WASHINGTON, March 16 (RNS)--When Tarek Elgawhary was looking at colleges threeyears ago, he wanted the things most students want--strong academics,a friendly campus and a reputable degree.

But when he finally decided to attend George Washington Universityhere, there was another factor at work. GWU has a Muslimstudent population of almost 1,000 students, and to Elgawhary, that wasas important as anything else.

"I was interested in going to a place where there was a large,strong Muslim community," said Elgawhary, now a junior majoring inreligion. "In the final decision, it was a factor."

As more and more students like Elgawhary seek out Muslim-friendlycampuses, they are finding increasing numbers of colleges that are alsowilling to accommodate their religious needs. These students, whocelebrated the end of the Hajj pilgrimage season Thursday,find that having their own facilities makes it easier to be away fromhome during important holidays.

"There is no way to overemphasize the importance of prayer to Muslimstudents," said Elgawhary's roommate, Faisal Matadar. "It is probablythe most defining thing about us on campus."

A number of small and large colleges are building student centers ordesignating space for their Muslim students, just as they built Hillelcenters for Jewish students or Newman centers for Catholics.

The growing acceptance of Muslim college students, however, alsorepresents the continued mainstreaming of one of America'sfastest-growing--and least-understood--religions. A generation ago,Muslim students were almost entirely foreign-born and had little voiceon campus. Now, however, their American-born children are fueling whatsome say is a renaissance in American Islam.

The first Muslim student association was formed at the University ofIllinois in 1963. As American Muslims grapple to define their identityin middle America, they find themselves immersed in thesometimes-difficult process of assimilation, a struggle faced byCatholics in the 19th century and Jews in the 20th.

"Our parents were inclined to accept the answer that some (colleges)could not give you a prayer room because of the separation of church andstate," said Hussein El-Genk, the vice president of the Muslim Students'Association of the USA and Canada. "But for the students who were bornand raised here, we say, `Hey, I need to do this and this is my right todo this.'"

The building boom on campuses can be seen at both small and largeuniversities. At the University of Miami, students and alumni arelooking to raise $4.5 million to build a 14,000-square-foot MuslimStudent Center. And at GWU, where Elgawhary and Matadar found a thrivingMuslim population, officials outfitted a student union room withtraditional foot baths to allow students to wash their feet beforeprayers and created separate entrances for men and women.

For years, Muslim students at GWU--a school of about 20,000students with a large international population--competed for prayerspace with the school's other student groups. But now they have theirown designated space to pray and hold events.

"It is a blessing for us to have our own space," Elgawhary said."But it's more than a blessing. For us, it's a necessity."

Muslim students at the University of Miami also fought for a sacredspace of their own. When they couldn't find a room, they met outside fordaily prayers, which was suitable in the balmy winter months but aproblem in the rainy summer heat.

"We are not always the top priority," said Moiez Tapia, a professorof computer engineering at the University of Miami and an adviser to thecollege's Muslim students.

Tapia is trying to raise money for the new prayer center. He saidthe 20-year-old campaign met some initial hesitation from foreign donorsbecause of a university policy that says a building that goes unused fora year will revert to general use. Under Islamic law, once a mosque isbuilt, it can never be used for another purpose. University officialssay they have no reason to believe they will ever have to take themosque back.

When Tapia's generation first came to the United States in the 1960sand '70s, they found few resources available on college campuses. Somelarger, urban schools had small Muslim student associations, but smallerliberal arts colleges had little to offer the new wave of immigrantstudents.

That has all changed, said Mahboubul Hassan, a professor at NewHampshire College in Manchester, N.H., a small liberal arts college ofabout 1,800 students. When Hassan came to the U.S. from Bangladesh tostudy at Boston University, he said the school had a small Muslimstudent group which, 30 years later, is now thriving. Hassan said thesmall student group at New Hampshire College will eventually grow likethe groups at larger universities.