An Islamic leader from Portland says he found common ground with Christian students in the university’s School of Theology and Ministry.

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The premise of Abdullah Polovina’s story sounds like the start of a bar joke:

A Muslim imam walks into a Catholic university …

Except it’s true. Polovina, who leads a congregation of Bosnian Muslims in Portland, did just that. And in June, he’ll walk out to “Pomp and Circumstance.”

The 41-year-old recently completed a master’s degree at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, where he was the first Muslim ever to enroll.

“I was looking for a place to be accepted as myself and to be the true face of Islam, though I am not the best follower,” Polovina said.

Polovina lived and worked in Seattle as an imam, or Muslim religious leader, for more than a decade before moving to Portland in 2013 to lead the Bosniaks Educational and Cultural Organization.

He first connected with leaders at Seattle University through interfaith-dialogue events hosted by the Jesuit Catholic college. He values education, he said, and wanted to pursue a graduate degree that would improve his leadership. He’d befriended faculty at the college. The transformation leadership program appealed.

Studying the Bible with the other students, almost all Christians, was uncomfortable at first, he said. But he quickly settled into sharing his own perspective and appreciating the overlaps. There are many similarities between Islam and Christianity, he said, from moral values to key historical figures.

Students in the program explore the spirituality of leadership, said Mark Markuly, dean of the 3-year-old School of Theology and Ministry. Courses are designed to make students more self-critical, reflective and thoughtful by integrating their own religious heritage into leadership theory.

“By his presence in classes, Abdullah helped a lot of our students more deeply encounter the wealth of the Muslim tradition,” Markuly said.