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Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad addresses Class of 2023

Team USA fencer and Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, Trinity ‘07, encouraged the Class of 2023 to make confident decisions based on their personal beliefs, regardless of other people's actions or opinions.

Muhammad spoke to first-year students as the closing speaker for Orientation Week in a conversation facilitated by Mary Pat McMahon, the new vice provost/vice president for student affairs. As the first female Muslim-American athlete to medal at the Olympics and the first athlete to compete in hijab for Team USA, Muhammad shared lessons and wisdom she gained from her time with the sport and at Duke.

Having graduated within the lifetime of the Class of 2023, Muhammad related to her audience by describing her favorite memories, professors, classes and study spaces, among other Duke experiences.

“It felt like being at Duke was an opportunity to discover myself, who I was, what my beliefs were at the time, who I wanted to become as an individual,” Muhammad said. “It just gave me a really good foundation and chance to spread my wings in understanding what growth meant.”

By discussing the adversities she faced in her athletic career as both a religious and racial minority, Muhammad also inspired the Class of 2023 to trust and believe in themselves and their enormous capabilities.

“I just want to let you guys know that there will be people who doubt you in your life, who don’t believe in your dreams, who don’t believe in your journey, but one of the cool things about your journey is that it’s you,” she said. “You don’t need anyone else’s support. The only support you need comes from inside.”

Throughout the conversation, Muhammad emphasized the importance of embracing individuality, maintaining ones personal beliefs and serving others. She talked about the toxicity and futility of comparison to others, adding that one’s biggest and only competitor should be oneself.

“Your true competitor is yourself and I’ve learned to use myself as my biggest competitor,” she said. “I always want to be better than I was yesterday—I want to smile more than yesterday, I want to be happier than I was yesterday, I want to be a better agent of change, I want to do better in my community, locally and globally more the next day or this day than on previous days.”

Muhammad spoke of two options life presented her with: she could either follow the common path of athletes and fade into relative obscurity after winning her medal, or become an “agent of change” with her newfound prominence. 

She also acknowledged and identified with the stress faced by first-years and many Duke students in feeling like they aren’t doing or achieving enough. Although she added that this pressure can help students grow, she also noted that it can be overwhelming and underscored the importance of mental health. 

When McMahon asked Muhammad for a final piece of advice for the first-years, Muhammad suggested that they should explore as many classes and topics as they can.

“I wish someone told me you don’t have to pick your major on day one,” she said. “I didn’t know that international studies was a passion of mine until I got to Duke… I learned so much about myself in taking a multitude of classes here at Duke and I would encourage you to do the same.”

First-year Winnie Lu said that she enjoyed the conversation, noting how relatable and applicable Muhammad’s message was to first-year students.

“I enjoyed the talk a lot,” Lu said. “Muhammad’s story, especially where her life plans changed constantly, was full of advice and lessons that are applicable to a lot of freshmen like me right now who aren’t completely sure what’s ahead of us.”

First-year Angela Wu said that it was “humbling” to get to sit only a few rows away from somebody who has pushed not only herself, but also society’s limits. 

“Even though I’ve heard a lot about Ibtihaj in the news, it felt so different to listen to her speak to us simply as a part of the Duke community,” she added. “I think being able to hear from her made everything she said feel more personally meaningful for me.”

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