Inspiring students of Cambridge

Chantal Aberdeen 4 May 2017

Becoming a student of the University of Cambridge, I think most would agree, brings with it an awareness of tradition; it is impossible to study here and not see the path forged by students who have come before us. With over 800 years of history, Cambridge has seen many great students, and it would be easy to assume that their achievements are remembered, cherished and applauded. Yet, while a quick internet search of ‘famous Cambridge alumni’ will turn up many notable former students, it seems that the memories of the achievements of certain alumni have not always been given the prominence they deserve. When asked to name a past student, perhaps the likes of John Milton, Charles Darwin or Rosalind Franklin come to mind. But could you name the first black man and woman to study here?

Perhaps the specificity of this question seems an unfair challenge to your knowledge of Cambridge alumni; it is entirely understandable for a current student not to recall the name of every notable past student. Yet, it is important that the particularly incredible journeys of such trailblazing students not be forgotten when the legacy of their achievements remain so powerfully inspiring.

This is central to the work of the Black Cantabs Research Society, which aims to create “a fuller and more comprehensive history which recognises and includes the achievements of its minorities”, as the President Nafisa Waziri told me. By researching the stories of the numerous and talented black alumni, Waziri explained, the society hopes to “draw attention to the rich and diverse histories of the pioneering black scholars of the university”.

This endeavour is not, however, as simple as it would appear. Although having found great support for the aims of the project from archivists and colleges, the President of the society discussed with me the difficulties of their research – much of which involves trawling through matriculation photographs to identify Black Cantabs, using this as a starting point to learn names, subjects, and whatever other information records can provide.

The Black Cantabs Research Society is not alone in their efforts to bring greater attention to the histories and legacies of BME students. With the great number of talented alumni, it would be impossible to explore every story in the detail they deserve. However, this will be the first article of a series which hopes to celebrate the achievements of just a handful of the inspiring, diverse students who have travelled and – often – overcome significant challenges to study at Cambridge.