Breaking a 450-year tradition: He is the first black president of the student union at Trinity College, Cambridge. Gary Pryce talks to Ruth Picardie

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Gary Pryce has just been elected president of the students' union at Trinity College, the biggest, poshest, grandest of the Cambridge colleges, the sort of place where the union is still sometimes known as the Junior Common Room.

Gary is the first black student to have been elected to this position since the college was founded in 1546. Moreover, he is one of only 13 black British students who gained a place at Cambridge in 1992.

'It's a problem,' he says. 'Black students just don't come through the system.'

Gary got through against the odds. His parents came to Britain from the West Indies in the Sixties and settled in Birmingham. They now live in a housing association house in Highgate, a racially diverse area of high unemployment - but not crime - about mile from the city centre. His father is a BT engineer, his mother a civil servant. 'Worked hard, brought up a family,' says Gary. 'Model citizens.'

Gary and his older brother (he also has two sisters) went to George Dixon School, a comprehensive that has just opted out. The school, according to the headteacher, Carlton Duncan, a black ex-barrister, is in 'a posher area of Birmingham where almost all the white children go to private school'. Accordingly, George Dixon pupils are bussed in from the inner city; they are 70 per cent Asian, 20 per cent Afro-Caribbean, 8 per cent white, and 2 per cent Chinese and mixed. The school's alumni include the pop group UB40, named in honour of the dole card; its academic results are way below the national average.

'Not wonderful,' says Gary. 'But if you do have some ability, there are some people there to help you.'

Gary's older brother left school and became a session musician. Gary, however, was academically ambitious. 'My parents have encouraged all of us that education is probably the best building block in life, for whatever it is you want to do later on in life. Because if you don't have the skills, you're limited from day one.'

At 13, he had already worked out that he needed to take French - his least favourite subject - at GCSE to gain a place at Cambridge. (He got eight grade Bs.)

Further encouragement came after a visit by Cambridge students, part of a scheme to encourage applications from ethnic minorities. 'They were slightly older, but more or less the same as other people sitting in the room,' says Gary. 'They proved you don't have to be a specific type of person to go there.'

Most of the sixth-form pupils were doing GCSE re-sits and vocational qualifications; Gary was part of a small clique of A-level students, and the only one to apply to Oxbridge. His strongest subject was history - he also took sociology and English - but he chose to read law. 'I wanted a job,' he jokes. Trinity, he reasoned, was a big college that would give him 'the space to do whatever I wanted to do'.

After his exams, he sat about worrying for two weeks because he felt he hadn't done well. But he got three As. 'I was over the moon, as they say in football parlance.'

He eschewed the traditional public schoolboy's year off. 'I didn't really think about it,' he says. 'I thought, great] If they'll let me in, I want to come straight away. I'm not one of those people who want to go to India for five months.'

Eighteen months later, he has no regrets. He is popular, confident, a star of the college football team. 'I support God,' he says. 'Glenn Hoddle, to the uninitiated. That's who I wanted to be when I was a kid.'

Once inside the ivory tower, racism appears not to have been a problem. 'Even if people felt that way, they wouldn't express it in an overt way. I don't hear racist language, but that's probably because people know I wouldn't tolerate it.'

Politics is not a big part of his life. 'I don't really tie myself to any party,' he says. 'I believe in fairness . . . Most students here don't have very strong political allegiances.' His motivation as a lawyer is simply 'to be in a position to effect some kind of change'.

Gary's lifestyle is regulation student: from bed to lecture room in 15 minutes, studying fitted around union business and 'room trawling' in search of coffee and conversation. He is using his student loan to buy a computer. He listens to swing and hip-hop, current faves being Cypress Hill. He is romantically unattached. 'At the moment I'm quite busy,' he says. 'Married to the job.'

Last summer he found a place as an intern at a Birmingham law firm, enabling him to live, for free, at home. This summer he hopes to work in London.

Not even the rugger buggers get him down. 'Some of my best friends are rugby players,' he says, half-joking. 'If you're not in the mood for them, you do something else and let them get on with it. You have to appreciate that you've bought into something here, same as everybody else, and if you say, 'I don't like what you do', they are perfectly entitled to say the same thing about me.'

Not that Gary is advocating social colour blindness as the only way black students can fit it. 'As well as being able to appreciate similarities,' he says, 'my Trinity friends - who are mainly white - respect difference. That's important. Students don't want to end up as a homogenous group.'

He is an enthusiastic member of the Black Caucus, a discussion and social group for ethnic minority students set up in 1986. And his main concern, politically - not as SU president, he adds - is access to higher education. 'The Government may be creating more places,' he says, 'but then you restrict the numbers who are able to go to university because some people aren't able to fund themselves.'

More worrying is the low acceptance rate (in 1992, 31 per cent of white applicants were accepted, but only 16 per cent of black applicants). Susan Stobbs, chair of Cambridge University admissions forum, attributes this partly to the concentration of ethnic minority applications in oversubscribed vocational subjects, such as law.

Last year Gary was the student union's 'target schools' officer, helping to identify and encourage promising pupils from inner-city schools that had never applied to Cambridge. He is an active member of Geema, the university scheme to encourage ethnic minority applications that had visited his school. 'Lots of the pupils say, 'I want this car and I want this house'. One approach is to say, 'Go to university and get a good qualification and get a good job'. Selling hamburgers to teenagers isn't a great way to spend your life. But I believe in education for education's sake . . .'

Above all, he is wary of being perceived as a token black. 'One journalist made it sound like I came from Vietnam - riot-torn crisis in B'ham. You don't wear your culture as a badge. It's something I'm aware of every day, but you don't brandish it in every situation. If you make me out as a special aberration, you put people off. You don't come to Cambridge to be viewed as freak.'

(Photograph omitted)

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