Fellowship Spotlight: Juwaun Muhammad
In August, Navigate created a paid fellowship position for students from the underserved communities in our hometown of Chicago, IL. With the creation of this four-month program, our goal is to remove the societal barriers restricting qualified candidates from entering the sports industry and provide real world experience while building their own professional network. Ultimately, our hope is to create and foster a grassroots pipeline that champions and sets careers in motion. With our program in full swing, we wanted to spotlight our fellowship recipient and share a glimpse of his fascinating story.
My name is Juwaun Muhammad, and I’m currently a senior studying psychology at Georgetown University. The past few months I have been interning with the Navigate team and it has been a great opportunity. I learn something new every day, whether it’s about sports business, myself, the world or other sports and entertainment companies. The most rewarding aspect of my experience has been the fact that what I’m learning is valuable and applicable to work, everyday experiences and my own knowledge for future ideas. I’m grateful because it allows my sense of abstract thinking and vision to merge. For as long as I could remember, sports have always been a part of my life and getting to experience the business side of the industry has been extremely beneficial thus far.
When it comes to my personal background, my story is a little different than most. I was born to two teen parents on the southeast side of Chicago, Bronzeville to be exact. My home is precisely a five-minute walk from the White Sox stadium, the best baseball team there is if you ask me. Raised by a single mother, basketball became my security and safe haven because my father was hardly ever in the picture. Growing up I spent countless hours practicing my game hoping one day I could play college basketball with the best of the best. Coming out of 8th grade I was sought after by a handful of respectable high school programs that I would have loved to play for, but my mom had other plans that she believed suited me best academically. As a result, she enrolled me in an all boy high school right down the street from our home, Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men. At the time Urban Prep had been the talk of the city because of its outstanding graduation rate; 100% amongst a group of young, talented African American men. As an institution their focus and mission is to get their students to college, and that’s exactly what they did.
Lifelong Impact of Urban Prep
Attending Urban Prep was one of the best decisions my mother has made for me. Initially I didn’t fully understand what was in store, but once I began my freshman year I quickly realized that Urban Prep was an opportunity for me to walk a path of greatness. I bought into their vision early and understood that this institution could not only change my life, but also the lives in my community and possibly the world. The faculty, values, discipline, education, and brotherhood that was embedded in Urban Prep’s culture allowed me to grow with confidence and a purpose. I felt like I was a part of something that was bigger than myself. Being involved in sports and extracurricular activities gave me the chance to see the power in unity, and I was dedicated to take advantage of every opportunity that would come my way.
My freshmen year I joined the football team as one of the smallest players, to get out my comfort zone and condition myself for basketball season. At the time the basketball program was not taken seriously, and there was not a preseason conditioning program like the other high schools in the city. I knew if I wanted my basketball game to elevate, I would have to work hard for it. From that point on I was dedicated to getting better and learning whatever came with the experience of choosing to play football. Day in day out I showed up to football conditioning with the intentions of getting better than the day before, and my mentality was first to practice and the last to leave. Honestly, I surprised myself at times for being dedicated to a sport I was not necessarily passionate about. I have always believed that when I start something, I give it my all. Quickly a true test dedication presented itself. When the season finally came upon us, I was not given equipment. Initially, I was slightly confused, hurt, and wanted to quit the team because I felt like my hard work and improvement went unnoticed. It felt unfair. However, the pain and confusion healed with time and I decided to stick with the team. Giving up on my brothers and myself was not the answer. Perception allowed me to understand that I was a practice player with equipment or not, and I knew I ultimately brought something valuable to the team. During practice I was that same persistent, relentless, skinny, passionate kid. On game day I let character shine by supporting my brothers from the sideline and became the occasional water boy. If we were winning, I was happy. Ultimately, I had accomplished what I set out to do and learned more than I expected about the game; what it means to be a team, about myself and goal setting. Not only did I become a better football player, but I also understood how to work hard for something individually and with a group of people. However, after that first year of football I decided to hang up my cleats and solely focus on basketball. Fast forward three years later, senior year, the football program asked me to lace back up to play quarterback. They had witnessed the basketball player and leader I became. I was honored and humbled but had to respectfully turn down the offer due to my devotion to basketball. It was devastating to decline, but Urban Prep football will forever have a place in my heart.
