Being Black at Cambridge, a new BBC documentary explores all

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IN 2019-2020, there were a record number of Black students at Cambridge – 200. However some of them still feel institutional racism is a problem at the university.

Things are improving, due to a range of factors. However, there is still work to be done. The BBC recently produced a documentary looking into the experiences of Black students at Cambridge.

Saron Mehari is one of the students featured. The Eritrean born scholar recently became President of the Afro-Caribbean Society (ACS) there. Her degree is in History and Spanish.

She spoke to The Voice about how she confronted university management, her safe space and what she’d say to Black students applying.

I was used to being from an area where everyone looked like me. We had a shared experience, we had a universal way of viewing life.

Saron Mehari, Cambridge university student

What did you think of Cambridge before studying there?

There was this weird allure around Cambridge. It’s always seen as synonymous with Hogwarts because it’s got these elitist traditions.

I was asking myself, ‘Where am I gonna fit in?’.

One of my first memories was this tea party with my family in this huge 17th century room. We enjoyed it.

At first, it was difficult because you’re trying to find your feet, but a lot of that apprehension and anxiety melted away in moments like that.

I was used to being from an area where everyone looked like me. We had a shared experience, we had a universal way of viewing life.

So trying to understand that not everyone is like you – it was hard but the college environment helped me get over those things.

I always say that ACS was my lifeline…At ACS you go and you just are. You can exist without exterior pressures or feeling like you’re the odd one out.

Saron Mehari, Cambridge university student

What impact did the Afro-Caribbean Society (ACS) have on you?

I always say that ACS was my lifeline.

It was more than seeing Black faces and having people who listen to the same music and eat the same foods as you.

It was so much deeper than that. It was the shared lived experiences, where people just got it.

[At ACS] you go and you just are. You can exist without exterior pressures or feeling like you’re the odd one out.

In the documentary, you speak to the university vice chancellor. What was that like?

I appreciated that we were able to have that conversation. Everyone was able to speak openly and candidly about things that aren’t working, things that are blatantly signs of institutional racism, inequality and more.

There was an opportunity to hold the university to account.

I’m looking forward to seeing action following this. And I hope that conversations aren’t just being had for the sake of it.

Have you ever experienced racism at the university?

I haven’t personally, but I know students that have had bad experiences of racism.

My friends are grateful because when those things happen to them, they have the ACS community to fall back on.

The burden always ends up on Black students. They have to firstly define whether it was racism or not. Then they have to ask themselves who they take it to, and whether that person will undermine the experience.

Saron Mehari, Cambridge university student

Do you think enough is being done to prevent such incidents? 

A lot of them happen ‘socially’, so it’s quite hard for students to bring it to the university.

The sheer weight of having to go through it again and repeat it all throughout the [reporting] procedure is a lot of pressure to place on Black students.

The burden always ends up on Black students. They have to firstly define whether it was racism or not. Then they have to ask themselves who they take it to, and whether that person will undermine the experience.

Just do it. If others don’t have to question their desires or passions because of race, why should you?

Saron Mehari, Cambridge university student

What would you say to other Black students who want to apply?

Just do it. If others don’t have to question their desires or passions because of race, why should you?

There’s more than enough space for you to be celebrated. Stay true to you and be honest about what you’re interested in.

Students need to realise that they are wanted by the university more than they realise. 

Interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

You can watch Being Black at Cambridge on the BBC News website from Tuesday 6th October or on the BBC News Channel at various times on 10th and 11th October.


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