In this post, Part 3 students (and now 2020 graduates!) Georgia Courtney-Cox and Yinka Olaniyan and Lecturer Dr Nicola Abram discuss the BAME English Literature students’ network launched in 2019/20.
Yinka: The BAME student network was created for English Literature students to discuss their university experiences as BAME students. It was founded by Georgia Courtney-Cox, Nicola Abram and myself to act as a safe space for BAME students, who are often few and far between in the English department. For example, in 2018, only 14.4% of UK/EU entrants to undergraduate English Literature programmes identified as BAME, compared to 25% across the University as a whole.
Nicola: Georgia and Yinka were among seven students who participated in a project in 2018/19 which sought to explore the experiences of BAME students in the School of Literature and Languages. Project participants took photographs illustrating aspects of university life, which we discussed in our group and then shared publicly in a Library exhibition and online. For me, what stood out in these images was the dialogue between cultural and ethnic identity (for example, black British, or British Asian) and institutional and disciplinary identity (that is, being a student of a certain subject at the University of Reading). Participants wanted to be able to identify themselves – and be seen by others – as both. So, with some funding from the UoR Diversity & Inclusion fund and the Teaching & Learning Dean, Georgia, Yinka and I designed a schedule of events for 2019/20 where black, Asian, and ‘minority’ ethnic students of English Literature could get together, resourcing each other and building a supportive community.
Georgia: During the year I advertised the BAME network on the UoR ‘Student Life’ blog.
Yinka: Across the academic year, we have had various sessions and speakers. These have ranged from myself and Georgia facilitating informal discussions whilst we ate pizza, to Creative Writing lecturer Shelley Harris discussing how we can use our experiences to benefit our academic work. The Autumn Term session with three University of Reading graduates was a particularly encouraging experience for me. It was the first term of my final year at university and I was rather unsure of what lay ahead. The pressure of my dissertation and the impending uncertainty of graduation loomed over me. The graduates, however, reassured me that it was okay to feel overwhelmed about my dissertation and the fear of the unknown. After hearing about the various routes the graduates went down after university, I realised that my life did not have to follow a linear pattern. This allowed me to let go of anxiety about the future and focus on the present. It was because of this session that I feel like I got the most out of my final year.
Georgia: The Autumn Term graduate talks showed me that studying English Literature can provide transferable skills after university. The idea of life after university has always been a daunting thought at the back of my mind however after speaking to the graduates I felt reassured that I could enter the job market confident in my skills.
Yinka: My favourite session of the year was with Shirley Anstis, a local author and counsellor. In her interactive workshop, we used writing therapy to celebrate our successes since A-Levels. No one was required to read their writing out, so it was very much a personal exercise. We also did a visualisation activity of what we wanted our ideal future to look like. The exercise allowed me to reframe my goals and work out what truly mattered to me. Sessions like these every few weeks gave students a small period of calm in what is usually a hectic university schedule. It was also great to have BAME English Literature students from other years attend. We exchanged advice about modules we had taken and navigating university life as a BAME student generally. It was great to be able to relax and talk to other students about our oftentimes shared experiences.
Georgia: I noticed how impactful the network had become during the teaching strikes. Many students who attended the sessions would join because they were already on campus. I had anticipated that because there were fewer contact hours during the strikes not many students would attend, however, I was surprised that students still attended the session because they wanted to converse. We talked about staying motivated, dealing with anxieties within and outside of university, and formulated strategies to meet upcoming deadlines. Having an open discussion for 40 minutes helped me to de-stress. The time flew by and it made a massive difference to the rest of my day.
Nicola: As a member of staff sitting in on all but the student-led discussion sessions, I’ve learned so much this year. I’ve heard what a lonely and alienating experience it can be finding yourself the only person of colour in a classroom, and how frustrating it is when the curriculum doesn’t acknowledge the contributions of people like you. I’ve also seen how resourceful students have been in making a place for themselves at University, and their resilience in staying true to themselves despite various institutional and peer pressures. In our final, reflective session it was incredibly moving to see and celebrate how much the network participants have achieved this year, both academically and personally. Staff at the University have a responsibility to educate ourselves about the ways in which our systems – including our teaching methods and curricula – centre some students at the expense of others, and to make a change. I will be working with colleagues in the Department of English Literature and more widely to feed this forward.
Yinka: Being part of the BAME network has helped me in a multitude of ways. When I first started university, I felt that there were not many people I could relate to or who could relate to me. By the end of it, there is a network of people with whom I can discuss anything. The network has made me feel more comfortable about who I am and how I express myself to non-BAME students. I am now confident enough to speak about my experiences and have done so at various talks alongside Georgia, including a School of Literature and Languages meeting in November 2019 and a University-wide event in January 2020. It has been amazing to be part of such a great network and I would highly encourage anyone who has thought of attending to come along when future sessions are advertised. You can just drop into sessions that suit you – you don’t have to attend every session. Whether you would like to speak up or just listen in, the network is for everyone who wants to hear and reflect on the experiences of BAME students. The student-led sessions will be reserved for students of colour, but sessions led by UoR staff or with external speakers will be open to all students. BAME students have often been ignored in academic settings, but the network has allowed me and others to have a voice. My advice would be to use the BAME network as an empowering tool, to define your place at university.