‘Rah, you went to Cambridge!?’

How would you describe yourself?

I would describe myself as a 24 year old, I’m mixed-race, from NW London and I work… I’m male, I like going out; there’s things I like doing with my friends, you know, I the normal things people our age would be doing.

What’s your country of origin?

I was born here, in England. In London if you want to be specific. My parents? Mum’s mixed too, her heritage is from Jamaica, Dad’s born in Kenya but his heritage stretches back to South Asia.

Which college were you assigned to and how did you find it?

So I went to Sidney Sussex right in the middle of town. Before I applied I did the usual look through the prospectus thinking where to go but it’s tough! You’re looking through the prospectus and they all sound the same! You’re just picking based on which one sounds posher than the other on, which one sounds more “normal”. My mum was the one who really helped me with it all like ‘which one you going to?’ and I was like ‘I really don’t know!’ Eventually we narrowed it down to about 3 or 4 of them and because I honestly couldn’t decide I picked the final choice out of a hat. All that was more interesting about it at the time was that it was opposite Sainsbury’s. But I’m telling you, that proved to be best thing over the years. It meant that whenever friends went into town they were going past there and came to see me, they’d turn up in my room when I wasn’t even there! Sometimes I’d be on the street outside my room and look up and see my friends just sitting by my laptop and I’d be thinking ‘What you doing bruv?!’. But Sidney was a small community as well so it was easy to make friends. We had a college bar that was pretty central to people’s friendships as drinks were cheap and most people were fairly easy to talk to. The College staff were great and always helpful. For me, one time I needed support in getting the right bursary and the minute I brought it to their attention they did what they could to make sure I had everything I needed to do that.  The porters were helpful too, they’re like the gatekeepers of everything going on around college. One of ‘em, even lived in Neasden when he was little and we would always have jokes, now I think about it, I’ll never forget how helpful they were and how welcome they made me feel.

Would you consider yourself well off

Haha, you’re kidding right? No. Not at all, not in anyway. How do I put this… So I lived in a one bedroom flat as a child, so I spent most of childhood home-life on a sofa-bed in the living room or at my Nana’s not far from where we lived. I went to a private primary school, I know, people often hear that and don’t get that that one fact doesn’t tell the full story. My Mum and Dad worked hard so I could go, my Nana worked too so I could go. You say private school but actually the socio-economic background of the area it’s in and even of the students doesn’t quite fit with the stereotypical image of what a private school is. Put it this way, there were just a handful of white kids. At the time my mum was a nursery worker and my dad for much of that time was a bus-driver, it meant for them a lot of overtime, my dad worked hard, often working nights, holiday days and weekends.

You move forward a couple years and my dad got sick. For some of secondary school this meant he was on benefits, there wasn’t much money to go round. Now I’m not saying I’m relatively poor because I know full-well that my family worked hard to secure our financial position but what I’m trying to say is that me, like many others, I’m not well-off.

Did you feel you lacked things when growing up?

I don’t think you can ever know if you’re lacking material things unless you’ve got something to compare it to. When I got to secondary school, I was in a Grammar school so some of the friends I made opened my eyes to what a ‘middle class’ lifestyle was like. I had this one friend and he’d invite me round to his and they’d be having Sunday Roasts at the dinner table. Even that was different because I didn’t have one at my own house. We ate with the plates on our laps sitting in front of the TV. I felt I had enough, I had the games consoles, the clothes, the things you pester your family for and never really think to be grateful about, but in comparison to others they seemed to have more. The school Ski-trip that everyone’s going on, and you’d say you needed to go too because everyone’s going. For people around me it was probably easier to get the money to pay for those things but for my parents, looking back now I’m sure it meant more overtime and working late. You know what? You don’t realise at time the sacrifices that are being made for you but I suppose it was around age 15 I realised I didn’t have as much. People would be having their violin lessons and clarinet recitals, their families went to football matches or played sports and seemed to have these hobbies that were just part of their life. My life? It wasn’t like that. You start to realise that your reality isn’t everyone’s reality, sometimes it’s just that really subtle look on a friends face when you invite them to your more humble home that gets your brain thinking. The world never seemed as open and available to me in the way that it seemed to be to so many people I met at university. I feel like it never really is unless you take the initiative to make those connections with people, people with a different background to yourself.

Before University did you have networking connections?

Nah. Wasn’t really a thing for me man, I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t.

Starting University did that change?

