“I didn’t come here thinking ‘hey, I’m gonna be the first’"Joe Cook

When Sonita Alleyne was announced as the new master of Jesus College in May, it made national headlines. The first Black person to occupy such a role, Alleyne’s appointment has been celebrated as a signal that some Oxbridge colleges are serious about efforts to diversify.

Born in Barbados, her family settled in the diverse, working-class area of Leytonstone in East London when she was three years old. There, Alleyne attended the local comprehensive school, and was one of three students in her year to go on to study at Cambridge.

This is where we begin our conversation, early on a chilly Friday morning (“I’ve got fresher’s flu!”, she jokes) at the end of her second week officially as the head of Jesus College. As it turns out, Alleyne’s first experience of Cambridge was not when she arrived at Fitzwilliam as an undergraduate, but at Jesus. She visited the college she now leads as part of a trip to visit a girl studying there who had been two years above her in school. “It’s great when you see someone who’s like you who’s there, so that was a real inspiration in terms of me applying”, she tells me. I can’t help but think that, returning as the college’s master more than 30 years later, Alleyne will be performing this same function on a much larger scale; a signal to people of colour and those from working class backgrounds that Cambridge is a place for them.

Beginning her undergraduate course in Philosophy in 1985, Alleyne immediately dived into an eclectic mix of extracurricular ventures. In her first year, she was on the Fitz Spring Ball Committee, sang in a band, and was in the Mystical Sciences Club (Tragically, it seems this group no longer exists).

She also joined CUSU as its anti-racism officer. I was curious to know more about her experience of occupying such an overwhelmingly white space as one of a tiny number of black students at Cambridge in the 1980s. Stopping to consider, Alleyne begins by describing the 70s and 80s as a “really, really tough” time in terms of race.

Alleyne arrived in Cambridge just 4 years after the 1981 Race Riots. 1968, the year she was born, was also the year in which Enoch Powell delivered his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, decrying the immigration policies without which Alleyne’s family would not have been able to move to the UK. I ask whether this context of racial tensions was reflected in her own experience as an undergraduate. Pausing for thought, she says “it’s an interesting one because your experience as an undergraduate is your experience as a black person in any walk of life.” Elaborating, Alleyne tells me about an occasion recently when she was speaking to a young black personal trainer at her local gym (“you can say I’m quite svelt!”, she jokes) who had left his job as a brick layer because of the racism he experienced. “And that was in the last 6 months”, she adds meaningfully.

Yet she does not describe an undergraduate experience marred by racism. “I wouldn’t look back at my time and say, ‘oh I had it much, much worse than anyone else’”. In fact, she’s keen to point out the positives, particularly the close friendships she forged amongst the cohort of Black students that she got to know well during her time at Cambridge. “Everyone went through it, but what Cambridge did for them was set them up for life. And that’s been amazing”.

“I didn’t come here thinking ‘hey, I’m gonna be the first’”

But Alleyne’s appointment is undeniably part of a real moment of change for the university on the issue of racial inclusion. Following years of student activism and intense criticism of the tiny numbers of black students admitted to the university, this move is, it seems, part of a long-overdue, broader institutional push for greater representation and inclusivity. Indeed, it was followed a few months later by the announcement that this year’s intake of black students was up by almost 50% compared to last year, a result of the so-called ‘Stormzy effect’.

“I didn’t come here thinking ‘hey, I’m gonna be the first’, she explains. “I went for the role because I really, really like the community of people that are here. I also really like helping people. I think, as I’ve got older, I realise that my moments of joy are when I help people. And so I like that, I thought ‘Ok I can do this all the time. This is really great. It’s like every day is Christmas’”. On the question of being ‘the first’, she says “I don’t mind it”. She goes on “I think it’s very important that the process for appointment was very, very thorough. So I’m very satisfied that through that process the college got to know me and I got to know the college. They elected me and they voted and I feel like, yeah, I’m the best person for the job…who turned up and applied” she adds with a laugh.

And her vision for the college? Alleyne seems to see her role above all as a custodian of Jesus as a community, a theme she returns to throughout our conversation. “It’s been 523 years, but for these ten years, I am the guardian of that community spirit…because I think that’s what the essence of a college is, whilst you’re here”. That is not to say that Alleyne is afraid of modernising change in areas where “we haven’t caught up with the fact that people in 2019 are living their lives differently”.

Does this openness to modernisation extend to some of the central issues of student activism in 2019? I asked Alleyne about the controversy surrounding Jesus’s possession of a bronze cockerel statue, Okukor, which was looted from the Benin Empire – now part of Nigeria - in the 19th century. It was only after a sustained student activist campaign in 2016 that the cockerel was removed from display in the college’s hall. But, three years on, it is still held in storage.

