Over the last few weeks, Oxford University has been front and centre in an unexpected location: Ackley Bridge. The Channel 4 drama, set in an academy school in Yorkshire, has featured a prominent storyline where central character Nas (Nasreen) Paracha decides whether to go to Oxford University. In one episode, Nas even attended an interview at Magdalen College (sorry, Matthias College), and the University worked closely with producers, to ensure the process shown was as authentic as possible.
As the series and the storyline have progressed to a natural conclusion, Nas has grappled with all of the questions that any other applicant would: will I make friends? Am I good enough to do the work? And as an Asian teenager with working class roots, that has included issues of class, race and identity, and has even seen her confronting her own unconscious biases.
More black and minority ethnic students now attend Oxford University than ever before (more than 18 per cent of the undergraduate student body), thanks to targeted initiatives such as UNIQ summer school. The recently announced Opportunity Oxford and Foundation Oxford programmes will encourage further access growth, with one in four students set to be from under-represented backgrounds by 2023.
However, even though the University is evolving and actively working to do so at a faster pace, it is still not uncommon for a person of colour to walk into a room and see no one that looks like them.
A previous participant on UNIQ, and someone both affected by, and now contributing to, the changing-face of Oxford, Anisha Faruk, incoming President of the Oxford Student Union (SU) and a recent History graduate from Queens College, shares her University experience.
Did you always want to go to Oxford?
I didn’t really start thinking about where I wanted to go to university until I was in Year 10, and even then I didn’t think of Oxford as a realistic option for me, a south Asian (Bangladeshi), state-school girl from Wembley, North West London.
What changed your mind?
A school trip to Cambridge really opened my eyes, and made me think that I could not only get into Oxbridge, but I might actually like it too. I was still unsure until I took the UNIQ summer school at Oxford, when I was doing my A-Levels, and that sealed the deal for me.
I took the history course-led residential, and loved every second. The mix of lectures, mock tutorials, with essay feedback and socialising with current student ambassadors — including some just like me, really bought the student experience to life for me, and helped me to see Oxford as somewhere that I could be happy.
Were your school supportive?
I was lucky to have teachers that always encouraged my ambitions, and once I had made up my mind where I wanted to go, pushed me to apply.
It was my teachers that told me about UNIQ and got me into other access programmes, such as Futures, which is a Teach First initiative.
When you were offered a place did you have any concerns about accepting?
As much as I loved UNIQ I had massive concerns about actually going to Oxford.
I went to a state school in West London, which was majority BME. I never felt like a minority at school, and even though Oxford is still diverse compared to some areas of the country, I am very much a minority here. I was terrified. And when I started it took some getting used to.
What were you most worried about before starting?
Other than the obvious concerns about being a minority in a predominantly white institution, my fears were everything that you might expect. I was worried about living away from home. I was also worried about making friends and fitting in. Making friends socialising had never been something that I was good at.
“I went to a state school in West London which was majority BME. I never felt like a minority at school, and even though Oxford is still diverse compared to some areas of the country, I am very much a minority here.”
But if anything, Oxford has really helped with my confidence. Without being out of my comfort zone, and in a situation where I had to actively try to meet new people and put myself out there to get the best from my time here, I never would have run for SU President, or gone on to win it. If someone had told me in my first year that I would become Co-chair of the Labour Club and SU President, I never would have believed them. I didn’t even know what they were.
How did you find your feet at Oxford?
It took me a little while. My first year was quite hard, and I felt really isolated — because I was isolating myself. But, in second year I decided to get more involved in student life and activism. I joined the SU, the Labour Club and became Editor of the Oxford Student newspaper.
Getting involved in access also helped me a lot. UNIQ changed my life, and as a student ambassador I have been able to help people of similar backgrounds see Oxford in a new light.
Two years in, and I love it here. The city itself is beautiful, and you can take it for granted. But Oxford is a lovely place to live.
What is the biggest misconception that you have heard about Oxford?
