Adeluwoye imagined cycling past King's CHapelLisha Zhong

This week marks my last shift at work – a North London fish and chip shop.

No, I do not fit the Cambridge stereotype: privately educated, white, and upper class do not describe me, and my parents did not finish their education. However, they had an unwavering belief in its power, and instilled this value in me. As such, I set my sights high. When we were asked to write down our dream universities in secondary school, I confidently wrote down ‘Cambridge’. But to my disappointment and shock, I was given a pitiful glance by my secondary school teacher and told to be ‘a bit more realistic.’ My 15-year-old self was disheartened.

As I stared back at my scrawny handwriting, I could not understand what was so unrealistic about attending Cambridge. I had recently watched the Theory of Everything, with Eddie Redmayne starring as the young Stephen Hawking, cycling past the backdrop of King’s College Chapel and zooming through narrow-cobbled streets. I pictured myself, too, rushing past magnificent buildings on my way to lectures and chasing friends down quaint back alleys.

Maybe my teacher was right to slam the door in my face before I could even walk up the pathway, maybe it’s better to give up before you even begin, to save yourself the hurt 

In this fairy-tale daze, I started doing research about Cambridge admissions- but my jaw dropped. I found out that every year, more than 17,000 bright young people apply to follow Stephen’s footsteps, but only 3,500 make it through. Suddenly, I wondered whether my secondary teacher was right to tell me that I was being unrealistic: how could I dare to think that I had the potential to attend the same university as Hawking?

For black/mixed-race students, the barriers set in front of us are exacerbated by the fact that we tend only to be shown a rigid range of possibilities for ourselves. For example, when year 10 work experience was upon us, to my dissatisfaction, we were only offered the opportunity to go to retail shops. What about us budding lawyers, politicians and scientists? Why were we as a collective – simply because of our socio-economic background – expected to amount to nothing more than menial labour?

Experiences such as these quickly made me realise that for a resident of Wood Green, North London, Cambridge was virtually unobtainable. More than my place of residence, I realised that my very person – a state educated, mixed-race, and working-class woman – made Cambridge more and more like a distant fairy-tale. After all, what did I have in common with Hawking?

The ACS conference burst open the door that my secondary teacher had slammed shut

Fortunately, as I was scrolling through my twitter feed one day, I came across a tweet by Courtney Daniella (a former black Cambridge vlogger) which advertised an Access Conference hosted by the African Caribbean Society (ACS). Such new platforms and initiatives have altered the landscape for prospective students like me, because they allow us to perceive Oxbridge through their own eyes. Ethnic minority vloggers offer an alternative vision of life within the university I once dreamt of; ethnic minority-specific access events have offered me real-life connections that inspire and give me hope for a future that once seemed impossible.

The twitter post restored my hope, and I immediately signed up for the conference. Being in a room full of black current and prospective students filled me with awe, because it made me realise that Cambridge did not have to be a fairy-tale dream – it could be my future reality. 

No matter what happens, I’ll remember that at the end of the day, I belong here

In particular, it was my mentor, former ACS President Ore Ogunbiyi, that gave me the courage to walk through that door. Ore dedicated hours per week Skyping me and holding interviews. I am extremely grateful for her care and devotion, but those sessions did something even more important: I saw a positive and intelligent young black woman studying the degree I hoped to gain admission to. In Ore, I saw myself, and the possibility of my future. Her guidance and feedback improved my self-confidence as she told me I was a strong candidate, and that I had every right to apply and study at Cambridge like herself. It was the tight-knit black community within Cambridge that extended their hand to me as a prospective student and now as an incoming fresher. I am determined to enable this community to flourish, and graciously extend my hand to my current mentee through her application process. 


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Forty lessons from first year

Worry and excitement fill me at the thought of beginning term in a few short days. Starting university will undoubtedly be a difficult time of transitioning, from frying fish on Friday nights to attending formals and balls. I wonder how much of the Cambridge fantasy will turn out to be a reality: the Harry Potter-esque robes, the May balls and the fancy buildings – or will my fantasy bubble be burst by a plethora of microaggressions, endless deadlines and a disappointing, Eurocentric curriculum?

Communities like FLY Cambridge and the ACS will become a home away from home. I’ll be fine, and I will flourish because that is what I do, despite the odds.

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