Outside of sports I participated in other extracurricular activities that were crucial to my development. Sophomore year I joined the debate team for a few months and enrolled in summer science programs at the University of Chicago and Yale University, while also playing travel basketball. My junior year I decided to focus on basketball because I saw tremendous improvements in my individual success and the program itself had made strides to position our team to compete for city and conference titles. Our hard work, dedication and sacrifices were paying off and we were better than we had ever been. As a captain and a student that started with the program when it was barely anything this new found success was electrifying. We gave the school and community something to look forward to and that was the best feeling. In the end, we ended up placing first in conference and I was awarded First Team and Player of the Year. Unfortunately, I had to sit out the conference championship because of family issues and as a result we loss. We were devastated, but what mattered most was we had improved, met team goals and would be given another opportunity to capture the title our senior year.
After junior year, I was not recruited from the schools I had in mind, with only interest from a few D2 and D3 programs. Throughout my entire time at Urban Prep I was being recruited to transfer and play for other high schools that were known in the city. Growing up, my mom had always preached loyalty – that character means everything – and books over basketball. If I did not have all A’s, she would take basketball away, so I kept a clean report card. When coaches would reach out to her she would respectfully hear them out, but at the end of the day it was the same answer and reasoning. At one point I wanted to leave Urban Prep solely because of basketball. I knew that if I transferred to a better basketball program my chances of playing college basketball at the highest level would be greater. However, I had to think about all I would be leaving behind and realize what mattered long term. Ultimately, I chose to bet on myself and my brothers. That meant we had to work harder and smarter to get where we wanted to be. I chose to challenge myself and make the best out of what I was given. Choosing to stick with Urban prep was one of the best decisions I made for myself. If I were to leave Urban Prep, I would have left behind a lot of what helped shaped me and my brothers. I fully understood that basketball was an extension of who I was, it was something I was passionate about and good at.
The summer before my senior year was the most exciting time I had in high school. I was enrolled and invited to spend four weeks at Georgetown University for a Journalism and Broadcasting program and a basketball camp. It was the best of both worlds. I had visited and spent time at other top universities before, but Georgetown felt different. The atmosphere was something I had never experienced before on a college campus. The people were welcoming, and the city of DC reminded me of home. The Journalism and Broadcasting program provided me with an opportunity to identify my talents and skills. It was a challenge, but it was enjoyable and brought out the best of me. Immediately after the educational program was over, I went straight into the basketball camp. At the end of camp, I won Most Valuable Player and caught the attention of a George Mason assistant coach and Georgetown’s assistant coach at the time, Kevin Sutton. Coach Sutton expressed that he liked my game, but he respected my passion more. The coaches found out I was there before the camp for academic reasons and that I was ranking second in my class at the time, so he expressed a walk-on opportunity if I applied and was accepted at the university. Hearing those words were music to my ears, and I knew senior year was all about business.
Once senior year started, I applied to a total of five schools and Georgetown topped the list. I was focused and motivated to graduate from Urban Prep at the top of my class and wanted it to be the best year yet. Before school began, I wrote out my goals and how I would accomplish them. Academically, it was receiving an acceptance letter to Georgetown and receiving the Gates Scholarship, so that my mother would not have to worry about paying for school. Athletically, I wanted my team to win the conference championship. Lastly, one of the largest goals was to contribute more to the school from a leadership perspective. As an upper classman I had experienced more than my colleagues, so I decided to run for school President. I understood the responsibility that came with these goals and the amount of patience I would need to keep myself sane and balanced through it all. I was confident in my ability as a student, a basketball player, and a leader. I was on a mission and believed in myself. In the end, I ended up winning the Presidency, the team finally won our first school championship, and I was accepted into Georgetown on a full ride in addition to receiving the Gates Scholarship. I had accomplished what I had set out to do and realized the power of being consistent, persistent, accountable, selfless, and resilient. I was now ready to take on the challenges that Georgetown had to offer.