I think so much of the networking you do at Cambridge is not the kind you plan on doing. Maybe the person you talk to drunk at bar who’s now a random friend on Facebook knows people who know people. You’re on your News Feed and see So-and-so updates status, or the LinkedIn email that bla-bla is now doing this. As people we never really think about those background people, the decoration or fluff to our social media pages but one day they’ll be sitting in a suit somewhere dictating what everyone else’s life looks like. They’re worth having in your Network, these are the people you genuinely just do life with, drink with, party with, walk past and give that awkward social interaction of a head-nod to everyday. But of course there are the socialite types and if you’re into it, the opportunities to network your way to the top in that way.

Did you do any internships?

No I didn’t because I work in Charity and that sort of stuff is never really an option in the third sector, to be totally honest I wasn’t bothered either. I worked in my holidays, actually, I got a job selling Christmas trees because the man who ran the company went to Oxbridge, that’s a sort of hookup. I sold Christmas Trees if that’s what you’re asking. But it was obviously the case for so many people around me, you’d hear the conversations every summer term ‘what you doing this summer?’  ‘Oh yah, internship/ travelling yah’. If that’s what you wanted it seemed accessible, easy even. There were networking events and careers fairs, that seemed to be how it worked.

Can you talk a bit about the Social dynamic and how you found it?

This is interesting! Where to begin… So Brent, where I live is one of the most multicultural boroughs in the UK. There aren’t many white British middle class people in the area. Not many at all. In fact I saw some the other day who looked like they had got off at the wrong stop and all I could think was maybe they’re going to Ikea. Before Cambridge, I thought I wouldn’t fit in because I’m ‘different’. I won’t pretend that wasn’t the case, I got there and yep, I was. I remember the first day we had this talk in the College gardens and my mum was looking around and all I could think was, great, how am I gonna get my hair done in this place? I felt like I was this one person in a sea of white faces. It was quite daunting thinking that would be home for the best part of the next three years. There were lots of people from privileged backgrounds and strangely it was me who felt like crossing the road and guarding my Blackberry (God Forbid anyone steal and appropriate my Grime). At first it really was me who had to deal with my own fear of difference and prejudice of what I expected ‘Cambridge people’ to be like. I went home really often in the first few weeks, I even left half way through Freshers Weeks to get seasoning and other life-essentials. I turned up there with one plate and one fork (stupid). I’d be on the phone or go home a lot at first just to eat normal food until I learnt how to cook better than my Nana and my mum (if either of you are reading this just be proud I’m writing something and ignore that last sentence, I don’t mean it).

I mean, you know what it’s like when ‘your white friends’ are playing music and people are having conversations about music that sound like a whole new language because you really just have never heard of any of these bands in your life. But then, you begin to learn the new language of music and share a bit of your own, its different, you start to like it. Ultimately you figure out you can’t get by for three years just lip-syncing Sex Is On Fire in club and throwing your sticky VK’d arms around everyone when Wonderwall comes on, its sweaty and fun but really that won’t get you everywhere.

But then the barriers you/society/socialisation put up are broken down by the unifying force of alcohol and you start really talking to people. Actually you figure out someone else is on a bursary too. Someone else knows what Lidl is. What? You know Charmaine De La Rosa was 14 too?! My preconceptions began to change. I realised that people worked hard to go there after all and there were some actually cool people in that town, many of which are my best friends even now.

Cambridge is so often described as bubble and it really is. It’s this microcosm of a very strange society, one not the same as Neasden or Brent or even London, it’s an upper-middle-class-white-well-educated-background. Now that’s obviously not the full picture of the rest of the world. When you’re different like me you’re instantly thought to be cool. You become the cool one just by living your life; but then when you go to a party ‘cause your friend invited you and one of the people in the house escort you out because you must be from the other Uni you realise the bubble you’re in. The ‘other black friend’ invited you, he’s asked ‘Who’s your friend from home?’. To paraphrase a church saying, where two or more are gathered… one of them must be from home seems to be the philosophy some people go by. The reality is that when you look a certain way you genuinely are in the minority, but, over time you navigate it, you learn the new codes of language, you learn those new songs. For me at the start it was like dipping my toe in at the shallow end, (jumping back out and running home for seasoning floating aids) and then my whole lower body AND THEN slowly wading in.

Did you ever feel you had to adapt?

