Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

Jason Howk ’00: U.S. Veteran Promotes Understanding of Islam

A veteran uses his retirement to bridge to further the West’s understanding of Islam 

Jason Howk '00

When Jason Howk ’00 retired from the military, all he wanted to do was go fishing.

But when he was asked to speak at a local library about his two tours in Afghanistan, all 30 minutes of the question-and-answer segment centered around his understanding of Islam. He was asked to come speak at the library again, this time just about the religion. Then he was asked to speak by another group. Then another. And another.

Shortly after retirement, Howk became one of the most notable Christian-American experts on Islam and the Quran in the world. Since, he’s taught college-level courses, written an award-winning book and even tempered the rhetoric in a speech President Donald Trump gave to a collection of 55 Muslim-majority nations.

Prior to attending Auburn, Howk spent time in the United Arab Emirates training with special forces. But his understanding of Islamic culture and history didn’t come until he was recruited by Gen. Karl Eikenberry to serve in Afghanistan after 9/11. Essentially, they were assisting the Afghani government in building an army from scratch.

“It makes you think of the time of George Washington at Valley Forge,” Howk said. “There was no army, there was no infrastructure – there was nothing. That was a fascinating assignment. I got to learn more in that year than I ever did in my whole life.”

Working with the president of Afghanistan, generals, diplomats and representatives from the United Nations, the year was extremely transformative for Howk. Totally immersed, he lived with Muslims, ate their food and gained an intimate understanding of the culture.

“As a Baptist kid from Vermont and Florida, that wasn’t something that was normal. You don’t just run into somebody who’s Muslim. That really helped me to learn a lot about the religion and culture – the similarities, the differences. You walk away from it with a better understanding of it and a lot of friends in Afghanistan.”

After leaving in 2003, Howk went to graduate school to study Arabic and Farsi. He earned a master’s degree in Middle East studies and South Asia studies before Gen. Stanley McChrystal recruited Howk back to Afghanistan for a year to initiate a reintegration process for a peace plan and help form a review for President Barack Obama.

“I’m considered a ‘half-ghan,’ he said with a laugh. “It’s when you’re not really from Afghanistan, but you’re kind of immersed in the life.”

By this time, Howk had a deep understanding of reconciliation, forgiveness and what the Quran actually says. He finished out his career in the intelligence community, and that’s when “phase two” of his life began. As his number of speaking engagements increased, Howk realized that he had to require a healthy atmosphere conducive to open exchange of understanding amongst people of all faiths. Speaking to Muslim and non-Muslim groups, he tells his audiences to not take the conversation personally or politically.

Additionally, Howk believes in a different approach to interfaith work. Typically, a Christian explains Christianity, a Jew explains Judaism, a Muslim explains Islam and so on. He’s flipped that formula on its head – and it’s worked.

“Most audiences will actually listen to me and take a moment to think about it like, ‘wait a minute. This guy lived in that culture, and he’s giving us facts. He’s not just giving us opinions or making up things. This is just what he experienced.’”

Howk carried the philosophy into the book “The Quran: A Chronological Modern English Interpretation.” Originally meant to be a PDF for friends in the military to better understand the places they were serving, a publisher approached Howk and said it needed to be made available to the public. Since then, it has won an award for excellence in writing from the Readers’ Favorite International Book Contest and received the Gold Medal from the National Indie Excellence Awards.

“I made it readable English. If I had to move a verse up a couple lines or move a verse down so that it flowed in English grammar and it made a paragraph that you can read, then I did that.” Howk changed the order of particular sermons to read chronologically in order to make the book easy to understand and a quick read for English speakers, as opposed to versions written by translators not as familiar with English.

Writing the book after a number of years giving talks, Howk anticipated the questions a typical American would have after reading the text. He’s even started the podcast “We’re Just Talking About It” to continue the dialogue between faith leaders to translate the understanding to members of all religions. Recently, Howk was asked to lunch with the president of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest Muslim organization in the continent. At one point in the more than three-hour lunch, Howk explained his background. The president said it was no mistake that Howk is doing what he’s doing.

“He told me, ‘God really chose you for this plan. I mean, you’re a Baptist military officer, and you wander around America explaining Islam to non-Muslims. That doesn’t happen by accident.’ He was very appreciative that I am trying to increase tolerance between religions and just get people to be nicer to each other in general.”

Regardless of a person’s religious view, Howk didn’t choose the past few years of his journey – the journey chose him. Although he assumed he would’ve gone fishing more than the two trips he’s been on in retirement, Howk finds fulfillment in his own niche approach to interfaith work.

“I don’t think this happened by chance. I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of. This is not what I thought I’d be doing in retirement. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”

I can’t imagine too many things in the world happened by chance, but it certainly seems like there was a plan I wasn’t aware of.

