamze said Islam taught her the importance of peace, respect for other religions, charitable giving, and prayer. Her mother and sister also wear the hijab.

Hamze hopes to be an officer in the Navy. So far, the branch has not authorized the wearing of a headscarf as a religious accommodation, a Navy official said, but it is currently weighing a request.

“I just don’t feel that I should have to choose between practicing my religion and serving my country,” Hamze said.

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But first she will have to graduate — a four-year journey.

Before she arrived on campus, school staff helped Hamze sort out logistics. Students wear long-sleeved uniforms and aren’t allowed to bring civilian clothes to campus, so it wasn’t much of a problem, she said.

She wears a tan head covering to match her everyday uniform and a blue or a black one with special uniforms. On top, she wears the maroon Rook hat that signifies first-years.

For training, she wears compression pants under her shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt instead of a short-sleeved one.

Classmates this week said they are glad to see acceptance and more diversity at the school, which is also known for its progressive policies on accepting women and gays and lesbians into the corps.

Still, not everyone will be OK with the change.

“Publicly, people are going to say they agree with it. Privately, some probably don’t,” said junior Derek Wiesing, who said he personally supports it.

If anything, people are curious, and Hamze welcomes questions. Do you shower in the hijab, students wanted to know (no), and does it interfere with daily duties (no).

“I run as far as they do, I run as long as they do, I do everything that every other cadet and every other recruit does, just with the hijab on,” she said.

Lately, a lot of people ask what she thinks about Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has openly attacked Muslims, women, and immigrants, especially those from Mexico. She laughs when she gets that question, joking that because she is a woman, a Muslim, and someone of Mexican descent, “he wants me as far away as possible.”

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Hamze’s request also prompted the school to change its uniform policy to allow students to wear the yarmulke, a brimless cap worn by Jews, according to a 1,000-word letter the president sent to the school community in June, explaining the decision on Hamze.

Norwich is not the first military school to grant such an exemption. Texas A&M University did so with no problem, as did the Virginia Women’s Institute of Leadership at Mary Baldwin College, Schneider said.

The president said his choice was about other students as much as it was about Hamze. He wants them to work alongside colleagues of all faiths now, so they won’t think twice about it when they enter the armed forces.

“We want people like this to be joining our ranks,” he said.


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com.