WASHINGTON, Nov. 21 (RNS) -- Thousands of miles away from her family in Pakistan,Sabeen Mushtaq couldn't help but think of them as the Muslim holy monthof Ramadan approached.

The George Washington University freshman was living away from homefor the first time, and missed her family's holy season traditions --especially the egg omelets and homemade bread her mother cooked forsuhur, the family's morning meal.

"It was strange not being with my family for Ramadan," rememberedMushtaq, who has celebrated Ramadan--a holy month of disciplinethrough worship and fasting for the more than 1 billion Muslimsworldwide--since childhood. "I really missed being home."

She found comfort among George Washington's large Muslim studentpopulation.

"It was a relief to be with other Muslims practicing the same thingfor Ramadan," said Mushtaq, now a senior finance major at theWashington, D.C., university. "I felt at home."

With the advent of Ramadan this year on Nov. 27 (a moveable seasonbecause the Islamic calendar is lunar-based), Mushtaq and other Muslimstudents nationwide will join the country's estimated 6 million Muslimsin marking Islam's holiest month with prayer, reflection, and study ofthe Qur'an.

Muslims who are able also abstain from eating, drinking, and sexualactivity from sunrise to sunset during the 30-day period. Communalprayers and Eid ul-Fitr ("feast of the fast breaking") mark the end ofthe holy days.

"There is definitely a greater sense of community on campus duringRamadan," said Faten Hijazi, vice president of San Jose StateUniversity's Muslim Student Association. "The whole time you'reconscious of your Islamic identity because there's such a sense of unitywhen the whole school's Muslim population is doing the same thing at thesame time."

The same is true at many other universities, including DukeUniversity in Durham, N.C., said Lala Qadir, a junior chemistry major atthe school.

"Ramadan definitely ties you to other Muslims because everyone is inthe same situation," said Qadir. "It can be a challenging time, but youknow there are students who are also going through the same thing you'regoing through."

Catered iftar dinners (marking the end of the daily fast) bringMuslim students together at George Washington University, said El-Wafi,vice president of the Washington, D.C., university's student Muslimgroup, which organizes the dinners.

As many as 200 students--including a smattering of non-Muslims--gather at a nearby church to break their fasts with the traditional mealof dates and water before indulging in biryani, falafel, and other SouthAsian fare.

"At the dinners there really is a heightened sense of community--no matter what your background is or what your experiences are, this onemonth is something we all have in common," said El-Wafi. "You feel thatsupport and that sort of gives you a boost the rest of the year."

The support drawn from that sense of community can be a blessing forMuslim students.

"Last year me and my roommate had trouble getting up in the morningto eat, and one of our friends would call us to let us know to get up,"said Lubabah Abdullah, president of the Muslim student group at theUniversity of Missouri at Columbia. "We do the same thing now for ourfriends."

El-Wafi agreed.

"It definitely helps to have that support system when you're tryingto establish an Islamic way of life," said El-Wafi, whose organizationoften places an ad in the campus newspaper to mark the arrival ofRamadan. "On a college campus a lot of norms go against what we try topractice. So when fellow Muslims help support each other, you realizeyou don't have to follow those practices that go against our religiousideals."

Charity and good deeds are also stressed during Ramadan, and atGeorgetown University, Muslim students put those ideals into action byvolunteering to distribute food to the homeless or take part in otherservice projects. They also hold interfaith iftar dinners to teachnon-Muslims on campus about Islam.

"The university setting is one of the best opportunities to teachabout different faiths," said Shaheen Kazi, president of Georgetown'sMuslim student group. "When we're in college it's the one time we're alldedicated to learning--not just in the academic sense, but learningabout the people around us."

Muslim students at the University of Missouri at Columbia hold anopen house at the on-campus mosque during Ramadan to share theirheritage with non-Muslims.

"We just really try and educate people about what Islam is reallyall about," said Abdullah. "A lot of the time they're being exposed toIslam for the first time."

At American University in Washington, free copies of Islam's holybook, the Qur'an, will be distributed to students during Ramadan. Inaddition, an all-expenses paid trip to Saudi Arabia will be awarded tothe top winner (whether student or non-student) of a Qur'an memorizationcontest.

"Reading the Qur'an is a way for people to get closer to God," saidYasmin Said, president of the university's student Muslim group, whichis organizing the contest with the help of the Glorious QuranMemorization Association of America. "This way we can encourage peopleto do that, help increase their spirit."

For John "Yahya" Halliwell, who converted to Islam two years ago,experiencing Ramadan on campus with other Muslim students will be aunique experience. He said he was one of just three Muslims in hissenior class at a private Catholic high school in Rhode Island.

"It's going to be exciting to do this with more than just one or twoother people," said Halliwell, a first-year student at Georgetown. "It'san incredible experience just to know you're not alone--especially atschool. I've never really had that before."