The student who was ‘amazed’ by her excellent A levels — and is inspired by her dad

Two years ago Tara Khalid achieved the grades she needed to take up her Cambridge place. She describes herself as defying most of the Cambridge stereotypes. Her passion for learning was encouraged by her teachers but it was her father who taught her to think critically.

Tara Khalid at Sidney Sussex College (Nick Saffel)

I was convinced that I’d messed up in the exams and would miss my offer for Cambridge. But after a sleepless night, I felt strangely calm and went into school early to get my results. The teachers let me in and looked happy which seemed a good sign. My careers advisor, the teacher most involved in my application, flashed up my results on her computer.

Relief was my initial response but then elation — I’d done it! I got to open the actual envelope and waited for my friends to arrive to see how they all did. After that, I celebrated by going into Harrogate town centre with my dad and having a Greggs pasty on a bench.

My dad is definitely the biggest influence in my life. It’s from him that I got my love of learning, and I find it hard to talk about my life without making reference to his. He gave up acting and writing jobs in order to stay home and look after me and my brother. During my younger years we would draw together and he would write diaries with me next to him, scribbling away in a notebook.

We went through some hard times together. For a year dad and I lived in the attic of my grandmother’s house. There was a hole in the wall and the windows screamed every time the wind picked up. We discussed nearly all aspects of life, from the plotlines of television programmes we’d watch to what we thought about religion. I learnt to engage critically with the world. That’s one of the reasons I chose to do a degree in philosophy.

My teachers encouraged me 100 per cent. I went to a comprehensive in Harrogate. It was considered the roughest school in the area when I joined in Year 7, but the teachers were fantastic and the school improved a lot. With their help, I took A levels in Maths, English literature, Physics, Biology and Religious Studies, plus an AS in Psychology.

At school I took every opportunity on offer. I did work experience in the office of the local MP and was invited back for an internship. I was on the school council and created our school yearbooks. I sang in the choir and played the saxophone in the jazz band. Helping in lessons led me to volunteer in Oxfam and the local library. In the sixth form I spent two weeks in London on an internship in the Department for Education with the Social Mobility Foundation.

I took part in the shadowing scheme run by Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU). The scheme is aimed at year-12s from state schools which don’t have a history of applications to Oxbridge. It was one of the best experiences of my life. I spent three days shadowing a first-year divinity student, attending lectures and meeting her friends. Everything felt perfect. A few months later I made an application.

I thought my admissions interviews had gone badly. In the first one I was asked about something in my personal statement and I went blank. I said “Oh, I’m so silly”, and there was a 20-second silence. The second interview started with tears streaming down my face. It went better as I was able to ‘moderately banter’ with the interviewers. But I accidentally implied they were old — which they weren’t. I took the train home convinced that I’d failed.

I was amazed to get the offer of a place. My friends, family and teachers weren’t surprised — they were certain I’d get in. Once I had the offer I could concentrate on my A levels and getting the grades I needed — A*AA. I spent the summer volunteering for the Summer Reading Challenge at the library, and reading philosophy. When the results came, I’d got A*A*AAA.

My shyness has never stopped me asking questions. I don’t like talking when I don’t think I can be useful to the parties listening, or if I don’t have a point I want to make. However, I believe that if you want to know something, you should ask without feeling embarrassed. I even asked questions of the lecturers while I was on the CUSU shadowing scheme.

Each week I visit a Turkish family to help two children with their homework. They live in suburban Cambridge and speak Turkish at home. I was teamed up with them by a scheme organised by Student Community Action. It’s great to see the children begin to focus and make progress. Access and social mobility are my life. I want to be able to help others from similar backgrounds to mine have some of the opportunities I did.

I’m far removed from any of the stereotypes that might exist about Cambridge students. My dad is from a Pakistani family and my mother is white, though I never saw either side of the family much. At home, we lived on a tight budget. Chocolate bars were a luxury and the idea of holidays never crossed our minds — my dad perfected the art of living on £10 a week for food.

No-one in my family had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Even after two years, the idea that I actually go here is still surreal.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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