Tomorrow, Thursday 9 June 2022, HEPI is hosting its annual conference, ‘Challenges for the future? The student experience, good governance and institutional autonomy’. Register here.
The fourth in this blog series on Living Black at University was written by Zoe Olawore, an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge. Zoe has authored several articles for Varsity, Cambridge and Oxford’s student newspaper. Find out more about Unite Students’ Commission here.
Although Cambridge admitted a record number of undergraduates from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds in 2020, my University remains a predominantly White institution. For the time being, this is inescapable. Despite often feeling alienated by the students around me, I am comforted by the efforts of my college and accommodation. Through the work of my college, I have found some sense of belonging and a home far from home.
When applying to colleges I overlooked the importance of the attitudes of staff. As HEPI pointed out in the last blog in this series, in 2020, security staff allegedly racially profiled a student at Manchester University. When I visited my friend’s college – ironically known as the ‘friendly college’ – I felt the porters would leave their lodge more frequently than necessary to monitor me and my friend. At another college, I saw that groups of us – all Black – were stopped while White friendship grounds were not treated with suspicion. I quickly learnt that my place at a historically elite, predominantly White university would be questioned.
Yet when I speak to the porters and other staff at my college, I am consistently greeted with neutrality. The staff do not create this exaggerated demonstration of ‘acceptance’ which would only serve to highlight how different I am. At my college, the staff treat me as what I am – simply another student.
One’s environment plays a great role in whether or not one feels like they belong. Even though my accommodation and wider college are not diverse, the items around me are. Late at night, eager to see all my college, I visited the chapel. Much to my surprise, I saw pamphlets about Black issues and books like God is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald. For many, the church represents an institution of exclusion, so I was surprised to see symbols of inclusion. Knowing that my college made a conscious effort for students of colour to feel seen was comforting.
In the library there was also a plethora of books which dived into African history and other topics pertaining to Blackness. The multitude of books of this nature made me realise that I was in a space where learning about Black people was not treated like a ‘badge of honour’: it was the norm.
Perhaps one of the greatest factors that contributes to my sense of belonging is the way I feel heard. It is a common phenomenon in our society that the concerns of Black people are silenced, specifically in the context of healthcare. Despite BAME communities being at a comparatively higher risk of mental illness, their issues often go undiagnosed. I believe one reason for this is Black mental health is diminished because of the persistent stereotype of ‘Black strength’.
So, I was surprised to find that my mental health was treated as a genuine concern at my college. Before arriving, I contacted my college’s welfare officer (a woman of colour) and spoke to her about my worries for my mental health. I was anxious that the pressure of academia would boil over and impact my emotional health and other aspects of my life. My college welfare officer took my mental health seriously and showed me the various ways I could get help through long-term therapy, for example. My concerns were not simply dismissed, but the importance of my mental health was taken seriously. I started to feel heard and with that came a sense of belonging.
It may be a long time before Black people are properly represented at our most selective higher education institutions in the UK. Until then, however, a conscious effort to ensure Black students feel safe and comfortable is a step in the right direction. In my experience, practical steps by all members of staff, representation in all spaces at university, and proper mental health support go a long way to help students find a sense of belonging.
Register here for HEPI’s annual conference.