‘Cambridge is for you’ – student message to applicants from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds

“We want to share our knowledge and experiences to open up this world to as many people as possible”

An undergraduate at St John’s has helped launch an initiative that aims to ‘change the face of Cambridge University’.

Josh Adeyemi is a founding member of aim – a new student-led access project set-up to inspire students from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds to apply to Cambridge. It covers topics from misconceptions of Cambridge, to imposter syndrome and whether students get judged for wearing a hijab.

Josh starts his second year Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS) studies this term, wants people from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds to know there is a ‘place for you’ at Cambridge.

He explained: “There may not be a lot of students from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds at Cambridge, but we are here and we are doing our bit to change the image of the University as a place just for middle-class white students. We know what it is like applying to Cambridge as someone from an underrepresented ethnic background and we want to share our knowledge and experiences to open up this world to as many people as possible.”

Adeyemi J individual

Josh is the BAME Officer on the St John’s College JCR - the undergraduate student council that acts as a voice for students at the College.

He said: “My priority has always been to make sure that BAME members of the College feel included, welcome and valued. My ultimate hope would be to work with students to make St John’s the most diverse and accessible College in Cambridge. I was keen to get involved with aim, which was the brainchild of a woman called Tsemaye, an Engineering student at St Catharine’s College, as soon as I heard about it. During lockdown a big group of us worked to launch a website that collates the different experiences of students from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds in a way that is accessible to any prospective student.”

Josh himself could easily not have applied to Cambridge if he had not been so personally driven. The youngest of four children, he was brought up by his single mother in Kennington, South East London. He did his GCSEs at The Globe Academy in Elephant and Castle before he secured a full scholarship to study A-levels at Eton College after he read about someone in the local paper who had had won a full bursary to board there.

He explained: “I thought ‘if he can do it, why not me!’ And now I want to inspire the next cohort of students to consider applying to Cambridge. I have always been passionate about being an advocate for the voices of ethnic minorities and I helped launch the debut Black History Month when I was at Eton.

“I don’t want anyone to write themselves off because they think they don’t look like a typical Cambridge student”

“Now I’m at Cambridge I don’t want anyone to write themselves off because they think they don’t look like a typical Cambridge student. At aim we want people from all walks of life to know Cambridge is for them. I personally know, for example, that the way a black student navigates the space at Cambridge is different to the way a white person navigates it. We value opportunities to talk with each other and safe spaces to discuss our experiences.”

Josh credits the financial support he receives as a St John’s Studentship recipient for enabling him to ‘fully participate’ in life at Cambridge. Studentships are non-repayable grants offered by St John’s and are designed to help reduce financial pressure on students from lower-income and middle-income backgrounds. They are offered to all eligible undergraduate students at the College who qualify for Home status.

Josh added: “Concerns about finances are also a huge barrier for students who think that Cambridge is going to be out of their reach. In fact, there is often more support available here than at other universities. St John’s particularly appealed because it is so beautiful and there is a lot of high level sport here and I wanted to continue to play football competitively. And coming from a low income family, the financial support at St John’s means I don’t have to worry.”

Josh says the focus of aim will be to reach people via the new website and social media.

He explained: “Many people don’t know anyone who has been to Cambridge that is why we have put so much information on the FAQ section of our website – to give people as much information as possible so they can rule themselves in instead of ruling themselves out.”

aim group photo
The students involved in aim

Josh is positive about the future of diversity at Cambridge and said: “We know the University isn’t perfect, but we are here and Cambridge is definitely changing and moving in the right direction. We want to be part of the solution, people from underrepresented ethnic backgrounds can only get into Cambridge if they apply. There are problems at Cambridge, like there are at universities around the world, but if we don’t start occupying spaces and supporting one another to succeed, then nothing will change. My message to anyone out there trying to aim high is to keep trying and don’t give up hope.

“As a young black man I know we are more likely to be stopped and searched and face other social issues but I urge other prospective students to focus on a goal and aim for it.”

Josh, who is spending part of the summer working as a gallery assistant on an exhibition of Zimbabwean art, said the ultimate goal of the scheme would be to get to a position where aim isn’t needed anymore.

He explained: “We would be delighted if this initiative was no longer necessary. But that is a long way off and in the meantime we want people to know there are support systems in place at Cambridge. There is a thriving social scene full of societies, and we are ready and waiting to encourage and welcome you. There are more and more of us here and the numbers keep rising. Check aim out and come and join us.”



Published: 05/10/2020

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