Leadership. Faith. Football. RJ Khalaf’s passions are varied, but they all center around his desire to weave positivity into his surroundings.
Though his passions don’t always mesh well together, being at NYU has helped the Global Liberal Studies senior get as close as possible to connecting them. Whether he is heading the Muslim Student Association as president or acting as director for LEAD Palestine, an organization he created to empower Palestinian youth, Khalaf is always able to lead with grace.
Khalaf, who grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, is greatly interested in the concept of leadership itself. He does not believe he needs to be at the forefront of every organization he is involved with — instead, he is interested in understanding what makes someone a good leader.
“I have a pretty fundamental view of leadership that we all can be leaders, and we all should be leaders,” Khalaf said. “If you ask me, leadership is kindness, leadership is love, leadership is bringing together people toward a common goal. I think if you’re able to do that, if the core of your leadership, the core of your organizing, is built off of kindness and love, then I think you’re a good leader. And then suddenly, anyone can be a leader.”
Not only is Khalaf a leader, but he also fosters leadership qualities in others. Though he presides over MSA meetings, he encourages a sense of leadership among his peers by providing a forum in which they can voice their opinions on how the club should run to best serve NYU’s Muslim community — and his leadership makes a noticeable difference.
CAS senior and MSA secretary Rose Khan has been friends with Khalaf for nearly a year, and she said that though she struggled with her faith when she first joined the MSA, Khalaf gave her the confidence to act as a leader even before she took on her role as secretary.
“To have someone believe in me when I didn’t believe in myself — that was really kind of the push I needed,” Khan said. “He has confidence in me, and it’s helped transform me from someone who didn’t want to be in this space at all to someone who’s in this space all the time.”
Khalaf’s leadership style made Khan a better leader herself. But even outside of the MSA, Khalaf’s friendship — and hugs — have made Khan feel supported and loved.
“Whenever I have a crisis, the first person who pops into my head is RJ,” Khan said. “He’s just really fun to be around. He’s really dorky and weird, and a good person to be with.”
CAS senior and MSA Vice President Mariyamou Drammeh said that she sees Khalaf as the epitome of a leader because he genuinely cares about how he carries out his leadership role.
“You never feel alone in your role, he really pushes me to see my capabilities and to see that I am a leader in my own way,” Drammeh said.
Khalaf himself first came to the MSA his sophomore year, after having completed his freshman year of the GLS program at NYU London. His first year in London was challenging, as he did not have a definite sense of self yet. He felt that he wasn’t smart enough to be at NYU, that maybe someone in the admissions office had made a mistake.
“For me, that freshman year was just characterized by a lot of just lack of confidence in who I am as an individual, but also just kind of not knowing who I am,” Khalaf said. “I think it was only in my sophomore year that I began to ask myself what my passions are.”
But the MSA made him feel welcome. He said that it takes a lot of fortitude to come into a new space as an outsider, and people within the community made him feel welcomed and included.
However, Khalaf did not always imagine himself to be a leader within the MSA. It was only after the then-president encouraged him to run for treasurer of the organization, and after earning the position, that Khalaf became more heavily invested in the group.
“I just fell in love — I fell in love with the community, I fell in love with the work that we got to do, and while it was a lot of work, it was just a dream come true to be able to serve that community because for me it was never about the title,” Khalaf said. “I remember when I first came that first week in sophomore year, I would look around and see the people who were serving the Islamic Center — working the events, being the go-to volunteers, and it was genuinely just my dream just to be one of the people that was a go-to person — that when they needed help, when the community needed support, that I could be that person.”
Acting as a leader within NYU’s Muslim community intertwines Khalaf’s passion for leadership with that for his Muslim faith. It’s something that gives him strength and purpose, and it serves as a guiding light for how he should make decisions in his life.
“I think the more I’ve become connected to my own faith, the better of a person I’ve become,” Khalaf said. “No matter how hard things get, it gives me this sense that it’s all gonna be all right, and it kind of gives me that level headedness and that fortitude necessary to get through whatever crap comes my way.”
Khalaf has been able to combine his passions for leadership and service through LEAD Palestine. It was borne out of a social entrepreneurship class he took two years ago, during which he was tasked with addressing an unmet need.
The organization aims to inspire, motivate and empower 10 to 15-year-old kids in refugee camps in Palestine’s West Bank through a weeklong summer camp comprised of leadership-based activities and year-round mentorship by local university students in Palestine.
“They live in this place that’s just governed by occupation,” Khalaf said. “When someone sees themselves as a leader, it’s proven to instill an internal locus of control, and what that internal locus of control does [is] help you look at your situation and what can I do about it, and you actually see your value in that situation. It’s a really powerful thing, and it’s something that I think a lot of us take for granted.”
Being involved with Islamic life at NYU has given Khalaf community at a university not quite known for this quality.
The MSA has also allowed yet another of Khalaf’s passions to come to fruition — community service. Working for other people in any capacity fills him up.
“No matter how tired I am, no matter how exhausted we are, I just feel like I have a little bit extra gas in the tank, per se, to just collaborate with people to kind of help figure out how we can do better for them,” Khalaf said.
Khalaf can also explore his faith through the Multifaith Advisory Council, a group of undergraduate students from different faith backgrounds who get together to discuss their experiences.
“That’s just been an incredible group,” Khalaf said. “My identity as a Muslim and my understanding of the space of the MSA and students’ needs and what people care about, what people are passionate about — I’m able to bring that to the space of the Multifaith Advisory Council.”
Khalaf’s position as a Dalai Lama fellow has helped him with LEAD Palestine. Each year, 20 to 309 students earn this distinction, and they build leadership skills, network and work on a project as fellows.
“It has been one of the most impactful, amazing blessings in my life — just to develop a deeper sense of self and bring my fullness to my leadership and my work,” Khalaf said.
Khalaf enjoys being involved in so many organizations. He loves being busy, especially because he is so passionate about a myriad of different causes. He believes he needs to stand up and fight when he sees a community that needs help.
“I have a lot of privileges — yeah, I’m an Arab Muslim man in a country where there’s a lot of Islamophobia, but even within that, there’s still a lot of privilege that comes my way, and I have to leverage that.” Khalaf said. “I have to stand up for these communities because it’s an integral part of my faith that my religion’s not just a religion of peace, it’s not just a religion of coexistence but it’s a religion of justice. It’s a religion where when I see injustice, I feel morally and religiously obligated to stand up against that injustice.”
And though he is so incredibly busy, he makes sure to take care of himself. Whether he sits down and plays Madden football video games or reaches out to a friend, he believes that if he can’t take care of himself, he can’t take care of others.
“I lean on other people,” Khalaf said. “I think it’s really important to be vulnerable in that and just to be like, ‘Hey man, I’m really stressed. Can we just talk?’ or ‘Hey, let’s just go do something because I need to take a break from whatever’s going on.’”
Khalaf feels he can rely on his community that loves him — and the love he puts into it is evident to his peers.
“He’s very loving,” Drammeh said. “He’s very open about expressing his emotions and his love for other people, and I think that’s so important in a leader.”
A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 7 print edition. Email Natasha Roy at [email protected]