Originally published in Issue 13, Fifty-First Year of The Minstrel (April 13, 2017). Click here to view the entire issue.
Senior biology major Ayesha Riaz embodied bravery and courage as the only Muslim student to compete for the Academic Excellence Address this year.
Due to the anti-Muslim sentiment that is present around the world today, Riaz felt fear being the only Pakistani, Muslim student competing in a competition that was primarily white, Catholic students.
Riaz moved to the United States from Pakistan two years ago. She struggled with having to learn English and becoming accustomed to the cultural differences in the U.S. She plans for a future in the medical field as a physician assistant and knew she would need English to succeed, so she challenged herself and taught herself English.
During her struggles with the language, she never imagined having the opportunity to compete for the Academic Excellence Address.
“The presence of my professors on the day of the speech to support me, gave me a sense of strength and energy, which I probably can’t express in words,” said Riaz.
Riaz’s speech explained her adjustment from moving from Pakistan to the U.S.
“The gist of my speech was, ‘We can conquer the world following the virtues of perseverance.’ We can achieve whatever we desire in life if we’re hard working, determined, honest and respectful to those who have taught us,” said Riaz.
After the first round of the competition was over, Riaz was unsure if she would move on to the next round, and was moved with emotions to hear that she made it through.
“I was uncertain about how much support I might receive because I am a Muslim student in these uncertain times,” she said. “But the result announcement brought tears in my eyes and totally changed my perspective about DeSales’ faculty and made me feel proud that I became a part of this institution where decisions are made on the basis of capabilities and talent, and not on the basis of race and religion.”
“So many people have shown me compassion and love, and I realized that they really care about me and they don’t consider me a bad person as being a Muslim,” Riaz adds.
Riaz had two main reasons for competing in the Academic Excellence Address. She recalls her first day at DeSales in the admissions office where she saw a photo of Madame Benazir Bhutto, the 12th Prime Minister of Pakistan and the first Muslim woman to head a Muslim majority nation.
“She lectured in DeSales University once, and that was such an inspiring moment to me,” said Riaz. “So I prayed to God, and I want to see my photo or name plaque on the wall of this intuition as a Muslim woman due to my accomplishments.”
Her other main reason for competing was to be able to express her thoughts and thank the people who have helped her succeed at DeSales the past two years.
“I really could not have accomplished all this without their help and support. So, this speech was just a way to pay tribute to all those people especially my family and teachers who have helped me going through tough times,” she said.
Riaz made it to the second round of the competition where she delivered her speech to the Academic Oversight Committee, which is made up of the five division heads; the deans of undergraduate education, graduate education and lifelong learning; and the Provost.
Junior pharmaceutical marketing major Jenna Haydt was selected the winner of the competition and will be giving the Academic Excellence Address at the Academic Excellence Celebration on Sunday, April 23 at 1:30 p.m. in Connelly Chapel. She will be awarded a prize of $500.
Lastly, Riaz wishes DeSales would have a club specifically for Muslim or International students who move to the U.S. in order to help them with the different cultural, religious and academic backgrounds they are exposed to and make their transition easier.
“In the end, I would like to say, I love this institution and I wish I could stay here longer, but this institution taught me way beyond my expectations and made me a strong and confident person who can now confront all challenges,” said Riaz.