Chef Matt Pace ’07: Cooking Up Success

Chef Matt Pace ’07: Cooking Up Success

He took the Big Easy to the Big Apple, then beat Bobby Flay at his own game

Matt Pace

Surrounded by the Cajun creole cuisine of his hometown New Orleans, Matt Pace ’07 grew up with an innate passion for food. While he spent his childhood watching the Food Network and experimenting in the kitchen, he certainly never anticipated becoming a chef – let alone one of the few chefs to beat celebrity chef Bobby Flay on the TV show “Beat Bobby Flay.”

After bleeding orange and blue at many Auburn football games and homecomings alongside his dad, Leon Pace ’78, deciding to attend Auburn was a no-brainer for Pace. A man of many talents, Pace was on the lacrosse team, involved in the art department and sang karaoke at Rooster’s with friends. “Karaoke is what got me through my last year and senior project work,” said Pace with a laugh.

He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, with a focus in painting and an open mind for his future. While his parents lived in Nigeria for work, Pace moved to New York on a whim to support his younger brother, who was starting college at St. Johns in Queens. He made bright, graffiti-based art for a while and tried out DJing before realizing his true calling – food.

“I’m still making art, just with food instead of paint,” he said. “Being a chef is being able to be creative and tell a story with different ingredients to make somebody feel something.”

Pace went back to New Orleans, taking cooking classes and honing in on the core of Cajun creole cuisine. He returned to New York, attended restaurant management school and opened his pop-up restaurant Booqoo Beignets. Fame and success came fast to him when he opened Café Booqoo, blowing up the food scene by bringing New Orleans to New York. The restaurant was such a hit that he once had a line out the door and customers offering to wipe up dirty tables so they could try his food. Pace added, “It was stressful but I loved it.”

On the success of Café Booqoo, The Food Network tracked him down and asked him to cook on the hit show “Beat Bobby Flay.” As he walked onto the set, Pace threw beads up into the crowd as he’d done many times in the streets of New Orleans. But the nerves really set in when he had to cook against Flay. “He’s an Iron Chef with multiple restaurants, and he rarely loses.”

The dish Pace chose for the final battle was a fried lobster po’boy, something he had cooked hundreds of times in his life. The pressure was on — and much worse than he’d anticipated from watching the show.

“When you’re on the show, it’s quiet. It’s just the studio audience staring at you, the sounds of cooking and the clock ticking down.”

When it was all said and done, the judges announced Pace was the winner by unanimous decision.

“The whole experience was surreal, I was shaking. You can see it on my face, I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t go to culinary school, and I always felt like I was one of those people that gives themselves their own name calling themselves a chef. After the win, I realized I beat an internationally-known ‘Iron Chef’ celebrity, and no one can take that from me.”

When “Beat Bobby Flay” was over, Pace began trying to find a new spot for Café Booqoo in New York. Its location was anything but ideal, in a mostly industrial area with minimal foot traffic throughout the day. However, in 2019 Pace decided to close the doors to Café Booqoo in pursuit of new ventures.

About two weeks after closing, love struck and he met his girlfriend, Thani, from Germany.

He plans to move to Germany soon and open a new restaurant there, sticking to authentic Cajun creole cuisine while catering to the German palette.

“Now I have a better chance of a place with a little more longevity and less competition for the kind of food I want to be doing.”

“Now I have a better chance of a place with a little more longevity and less competition for the kind of food I want to be doing.”

Jeff Thompson ’06: Bringing Theater to Rural Alabama

Jeff Thompson ’06: Bringing Theater to Rural Alabama

When all the world is a stage, you look for actors wherever they’re found

Jeff Thompson

Jeff Thompson ‘06 always had a love for writing and creativity, but he never imagined he would be building a model for theater to reach all corners of Alabama.

A typical day for the executive director of the Pell City Center for Education and Performing Arts (CEPA) consists of preparing the $11 million facility to host one of the center’s many events.

While he takes great pride in managing such a large facility, nothing compares to the feeling he gets from bringing his arts programs to some of the most rural parts of the state.

“I wasn’t that much of an arts guy before I came here, but after I talked to these people and listened to what they needed, I recognized that there was a real desire to do this.”

But none of this is what Thompson saw himself doing when he graduated from Auburn with a degree in journalism. Initially studying architecture, Thompson realized he needed a change after he was confronted with the impenetrable force known as physics class. Having a passion for writing, the new major of journalism sounded perfect.

“I had some great educators, who were really willing to impart incredible wisdom to me and help guide me through that in a way that would prepare me for the real world.”

When the real world came, Thompson went from an intern at The Tuskegee Times to its managing editor, meeting with Civil Rights leaders, working at the Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site and becoming heavily involved with the community.

“I wasn’t that much of an arts guy before I came here, but after I talked to these people and listened to what they needed, I recognized that there was a real desire to do this.”

But none of this is what Thompson saw himself doing when he graduated from Auburn with a degree in journalism.

Initially studying architecture, Thompson realized he needed a change after he was confronted with the impenetrable force known as physics class. Having a passion for writing, the new major of journalism sounded perfect.

