Student Spotlight: Maribel Schonewolff
Student Spotlight: Maribel Schonewolff

Student Spotlight: Finding your role models as a student of colour

Maribel Schönewolff is a third-year DPhil Biochemistry student at Wolfson College, where she has been the Black and Minority Ethnic rep for the past two years. Originally from Germany with Black Caribbean descent, in Maribel's Student Spotlight for Black History Month, she writes on the importance of finding your role-models, how to build a support network and her hopes for Oxford in the future.

The Journey so far

My name is Maribel and I am starting the third year of my PhD in Biochemistry as a member of Wolfson College, where I acted as BAME rep for the past two years. I originally come from Hattingen, a small industrial town in Germany, and I studied Molecular Biology in Cologne from 2013-2019 before moving to the UK. Although it took me quite a while to recognise this, my education in the mostly-white community I grew up in was always impacted by the fact that I am from German and Black Caribbean descent. I was often the only Black girl in the room – during orchestra rehearsals, dancing classes, and in lecture halls - and there were few role models I could fully identify with.

When I decided to study in Oxford for my PhD, my choice was purely based on the desire to work on an exciting project with an inspiring scientific supervisor. In hindsight the impressive experience of attending a formal dinner right before my interview and witnessing the high density of talent and voices from around the world had probably also influenced me. I wanted to be a part of this beautiful and strange place.

Life outside of study

My first months in Oxford were amazing. Just like everyone else I was completely overwhelmed by attending all events, parties AND navigating through my challenging course. The Oxford experience was more stimulating and demanding than I had expected. In the end I settled for an orchestra and the Wolfson feminist society as my weekly activities outside the lab. While time management is still very challenging for me, I will always encourage other students to try new things in this unique environment and find a healthy balance to their studies.

Searching for role models

I first realised that something was missing when attending a talk by a Black Managing Partner of one of the big consulting firms. I had little knowledge of economics and business management, but I wanted to find Black role models and I hadn’t heard of any Black speakers from my research area who were invited to speak in Oxford that term, let alone Black women. The event was very informative and the speaker inspiring. Just not for me. Soon after this experience, I became the BAME representative at Wolfson. I wanted to learn how to represent the interests of my community. I wanted to be able to meet relatable role models who would inspire my own career plans and dreams.

Getting through the Pandemic

The pandemic was a tough experience for everyone. International students at Oxford like me had two choices: stay and be separated from your loved ones for an indefinite time or go back home without any idea when we could return to pick up our research. I decided to stay - simply because I couldn’t take the lab home with me. A difficult decision which took a toll on my mental health and one example of how the pandemic has affected some groups differently.

Developing the passion project

Six months into the pandemic I decided to turn my ideas about a Black role model project into reality. I knew that building a stronger network between students and distinguished alumni of colour in Wolfson would not only benefit the community but also improve my own mental health. I started a new seminar series: the Wolfson Role Model Series. We published and exhibited a feature on a group of accomplished Black Wolfsonians and started to invite a speaker every term. This year we have had the honour to host Wes Moore (International Relations Wolfson 2004, now candidate for Maryland Governor) and Sydney Roberts (Criminology Wolfson 2002, former Chief Administrator Chicago Civilian Office for Police Accountability).

Looking to the Future

A lot is happening to promote diversity in places like Oxford, but there is still a long way to go before these spaces become truly inclusive for all. I feel enthusiastic when I exchange my ideas, hopes but also fears with one of the many groups that aim to support students of colour in Oxford. Some examples are the STEM BiPOC network, the Oxford SU BAME leadership conference and the Race Equality Task Force focus groups.

I encourage everyone to make time to check out some of these safe spaces. Connecting with your peers to openly address the challenges you are facing and building a support network is a great tool to navigate through academia as a student of colour. However, the responsibility to achieve equality of opportunity cannot rest on the shoulders of the historically marginalised and already disadvantaged groups. Attracting the most talented students from across the world will depend on creating a culture everyone can thrive in. My hope for the future is that Oxford will not miss this opportunity but act as a role model and set an example of the highest standards in equality, diversity and inclusion in higher education.

Oxford student, Maribel

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