Image credit: Paul Tait
Dozens of former Oxford students have come together to show talented young black people that race should be no barrier to succeeding at one of the world's top universities.
Inspired by the recent #BlackExcellence campaign given prominence by students at Yale and Cambridge, Oxford alumni from a host of fields gathered for a photoshoot in London aimed at encouraging future generations of leading black students in the UK.
The idea was first mooted on the Oxford black alumni Facebook page and has since developed into a formal Oxford Black Alumni Network supported by the University. The network now has more than 200 members.
Samuel Gebreselassie, an Oxford Philosophy, Politics and Economics graduate, is one of the figures behind the initiative. He said: 'The Oxford Black Alumni Network was founded following a campaign to highlight the inspiring and varied achievements of Oxford alumni with black African and Caribbean heritage. This campaign aims to address the lack of visible, educated, successful black people in high-profile places by documenting the stories and achievements of a number of black alumni. It will also show that academic success translates into success in one's chosen career path.
'By increasing the visibility of role models for younger people, we hope this campaign will demonstrate that Oxford is a place where people from diverse backgrounds can belong and thrive.'
Dr Samina Khan, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at Oxford University, said: 'We're delighted that so many of our brilliant black alumni decided to come together to demonstrate that race is no barrier to success at Oxford. These Oxford students have gone on to hugely impressive careers in a whole range of fields, and we hope that their achievements will send a strong message to people of all backgrounds that they should aim as high as they can – including applying to Oxford.'
Among the alumni who took part in the photoshoot were representatives from the fields of academia, entrepreneurship, the City, law, media, technology, the arts, sport and more. The formal network that has grown out of this campaign will connect black alumni of the University and involve them in projects such as mentoring and buddying schemes for former, current and aspiring Oxford students.
Samuel added: 'Access to university continues to be an area of interest for our members and we are aware that, alongside issues of under-representation at leading universities like Oxford, black graduates are also under-represented in many careers. This is something that many companies are addressing with efforts to diversify talent pools and instigate more inclusive hiring practices. We aim to contribute to these efforts through the activities of the Black Alumni Network.
'We also know that there is a need for positive role models, as well as the support networks that can respond to the specific challenges of being a black student at places like Oxford. This is something that we aim to address through greater collaboration with current University students and societies, such as Oxford's African and Caribbean Society.
'The campaign and network have been made possible by the energy and enthusiasm of many key supporters, from alumni such as Lewis Iwu and Naomi Kellman to the University's own Alumni Office and Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach team. It is inspiring that so many Oxford alumni and current students believe in, and want to be actively involved with, supporting the next generation.'
Meet some of Oxford's black alumni…
Yasmin Hemmings graduated from New College, Oxford with a degree in Music in 2014. She then undertook a year-long traineeship at the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) through Creative Access and was subsequently offered a permanent role in the LSO’s education department.
Since February this year, Yasmin has been an assistant producer in ENO Baylis, the English National Opera's learning department, where she helps to develop and manage community projects. She is also a project manager for Young People in the Arts (YPIA), a networking organisation for professionals at the start of their arts careers. As part of her role in YPIA, Yasmin organised a panel discussion on diversity in the arts workforce in October 2016, bringing together speakers from across the arts to discuss what organisations need to do to embed better practice in reaching individuals who are under-represented.
Yasmin said: 'Encouraging university access for black and BME students is an extremely important issue if we are to challenge stereotypes, get rid of notions of elitism, and increase the diversity of Oxford University.
'I was lucky enough to be accepted on to Oxford's UNIQ summer school in 2010, which gave me an invaluable insight into life as an Oxford student and helped to break down some of the myths and barriers surrounding the University. I kept in contact with a number of people I met during my week on UNIQ, which meant I had a network of people to talk to when it came to my Oxford application and interview. As I came from a state school with little history of Oxbridge applications, having a network of people from similar backgrounds that I could talk to about the Oxford application process was extremely helpful, and this wouldn't have happened without UNIQ.
'My message for prospective Oxford students from BME backgrounds would be not to let any preconceptions prevent them from applying. I had a great experience at Oxford and met such a wide variety of people, so I would hate to think that some people might be discouraged from applying simply because of their background. There is still much to do when it comes to improving diversity within Oxford, particularly in subjects like mine, but this can only be solved by continuing to encourage those from under-represented backgrounds to apply.'
Habiba Daggash is a PhD researcher at the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Grantham Institute of Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London. Her research seeks to understand the transformation that energy systems must undergo to mitigate climate change, and the resource and geopolitical implications of this transformation.
Born and raised in Maiduguri, a small town in the north-east of Nigeria, Habiba moved to the UK in 2010 and went on to study Engineering Science at St John's College, Oxford, from where she graduated in 2016.
Habiba said: 'There is little or no representation of BME backgrounds at the highest levels in industry and government in the UK. It is important that interests and issues relevant to BME backgrounds are represented and addressed at these levels. University access for black students gives them better opportunities to attain these positions and use them as a platform to effect changes that tackle institutional discrimination within society.
'The media portrays an image of Oxford as being unwelcoming to minority-background students, and this discourages young people from those communities from applying. During my time at Oxford, I found my college to be one of the most tolerant and welcoming places, but I am aware that issues of discrimination and poor representation persist. I urge black students to apply, not just because of the educational and career opportunities it affords, but also to break down the stereotypes at such institutions and pave the way for greater access for, and representation of, minority students.'
Riaz Phillips is a London-based writer and photographer. Born in Hackney and raised in north London, he studied politics and economics at university in London followed by postgraduate study at Oxford. After this, he founded Tezeta Press – a publishing house dedicated to under-represented ideas and cultures. Its first release, Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK, documents Britain's hidden Caribbean history.
Riaz said: 'As long as the path to all manner of storied careers runs through universities like Oxford, it's important that access for black youth – and anyone from under-represented backgrounds – is broadened and made as receptive as possible. Some of the best opportunities often don't arise on jobs boards but at dinners, weekends away and late night conversations, and I think it's important that these conversations are as diverse as possible. This will benefit not only the individuals but countless industries that have previously been dominated by small groups
'I would say to talented young black people, take pride in the fact that you are different – there's no single way to be a "black student", and you don't have to fit into any stereotype where you can't be yourself. Don't feel that Oxford is a rigid structure that you can't affect. Make it what you want. Start your own parties, start your own supper clubs and magazines. The magnet effect of like-minded people will change your life.'
Naomi Kellman graduated from Lincoln College, Oxford with a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 2011. She served as vice-president and secretary of the African and Caribbean Society during her time at Oxford, and on graduating joined diversity recruitment firm Rare.
While working at Rare, Naomi founded Target Oxbridge, a free programme that has helped 46 black African and Caribbean students gain places at Oxford and Cambridge over the past five years. After a spell of two-and-a-half years working in the civil service, Naomi rejoined Rare in 2015 and has since secured formal partnerships with Oxford and Cambridge, allowing Target Oxbridge to expand to 60 places in 2018.
Naomi said: 'I'm really excited about the launch of the Oxford Black Alumni Network. It's great to have a place for alumni of African and Caribbean heritage to support each other as they navigate their careers. It also gives us a chance to encourage and support more black students to apply to Oxford. I hope the network demonstrates to young students that there is a history of black men and women studying at Oxford and going on to have successful careers, and that they too could be part of that history.'