So yeah and no. The way I see it, you always adapt whether or not you want to. Wherever you are in life you need to learn the rules to navigate the social system better to survive. It’s not often a conscious process but you learn when to use your ‘Cambridge voice’ when you need to. For me it did happen, the test was when you come back to ‘endz’ and you see people you haven’t seen in a while and you’re told you sound posh but you don’t realise it!? Like how does your voice change without you even knowing? It’s strange that adaptations can often be so subtle that we make them without thinking about it at the time but now on reflection it’s so obvious that some of the times I felt uncomfortable I was just coming to terms with the version of myself being challenged by a new situation.

Did you feel inferior or superior to people in Cambridge?

Bit of both. My cultural capital isn’t their cultural capital. What’s normal to me may not be normal to them and vice versa. The ‘them’ I speak of are the annual ski-trip and been on 54 holidays across the world and casual conversations about your parents are about how difficult it is to run a bank or fight a top court case… my dad drove a bus when I was growing up, that’s what I’ve got to offer. I believe it’s all about how comfortable you are within yourself as to whether it makes you feel inferior. I questioned it – of course it’s a human thing to think ‘where do I fit in here?’ but just because people have money doesn’t mean they’re any better than you are right? On the other hand I felt great, in fact way better! Sometimes you can be walking around and people believe you’re ‘cool’ just because you’re you and yes of course there’s some problematic reasons somewhere behind that but on a human egotistical level it does give you a boost whether or not you were looking for it. Bit of both. By money and material objects I was inferior. By popularity and cultural experience and sheer upbringing perhaps I was in a place of superiority. There’s a question I often ask the young people I work with: ‘Would you rather have faced difficult times growing up or have had an easy life’ and 98% of the time they choose the first option, I suppose it’s a lot of that that comes to play. Whilst people at Cambridge may not represent the vast majority of world’s demographic make-up, not to say that I do but I sure do tick a lot more boxes than them, it made me think, ‘Boy, when you lot get into real world you’re gonna be lost’ and that thought alone made me comfortable.

Who did you choose to identify with and who were your friends.

So many of the people I hang out with now I didn’t choose to, I was made to by random allocation. People next-door to me became close and you realise you need to be close anyway if you’re going to live with each other but we had such a great social vibe. It clicked. Then I had ‘my black friends’, it’s weird to say that that’s how life works in Cambridge. Your white and black friends. ACS vs College. I think you always feel more comfy with what you know. It’s the taste of home you look for it because it’s what you know. When I wanted someone need to come on the walk down to KFC with me or to go out to a Garage or Hip-Hop night what options do you have? That said, I had such a good mix of friends from so many different ‘circles’ and groups that I felt comfortable whoever and wherever I was – I understand though that so much of that comes from my upbringing though, who knows, maybe no everyone feels the same.

What can you say about the public and private school divide.

Well for a start it’s not like any Mean Girls thing… no one had a burn book and you sat with whoever you felt like. I suppose people just expect you to have come from a good school. Maybe it came up in the introductory conversations with people but I’m not gonna lie, I really wasn’t bothered and after that I never noticed a divide. In the way people spoke, some people had more of an inflection, perhaps there was noticeable differences in people’s pronunciation of things but you’re often there by merit so who’s really asking? Once you’re there the opportunities given out to everyone are the same as you’re all the same… in terms of your A Level results anyway. Yes, people may talk the talk and walk the walk more and join secret clubs and get by more, and yes there is the ‘Tokenism thing’, some are almost given a free ticket by nature of life experiences given to them in the past, they tick the right boxes and fit a certain role and can navigate multiple social systems very well but the community they’re in isn’t an obviously divided one.

If you could change anything about life what would you change?

Nothing. I just want what we all want. Happiness. If you gave me a magic wand now and asked me to change anything it would be my parent’s health, if I could give them full-health that would give us happiness.

Did you enjoy Cambridge overall?

Yeah (smiling, one dimple shining in the Shoreditch lights…) you look with a smile and nostalgically, like that Will Smith tune Summertime is the same way I now look back at Cambridge. It makes me happy just to think about the memories there. It becomes your life man! In the first year I’d never have thought a few years later I’d look back and recommend people to go. Whilst it may not be everyone’s cup of Earl Grey and scones I’d 100% say it was a thing I’m glad featured in my life. If there’s anything you get from this it’s to see the challenges of top Universities like Cambridge as opportunities, it’s not for everyone but the academic benefits for me were priceless.