Aliya Itzkowitz
En garde: Aliya Itzkowitz, pictured at Oxford Saïd, hopes to qualify for the Olympics © Tom Pilston

I would describe myself as quite a multicultural person. My mum is Indian, while my dad is American. My surname is Jewish but my first name is Muslim.

Growing up in London, that wasn’t really much of an issue because the city is so diverse. But on the international fencing circuit people will sometimes peer curiously at me, wondering what my background is.

I started fencing internationally when I was about 13 and pursued it at a pretty high level. I was fortunate in that I had the support of my school, which let me miss occasional days to compete at World Cups, and that of my family in terms of making it all work.

I was recruited by a few US universities because they look for people who have the grades but also sporting ability. I had the chance of getting a full scholarship to some of the bigger state universities that are better known for sports but I chose Harvard, which did not offer a scholarship but was more academically challenging.

I did a bachelor’s degree in South Asian Studies at Harvard. It was a great place to be both a student and an athlete because Americans are sports-crazy.

That decision to go to Harvard has influenced my choices since. I have consistently prioritised academics and my career, even now, as I’m studying for an MBA at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School while attempting to qualify for the next Olympics. It’s definitely not typical for people in international sports.

But in fencing, only a certain number of teams can qualify to the Olympics from each region. It is a very European sport, so coming from here puts you at a disadvantage. Over the next year I’m going to compete in the World Cup qualifiers and try to improve my ranking so I can get one of the few Olympic slots available.

I fence about three times a week. On one of those days I go to London to train with the national team. It is definitely less than a lot of my competitors, but it is what I’m able to manage with my programme.

I don’t get a huge amount of sleep, but everyone is extremely busy at Saïd. While my story might be a bit more unusual, I’m definitely not special as everybody is balancing a lot of things.

My course is very international, I am one of the few Brits in the class. A lot of my friends are from South America, South Africa and Asia. The type of person who ends up here is typically one who likes to push themselves in several different directions.

It is a 12-month course and we study in blocks of three classes. We have already completed the first two blocks, which were accounting, technology, and operations and organisational behaviour, followed by finance, marketing and analytics.

There is always someone interesting coming to speak at the school, and politicians or other high-profile people are often guests at the Oxford Union. In fact, there are so many things to do here that you’re always choosing one at the expense of another. I think everybody is finding that both a blessing and a curse. We are here for a year and want to soak up as much as possible, but there is only so much time in a day.

I was not really sure if now was the right time to head back to university. I definitely get a lot of questions about why I wanted to do an MBA now, given that the Olympics are next year. But for me, it was a continuation of always prioritising my future alongside my sport.

After my first degree, I was in a job that I liked, but I did not see accelerating in the next few years. I was working in cryptocurrency research for Enigma Securities, but the sector is essentially in limbo until we get more regulation. I was feeling a bit stuck and decided to look for a chance to go back to school and learn — and find out more about what I can potentially see myself doing in the next phase of my career.

I’m quite open-minded when it comes to what I want to do in the future. I think a lot of people here are in a similar position. In a way, if you know exactly what you do, you don’t really go to business school. A lot of us are exploring.

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