“I had some great educators, who were really willing to impart incredible wisdom to me and help guide me through that in a way that would prepare me for the real world.”

When the real world came, Thompson went from an intern at The Tuskegee Times to its managing editor, meeting with Civil Rights leaders, working at the Tuskegee Airmen Historic Site and becoming heavily involved with the community.

He continued his journalism career with a few publications after a move to Birmingham, but a lot of his love for the craft evaporated as the industry evolved in a way that made it a necessity for Thompson to transition out. The transition to CEPA made all the sense in the world simply because it offered Thompson a way to fulfill the underlying passions that made him love journalism.

In addition to acting as a liaison to the city of Pell City, and the Pell City School System, Thompson is also tasked with engaging people who are interested in the arts, a mission he does not take lightly.

Realizing that not everybody has access to CEPA, one of the programs Thompson helped launch in 2017 called “Spotlight” aims at bringing theatre to every corner of St. Claire County.

After pinpointing communities with a desire for performing-arts programs, Spotlight provides funding and some structure for the different groups to start their own clubs.

Since its inception, Spotlight has grown from 50 people to 400 and went from two shows a year to now 11, totaling 24 performances a year – an 800 percent growth in its first two years.

“I’m so proud of the things we’ve been able to do from this small office just because of great partners, access to this building and a lot of support throughout this community and state.”

Spotlight was even awarded grant money from the state to continue building on the model Thompson and CEPA have laid out. The program is focused on beginning and maintaining the clubs because of how much it can impact the people in the program. Participating in theater improves test scores, helps with communication and improves necessary life skills, Thompson said.

“This is a real possibility. Your small high school in random county, Alabama, that doesn’t have art, we think that somewhere five to 10 years down the line, we’re going to be able to show you how to do it without breaking the bank. That’s the main goal here, and we’re really proud of the results we’ve gotten so far.”

Thompson believes his time at Auburn and years working as a journalist undoubtedly prepared him for the field he is currently in. From writing and communicating clearly to speaking in front of an audience and intently listening to others, Thompson has seen many journalistic skills transfer over to managing a non-profit organization.

“Auburn gave me the confidence to pretty much do whatever I needed to do within a whole world of different fields. Journalism gives you so much. Just the practice of it can open so many doors.”

Aisha Stroud ‘09: Banker by day, DJ Gorgeous by night

Aisha Stroud ‘09: Banker by day, DJ Gorgeous by night

Why quit your day job for a passion project when you can do both?

Aisha Stroud 09

Aisha Stroud ‘09 works in indirect funding at America’s First Credit Union by day and DJs for weddings, corporate events, nightclubs and parties by night.

Stroud decided in 2005 while at Auburn that she wanted to explore DJing. Because she had always had a love of music and even started her own dance team at Auburn called Younique, she thought her musical talents would take her far.

There were very few female DJs at the time, so Stroud studied under Auburn local DJ Hardwork while learning the ins and outs of the job. She would meet with him after class and learn more and more about what it meant to be a successful DJ.

She performed on Auburn’s campus several times, as well as the local skating rink. There she learned that DJing was not only something she enjoyed, but something she was good at.

A year before graduating from Auburn in 2009, Stroud wanted to change her major from engineering to something new, so she sat down with her counselor to discuss the best course of action to ensure she could graduate as soon as possible.

Looking at the classes she had already completed, her options were limited. Having to choose between anthropology and organic gardening, she chose to graduate in anthropology, a decision that would later help her understand how Human Resource Management works.

“A lot of the things I learned in anthropology tie into what I do and what I learned in human resources,” Stroud said. “Anthropology is the study of life and you need to be able to understand the philosophy of life to understand different kinds of people.”

Having worked at Auburn Bank for two years while she was in school, Stroud went straight to work at Wells Fargo for five years after graduating before starting at her current position at America’s First Credit Union, where she plans to move into HR in the next few years.

Stroud connects her college studies to what she does now by learning to understand people better. Studying anthropology allowed her to master interacting with all kinds of people — a skill she uses every single day. Because she was focused on graduating school, she lost track of DJing her last few years of college, but picked it back up in 2012 when she was working at Wells Fargo. Now, as DJ Gorgeous, she has been consistently DJing and building her brand for the last six years.

DJ Gorgeous performing in Birmingham.

“College was where I learned how to DJ. Auburn prepared me for what I do now because I learned how to conduct business in the most professional way. It’s where I grew up from being a teen girl to an adult woman.”

When she first started off in 2012, she took just about any gig she could get. With her current popularity, she is now able to be more selective, mainly performing for weddings and parties. Some of her regular gigs include performing at a local sports bar and Top Golf in Huntsville, but for the most part she sticks to DJing weddings and private events.

Stroud hopes to inspire others in everything she does by showing that it’s never too late to follow your dreams and accomplish your goals.