I ask her how we can justify not immediately repatriating this stolen artefact. “It’s very much in my in-tray, after two weeks of being here. It’s actually one of the things that came up when I was being interviewed. I know that the college have been very involved in the Benin dialogue group, which is an international dialogue group working across different museums in Cambridge and Paris and London. And it’s the Benin court which is very much involved in that. So we are going to be looking at it. I’m not going to pre-empt any kind of outcome, but we’ll be looking at it and there will be a college wide discussion about it”.

Alleyne begins by describing the 70s and 80s as a “really, really tough” time in terms of race

Another issue we spoke about is the continuing stranglehold of the middle and upper classes on the university’s admissions process. I put it to her that even amongst those accepted from state schools, highly selective grammar schools like Henrietta Barnett and comprehensives in affluent areas still dominate. “I think quite rightly there’s a real emphasis on [recruitment teams] going to look at the most underrepresented areas, the areas with the most deprivation, so there’s a real focus on that.

We just recently had a strategy day at Jesus looking at that. Our stats are 25% from most underrepresented areas and 20% of home students matriculating at Jesus this year are BAME, so I think that’s good”. Alleyne argues that “we have a great story to tell…I’ve been speaking to a lot of the ambassadors and listening to their stories, and it is kind of a perpetuating story because a lot of them came on an access visit and are now here”. Yet she is quick to stress that “to me, Cambridge is a bastion of excellence, and I like that. I’m absolutely comfortable with that. I just want to make sure that lots of people have the opportunity to come here…and it links back to your first point around me being the first black head of an Oxbridge college. If it encourages people to think it’s accessible, absolutely fine. Good. Please apply.”

“As I’ve got older, I realise that my moments of joy are when I help people”

We end with a series of lighter, quick fire questions. Peanut butter and fish fingers (not together) turn out to be the new Master’s go-to comfort foods. When I ask her for an album she loves – music having been a hugely important part of her life and career – she refers to a recent conversation with a grad student, who she told to listen to American Jazz fusion band Mahavishnu Orchestra, whilst he recommended her National Health. Jokingly telling me “you can say I got most animated in this part of the interview!”, Alleyne reveals her love for Tom Waits, recommending that I “go in at the early stuff, because it all gets a little bit darker later on in his career.

But it’s a great insight into a brilliant mind. I do think he’s one of the best lyricists. He writes about things and you think, God has he really gone there? It’s just glorious genius. I did get most animated when talking about Tom Waits didn’t I?” Slightly nervously, I ask her if it’s awful that I’d never heard of him. “No it isn’t awful! What will be awful is when I see you next time and I go ’Zak, have you listened to Tom Waits?! [and you say no]”. I promise to listen. “I won’t do that,” she assures me.

On her favourite novel, Michael Ondaatje’s ‘Coming Through Slaughter’, which she reads nearly every year: “it’s one of those books where I go back to it and think, did he really say it like that? That’s just amazing”. She tells me that she’s recently taken up oil painting and creative writing, unexpectedly ending with a lesson pretty much every Cambridge student could probably do with remembering: “It’s nice when you get to a kind of settled stage. You can do things that you don’t have to be good at. It’s like, when some people say ‘oh I do oil painting’ and you assume they’re really good at it. I’m not. But I don’t care. I really don’t care. It’s great to not have to worry about being good at something”. Amen to that.


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We leave her college office and go out into First Court to get a picture in front of the horse statue (unrelatedly, ‘mounting the horse’ is apparently the most serious of all deanable offences at Jesus).

As the photographer sets up, Alleyne casually stops a passing second year to check back in with him on an issue that they had clearly been discussing in an earlier conversation. After the photos have been taken and we’ve said goodbye, she only walks a couple of metres before I see her deep in conversation again, this time with two elderly fellows.

Even writing up this article in the college cafe, I see her chatting easily to a group of students waiting in line to order a coffee. How has she, barely two weeks in, already managed to establish a relationship with so many college members? Suddenly her emphasis throughout our discussion on nurturing Jesus’ ‘community spirit’ doesn’t feel wishy-washy at all. Her skill, it seems, lies in an ability to put people at their ease, a desire to exist in the thick of college life, not just observe it from on high. Warm and approachable, Alleyne is absolutely free of the airs and graces we normally associate with those in her position.

Having spoken in her luxurious college office, the ivory tower definitely still exists. Its occupant, however, seems to have a refreshing new approach, one that marks her out as a very different kind of master quite as much as her background.