Fast forward four years later and Georgetown has been a pivotal transition in my life that I am extremely grateful for. I have had high and low points in college, but kept the belief that everything happens for a reason. When I came in as a freshman, I began my manager duties with the basketball team with the intention of working my way up to become a player. During practice I was a practice player, but when game days came I would dress up in my suit and cheer from the sideline. I was thankful for the opportunity to be at a highly recognized academic institution with a historic college basketball program, and I was entirely in the moment learning whatever I could. Then, the program made the decision of firing the head coach and that decision sadly brought my basketball career to a halt. I was removed from the program due to the new coaching staff and it was devastating. After I was removed as a manager, I tried my best to still walk on, but politics got in the way of me conquering my dream. I found myself depressed for a while and could not understand why the program wouldn’t give me a chance. I knew it wasn’t because I didn’t have the skills and that bothered me the most. Basketball not being a part of my life caused me to fall into depression. It felt like an identity crisis and my mental health took a turn for the worse.
At one point during my junior year I considered transferring because I was not happy. My whole life I had been playing basketball and it was a big part of why I worked hard for good grades. Not having the sport took pieces of my character, specifically my passion for life. As a result, my academic success started to decline, I was not myself and I would isolate myself from everybody else. It felt like I didn’t have a purpose anymore. On top of not playing basketball I began to deal with childhood trauma and the barriers of being a minority at a predominantly white institution. Where I am from and Georgetown are two different places and as a result, I had a hard time adjusting. Over time, I convinced myself that transferring was not the way to go. I had to focus on what was important and that was my education, development as a professional, and a man. Junior year I started to piece myself together, and with that came choosing to major in psychology. I had taken a handful of psychology classes before and enjoyed the fact that this knowledge could help me understand myself, my family, and the world around me. I was not sure if psychology would be something I would continue to pursue after school, but I knew that I could utilize it to my advantage to get myself out of the mental slump I was in.
The Creation of Mental Wealth
Then, one day the best idea hit me, Mental Wealth. Once I began to understand mental health and the psychology behind it, I understood that I was not the only person who suffered from mental health issues. However, at the time mental health was not something people were open or vocal about. For some reason, there is a negative stigma behind it, especially in minority communities. I wanted to help create change, starting with the youth. Originally, Mental Wealth started as a clothing line to reach the younger demographic and to represent mental health in a positive light. I learned that fashion and streetwear was a movement because statement pieces and lifestyle brands can help people get through dark times. Mental Wealth’s intentions are to give people something to hold on to and to serve as reminder to what really matters in times of adversity. However, since then the vision has grown much more than that, and so have I.
I am a big believer in becoming your brand before you start actual business. As a result, my first semester of senior year I decided to take a break from school and spend time at home to give myself a chance to heal wombs I knew needed attention before I stepped out into the real world as an adult. During my time off, I began to study Islam (the study of peace) and attended weekly therapy sessions. Also, I studied the Quran day and night learning Arabic, and dedicated my entire semester off congregating with the men of the Masjid. Islam has given me lifelong tools and education that will forever be a part of me and my brand. It has helped me understand my purpose, vision and redefined my passion. I grew a zest for life that I have not had before. The practice of daily meditations and prayer have aligned my intentions and shaped the new ideas for Mental Wealth. My plan for my brand is to be a pillar in the communities at home and possibly the world – becoming one of the change agents that spread positivity through Chicago – through charity events, workshops, merchandise, entertainment, and other events. I do not want to limit what Mental Wealth becomes. I want to make my way back home and contribute to the rebuilding of Chicago.
As a fellowship recipient at Navigate, the experience thus far has allowed me to evolve as a person and my business mind. Upon starting with Navigate my goals were to ask as many questions as possible, be open minded, develop communication, technology, and interpersonal skills. With one month left I believe I have been exceeding those goals. It is amazing how much a person can grow over the span of a couple of months. I thank Navigate for this opportunity because this fellowship has given me direction and confidence to follow through with my ideas. Not only do I have the vision, but I also now understand and see the detailed work it is going to take to be successful.