2019 Stanford Baccalaureate address by Ibtihaj Muhammad
Following is the prepared text of the 2019 Baccalaureate address, “Conquering the Impossible,” by activist and entrepreneur Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Good morning. I’m honored to be sharing this day with you all, and want to say how moving this ceremony has been and how grateful I am to be included with all the other wonderful contributors.
I remember 12 years ago when I graduated from Duke. It was already warm outside, early signs of muggy and sticky North Carolina summer. I had double-majored in international relations and African and African American studies. I had developed a support system of friends, academic mentors, as well as an environment where I had been able to advance my skills as a fencer. I had established the core upon which I would build my adult life, but I was aware that I was leaving behind a community in which I had, not without problems, thrived.
I returned to my hometown, Maplewood, New Jersey, a diverse, middle-class suburb about a half hour from New York City. This is the place where I had learned to rely on a support system outside myself, but also that in the end taught me that in order to succeed – and to succeed in sports means to rise higher and do better than your opponents – it was up to me to do the work.
But now, even though I was in my home environment, and back with my close family, I was stymied. I wasn’t able to find a challenging job, and was considering law school.
At this point I may sound like a very typical college graduate; at loose ends, worried about the future. But I was far from a typical college graduate. When I interviewed for jobs in New York City, it was very clear that the people I spoke with were not used to sitting across from an African American woman in a hijab. I’d been aware of being the “other” ever since I was a girl, and my family and I had found ways to work within and around the systems and keep rising. I wasn’t naïve and I wasn’t a child any longer.
From that point on, much happened, some of it very difficult, some of it amazing. I won’t go into the chronology of all that transpired – I spent a year writing a book about it so if you’re really interested in the play-by-play, you can find it there.
The short version is that, after a brief period of unsatisfying part-time employment and half- baked plans for law school, I found myself determined to pick up my sabre again and become the first woman of color and sabreist on the U.S. National Fencing Team. I not only managed that unlikely feat, but went on to the Olympics, won an Olympic medal, started my own successful business, and became an advocate for the advancement of women and girls in sports.
But while I won’t dwell on the details, I do want to frame my experience from my commencement to your commencement by focusing on three aspects of the journey: the role of teachers and mentors; the power of discipline and resilience; and the importance of faith and community.
So first, teachers and mentors. Those of you who are leaving Stanford today and not planning to move on to graduate school may be under the impression that you’re also saying goodbye to teachers – finally, you have all the answers and your days of being instructed to are happily over. Actually, I’m pretty sure most of you know that’s not the case.
I’ve always held teachers – and for me that term includes coaches and trainers – in the highest regard; from an early age I had looked up to them and was eager to grasp all the knowledge I could. That was fortunate for me, because I knew that embarking on this new journey meant I had so much to learn.
It’s hard to describe the knowledge and experience gap that lay before me. Essentially, most athletes who dream of an Olympic team in my sport have already made cadet and junior teams, and at the very least competed in senior competitions. I had done neither. I had no domestic or world ranking. But I did have two things – faith and a crazy work ethic.
I sought out guidance from my old fencing instructors – my high school coach, and the mentors and coaches at the Peter Westbrook Foundation in New York City where I had trained as a young woman before I left for Duke. Through those communities and others I connected with, I was able to gain the knowledge I needed – sometimes by building me up, other times by tearing me down – at least the parts of me that were getting in the way of my advancing to the next level.
One thing I learned throughout this process is that as important as teachers and mentors are, they are also human beings, and have the same strengths and the same weaknesses as any of us. They can and will have other priorities as well, and at the end of the day, they can’t be a substitute for your own determination to succeed; they can only help you if you help yourself.
Which brings me to discipline and resilience. A lot of people think that Olympic athletes – or any athletes at the pinnacle of success – have supernatural ability, that they are made of different stuff than the rest of us. Maybe that’s true for some, but certainly not for me. I knew I had to work hard, harder than I ever had, if I wanted to conquer the impossible.
In sports, there is so much uncertainty. You have ups and downs, where you may win a medal at one World Cup and lose your very first match in the next. You can find yourself having to compete injured and exhausted against an opponent who will not let up on you because you might not be at 100 percent.
You can even contract food poisoning the day before one of the most important qualifying events for the Olympics – yes, that really happened, and it was as horrible as you can imagine. Each time you have to choose how to deal with that reality. You have to believe in the process and never allow fear to override your commitment to faith.
I made the conscious decision to learn from every defeat. I started to study my opponents by learning their strengths and weaknesses. I wrote everything down in every single competition. I would watch hours and hours of videos and spend time at practice honing my technique. I never allowed defeat to define me.
I was never afraid. By choosing happiness at every single practice and every single competition, whether I performed well or not, whether my coaches or trainers were dedicated to my success or not, whether my teammates accepted me or not, my happiness was in my own hands. And I chose to be happy.
I give credit for the strength to create my own happiness to my faith and the communities in which my faith is practiced. As I qualified for my first national team, my faith had evolved and expanded to include the things in life I deemed important and acceptable, even if others were less happy with my choices.
I had moved beyond a childhood relationship with Allah, and my faith no longer required others’ interpretation or direction. I put my trust in God and allowed things to happen as they were supposed to. I never wanted things out of my control to shake me.
There is a saying in my faith, that what is meant for you, will reach you even if it is beneath two mountains. And what isn’t meant for you, won’t reach you even if it is between your two lips.
This decision to approach each competition from a place of faith, while at the same time representing Team USA, reshaped my conversations with God. I stopped praying for a win or only praying during times of difficulties, and I started to ask Allah to allow me to represent my country, my communities, and my family well.
I asked Allah to protect me from those who didn’t want good for me and surround me instead with those who would encourage and uplift me. I asked Allah to help me show patience even when the world was testing me.
In return I was able to not only pursue my dreams of competing at the highest level, I was able to explore my faith and broaden my entire definition of community far beyond what I had experienced as a child in New Jersey, or even through my studies at Duke. In my sport, we traveled to 10-12 countries each year. I reveled in the opportunities to see other cultures, and in particular meet others whose lives were very different from mine but who shared my faith.
Walking into Maracanã Stadium the day of Opening Ceremonies at the Olympic Games, shoulder to shoulder with fellow athletes from different parts of the U.S., from different backgrounds, of varied faiths and experiences, united under the flag of red, white, and blue, was one of the proudest moments of my life. I realized that faith in God, the guidance from my mentors, believing in myself even when others didn’t, and my resilience and commitment to my dream, brought me to this moment. And without each of these things happening, I would not have conquered the impossible. I would not have competed at the highest level, not have moved from an unranked outsider to the number 7 ranked sabre fencer in the world. Never be afraid to do what you’re destined to do.
I want to end by saying that if you ever need an example of how faith can expand your concept of community rather than limit it, you can always look back to this celebration we are having right now, and in particular the wonderful reading, the music, and the prayers.
For you graduates, your journeys are just beginning. Your destinies await you, just as mine did, and still does. Your lives can be rich and meaningful if you continue to learn, if when you fall you bounce back, and if you embrace, protect, and expand your communities to include those who for too long have been considered the “other.”
Much has changed between my commencement and this one. The world we are living in today is not the world I envisioned on that warm spring day in Durham 12 years ago.
But it is a world that, more than ever, needs each of you to step up, learn and grow, and attempt the impossible. And I have faith that you will, God willing, or as we say in Arabic, inshallah.