How to succeed in a white world: one woman's tale

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People like Jobeda Ali do not usually expect to go to Cambridge University. She is the daughter of a mother who can neither read nor write, a second-generation immigrant from Bangladesh, and was educated at east London state schools.

Judith Judd, Education Editor, explains how she did it.

Jobeda Ali has overcome most types of disadvantage on the way to her upper second class degree at Trinity College, Cambridge. When she applied to Cambridge four years ago, she was told she needed three grade Bs at A-level to secure her place - unlike most of her fellow applicants who were told they needed either two or three As.

The offer was made under a special entry scheme for disadvantaged pupils. But it proved unnecessary. Jobeda gained three grade As.

Four years on, Jobeda has a new job as administrator of the group to encourage ethnic minority applicants (Geema) to the university. She is clear about her role. "I'm not interested in statistics. My aim is to ensure that black and Asian students can see enough black and Asian faces to feel comfortable here."

She remembers vividly her first invitation to coffee on her first day at Cambridge. She expected to walk in and socialise in her normal way but found herself tongue-tied. "It took me two weeks to work out what was wrong. I had never before been in a room where every other person was white."

The gap between Cambridge and some ethnic minority groups is hard for outsiders to grasp, she says. Her mother, who cannot read, write, or speak English, had never heard of Cambridge and didn't want her daughter to go. "Her reaction was `why don't you stay in London and live at home? You could go to university here'."

One of the big differences between a public schoolboy from Eton who comes to Cambridge and herself, she says, is the level of parental interest. "It wasn't just the case that I had no one to help with my maths homework. No one even asked me what I had done at school."

If she tried to read, her mother took away the book and said she should be doing something more useful. Even now, her mother is looking out for a suitable husband for her.

Secretly, Jobeda says, she had always wanted to try for Oxbridge, though she scarcely dared admit it to herself. When students from the group she now runs came to Tower Hamlets College where she was doing her A-levels, she was suddenly given the confidence to apply.

Her present job is to run a programme of events to persuade people like her to feel the same way. She also has plans for student-shadowing to show ethnic minority pupils a day in the life of a Cambridge students. A new video and prospectus are being sent out.

For a decade, the university's message to anxious ethnic minority and state school students has been: the Brideshead image is wrong; there are plenty of people like you here.

Jobeda argues that, of course, black and Asian people need to feel comfortable at Cambridge "but that doesn't mean they all want to rush off to dinner at the Indian Society. Some want the traditional things. I love punting. I love strawberries and champagne and I love May balls."

She know that raising the proportion of black and Asian students - currently 11 per cent - will not be easy. "Take a white public school boy and myself. We both have an upper second from Trinity. We both go for the same job. We appear to be equal. But we are not. I am four times better than he is. I have the same degree but I have overcome the gender barrier, the class barrier and the race barrier."