That it isn’t somewhere for people like me.
Obviously Oxford is not reflective of the rest of the country, and there is always more to be done on the access front. But the University’s approach to access has really improved in recent years, and students themselves are working hard in this space too.
There is an understanding that diversity is beneficial for the university and society to ensure that we have fair representation of all communities and of the country at large.
How easy was it to connect with other Asian students / and make friends in general?
My friendships evolved naturally, rather than me actively thinking about them.
There are more cultural activities at Oxford than you would probably imagine like Bangra night, and different societies. I attended the Diwali Ball in my first year, and met lots of other Asian students through that.
It is reassuring to know that there are students like you here, but I have also made friends with people from private schools, other areas of the country, and all over the world, that I never would have crossed paths with without coming here. You notice some differences, but largely it has broadened my horizons and encouraged me to have a wider range of friends.
What do you find most challenging?
Some people have assumed that I am not a student, and I have found myself in a room where I am the only BAME person, which never gets any less weird — especially compared to my life at school.
I find that talking to people that I admire here, who have been in similar positions — BAME and otherwise — really helps me. Knowing that other people around you go through the same things you do creates solidarity, and makes it easier to rise above it.
“It is reassuring to know that there are students like you here, but I have also made friends with people from private schools, other areas of the country, and all over the world, that I never would have crossed paths with without coming here. You notice some differences, but largely it has broadened my horizons and encouraged me to have a wider range of friends.”
Do you think there is more work to be done on access?
I think we are getting closer to how it should be, but still have a way to go.
The University are doing a good job of getting more people of diverse backgrounds to apply at undergraduate and postgraduate level — students that even a few decades ago would not have applied. But maintaining access for current students is a big issue that doesn’t get as much airtime as it should.
Students themselves have done a really good job of driving a more inclusive environment. At The SU we run regular access campaigns, including CRAE, our campaign for racial awareness and equality.
Some of the elite societies still exist, but are becoming more and more unpopular with the student body at large.
I know you benefited from access schemes yourself, but how important do you think access is to the University as a whole?
A positive university experience is all to do with access and diversity. Not just with students, but at university level, with staff and lecturers. Representation plays a critical role in encouraging greater diversity, which grows and grows.
Having teachers and senior staff that look like you is so important, and a lot of students want to see a brown or black professor. When you are considering a career in research yourself, it is reassuring when you can see that there is a space for you in academia.
What are you most looking forward to as SU President?
Widening access was my platform for being an SU President, so encouraging inclusion and respect for all students is a huge part of my mission as President. A big part of that will be reviewing the implementation of the access initiatives.
I am looking forward to meeting the students and people at the University who are doing amazing things, and seeing how I can best support them and amplify their voices — whether that be access work, or campaigning on liberation issues.
I am really lucky to be in a position where I can be inspired by these people, facilitate their work and bring it to a wider audience.
What advice would you give to incoming students starting in the autumn?
Firstly welcome, and I hope you are as happy here as I have been.
Also, don’t be shy like I was. Student services can really help you to transition to university life. Take control of your experience, and get involved in student democracy and campaigning.
It is a really rewarding, worthwhile thing to do. The Student Union is a great place to be in the driving seat of making Oxford a better place for other students.
We will be active and around during Fresher’s Week, and we will reach out to students, and hope that you will reach out to us too.
Do you watch Ackley Bridge?
I have been busy this year with my studies and Student Union campaign, so I haven’t seen the show. But I know the gist of the storyline and think it is a really positive thing to be doing. Talking about Oxford in this way, on prime time TV, may help people understand that Oxford has a place for BAME students, and for them.
Ackley Bridge airs tonight Tuesday 6 August at 8pm on Channel 4: https://www.channel4.com/programmes/ackley-bridge
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Want to read more? Try our articles on: Opportunity Oxford: What do the students think?, UNIQ voices — Perspectives from past UNIQ Summer School students, and How to shine in an Oxford interview.
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