On being black at Cambridge

Sharon Mehari, president of the African Caribbean Society, talks about inspiring vloggers, COVID-19 and the importance of having actionable conversations about racial inequality.

Sharon Mehari with fellow students and Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen J Toope

The first in her family to go to university, Sharon Mehari is now studying for a degree in History and Spanish. This year, she kept a video diary as part of a BBC documentary about being black at Cambridge – an experience she says shows “how black people can be just normal in places like Cambridge.”

I was born in Eritrea where I lived with my mum, sister and dad. We moved to the UK in 2004 to escape from the Eritrean civil war. I’d just turned four and my sister was one. We lived in Glasgow for a little bit while we were getting our immigration papers sorted and then we moved to London. I’ve lived in Tottenham ever since. I attended a secondary school in Enfield which was a typical comprehensive.

YouTube and Oxbridge

Nobody in my family had been to University so it was a foreign concept. The first time Cambridge and Oxford ever came to my attention was while I was at school. I had an English teacher in Year Eight and he would say, “you could be an Oxbridge student” and I would say, “what even is that?”

After I got my GCSE results my teacher urged me to stay on and take A levels, saying “you could apply to Oxford or Cambridge”. However, it was quite difficult to navigate this route as my school didn’t have very much experience of sending students to Oxbridge. So, it became important to apply for mentorship schemes and access programmes, like Target Oxbridge. This was especially relevant for students of a similar background to me, who didn’t have any reference points for how to get from school to university.

YouTube was also influential. I benefitted from seeing the likes of Courtney Daniella, Nissy Tee and Ibz Mo vlogging about life at Cambridge. Courtney Daniella was from the school next door to mine and Ibz Mo was from a neighbouring borough. Seeing them studying here really opened up the idea of Cambridge as an option for me. I resonated with them and felt connected to a community. That connection continued after I made contact with the University’s admissions team. I felt really protected along the whole journey of applying.

Sharon with her mother and aunt outside Gonville and Caius College (taken shortly after Sharon received her A-level results and secured her place)

Sharon with her mother and aunt outside Gonville and Caius College (taken shortly after Sharon received her A-level results and secured her place)

Sharon with her mother and aunt outside Gonville and Caius College (taken shortly after Sharon received her A-level results and secured her place)

First impressions

I’d never been detached from the area of Tottenham before. I went up to Cambridge with my mum, sister and aunt. I remember that the journey from London was when it hit me, I thought “oh my gosh, I’m actually leaving and I’m going to this place and I really don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

On the day I moved in, the History Faculty had organised a tea party in the College to introduce all the history students to each other. This was when I got my first taste of quintessential Cambridge life. I remember waiters serving us tea and world-class professors talking to my mum about art. It was like these two great traditions were meeting – the hugeness and grandness of Cambridge with the comforts and intimacy of conversation. I really appreciated the welcoming nature of that experience and felt people genuinely wanted to get to know me.

Sharon Mehari, President of the African Caribbean Society

Sharon became President of the African Caribbean Society

Sharon became President of the African Caribbean Society

The African Caribbean Society (ACS)

I went to secondary school in a predominantly white area, which made me feel I had to minimise my black identity. I thought that Cambridge was going to be ten times worse. But because of the African Caribbean Society (ACS) the opposite happened, and I found the space to help me really understand myself. That’s what I hope for the ACS. I want it to be a place where people feel they don’t have to hide their black identity, and instead can excel, and find comfort, and grow in it.

Being of East African heritage I was a minority within a minority, so I’d like ACS members to know that there’s not just one way to be black or be successful at being black. It would also be great for people not to feel the pressure that they’re this elite bunch of black people or that our Cambridge identity overrides our blackness, or it somehow makes our blackness more excellent.

I’d like ACS to have greater connections with the world, so we’re not just for black students in Cambridge, but also offer a place of support, connection and community for all in the diaspora. The ACS, and the work it does with the University, should be about opening doors and leaving a lasting legacy.

Sharon with her family (sister, mother and aunt) on the day she moved into College

Sharon with her family (sister, mother and aunt) on the day she moved into College

Sharon with her family (sister, mother and aunt) on the day she moved into College

COVID-19 and BLM

Easter Term is traditionally a quieter time in the ACS season with everyone focussing on their exams. In reality it turned out to be the opposite, it was the most involved and extreme period I’ve known.

None of us on the ACS Committee knew how to lead people during this difficult time. We were working out how to share people’s pain, especially when we started hearing about BAME families being affected by COVID-19. It was a heavy burden to carry.

Then there was the death of George Floyd and protests for justice for Breonna Taylor, and it became name after name and issue after issue. It was this huge explosion of all these racial tensions, and I remember someone in ACS saying to me it just felt like “the world was set up against us.”

As students, you just want to be in this cocoon at this time and have places of escapism and I was worried that black people weren’t being afforded that right. I wanted to make sure ACS wasn’t just a place where you could have these conversations, but it could also be a place where you could be yourself, without having the weight of political and social burdens on you. I wanted students to be able to relax and play music together, and for us to celebrate the achievements of our black graduates.

Sharon with her family (including cousins) outside her Gonville and Caius accommodation block

Sharon with her family (including cousins) outside her Gonville and Caius accommodation block

Sharon with her family (including cousins) outside her Gonville and Caius accommodation block

Diversity and Cambridge

For a lot of back students, we know that racism and racial inequality flares up in so many aspects of society. We also know that there are some who would like to disassociate themselves from the BLM movement as it’s happening in the United States, or dismiss it as a problem that doesn’t affect them.

So, making people feel accountable felt necessary. Having those conversations with Cambridge was really important in terms of making sure this wasn’t just going to be a ‘making a statement’ moment, where we just condemn racism from afar and say “this is so sad” when there are issues and legacies of history that are yet to be confronted within our University.

The thing that I really applaud Cambridge for is that there is always a willingness to discuss issues. I think the next steps are to make sure we don’t get complacent. These conversations aren’t meant to be about counselling or group therapy, they’re supposed to be actionable. The great thing about Cambridge is that there is the resource and capability to make positive change happen.

Sharon (in the middle) with other students who appear in the documentary and BBC reporter Ashley John-Baptiste attending a formal dinner at Trinity College

Sharon (in the middle) with other students who appear in the documentary and BBC reporter Ashley John-Baptiste attending a formal dinner at Trinity College

Sharon (in the middle) with other students who appear in the documentary and BBC reporter Ashley John-Baptiste attending a formal dinner at Trinity College

Video diaries and the BBC

This year I kept a video diary as part of a documentary the BBC are producing which follows young black students at university. It was a great experience and I’m actually quite sad that it’s come to an end. Ashley John-Baptiste (BBC reporter and presenter), who is black himself and went to Cambridge, became like a mentor or big brother to me. Another amazing part of that journey was meeting other black students who didn’t come from London, and were from different ethnic backgrounds to myself.

Most importantly it was great to be able to speak so publicly and candidly about our experiences without fear of people saying something. I was worried it might be tokenistic, but the way it’s been directed just shows how black people can be just normal in places like Cambridge.

Find out more about ACS

'Being Black at Cambridge' will be posted on BBC Online and the BBC’s social media channels on Tuesday 6 October.

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