“People are like walking books”: In Conversation with Sonita Alleyne OBE, newly-appointed Master of Jesus College

Jungmin Seo 26 October 2019
Image Credit: Sahil Sama

During this interview with Ms Sonita Alleyne OBE, the newly-appointed Master of Jesus College, we diverge a little from the topic of glass-ceilings and racism, and talk about access, creativity, and libraries.

“Use the cutlery from the outside-in during formal hall, and never go to Pizza Express without a voucher code”: some advice for the current first-years, from the “146th fresher” at Jesus College, Ms Sonita Alleyne OBE.

Words of wisdom, no doubt, and for some, a surprising insight into what Cambridge is actually like. Alleyne, the 42nd Master of Jesus College, who has been making national headlines ever since her ‘historic’ appointment was announced in May earlier this year, is keen to “engage with demystifying the admissions process in Cambridge”.

Some progress has been made on that front, as Jesus College had the highest application rate in 2019, with 1235 applicants. Out of the current cohort of first-years, 74.2% of students were state-educated, 20% are BAME, and a further 25% are from under-represented or disadvantaged backgrounds. Alleyne is quick to emphasise that “I’m new in position, so it’s about finding out what people do. And what I’ve found is that at Jesus, we do a lot.” She’s smiling warm-heartedly as she says “I’m so impressed by what the Ambassador team do here.”

But she also recognises the misconception over admissions. “It’s the same as it was in my day. In order to get into Cambridge, what you need at GCSE is a minimum of 4 As. But what happens is that a lot of schools seem to think that if their students don’t have 10A*s, they aren’t Cambridge material. [They forget that] young people mature between 16 and 18, and go from being general to being absolutely passionate about, say, English.” She adds “That’s the beauty of Cambridge. They can spot people, so you don’t have to worry about the 4 Bs at GCSE. That’s also why we need to engage with schools and teachers so that they don’t ‘write off’ people.”

“That’s the beauty of Cambridge. They can spot people, so you don’t have to worry about the 4 Bs at GCSE…”

For Alleyne, it’s not just about academics. 20 minutes into our chat, she reveals that she is “working on a post-apocalyptic horror story”.

“I miss my creative writing group. Once I finish my round of Matriculation dinners, I want to try to get back into it.” She firmly believes that “it is important to give yourself a creative outlet, to use the other side of your brain, to kind of have some down-time. I think that’s something I’ll be quite interested to provide for the College.” This has already manifested itself through the inaugural launch of the Jesus College Ghost Story Competition, which invites all students, fellows and friends of the College to submit a short story. She playfully adds, “you’re not going to leave this room without entering the writing competition!”

Master of Jesus College at her office-desk (Image Credit: Sahil Sama)

Of course, there’s more to creative writing than relaxation. “People don’t need to dictate what stories you need to write: you can do what you like, and that’s what I like about it,” says Alleyne. It’s a response that follows one of my more personal questions to the Master, coming from the fact that I am a Korean who has lived in England since the age of five. “Do you ever feel pigeon-holed by your ethnic identity, or have you ever had experiences with stereotyping?” She genuinely seems quite concerned for me for bringing this up, to which I reassure her (and my potential readers!) that it’s not as serious as it sounds.

But she’s completely honest with me: “I think it’s so important to notice it. Especially as an English student, you’ll get that sometimes if you are up against it in publishing or writing. For example, I did a bit of presenting for Radio 5. I got to present a programme about Martin Luther King, and I hoped I had done a good job, and that I would be able to go back and do more things. But sometimes people want you to talk from a particular point of view, as opposed to doing something about something else entirely. But this was 30 years ago. I think things have changed, and that people are more live to that.” There’s a renewed sincerity in her voice when she says “It’s important that you have a chance to define who you are, and that you do notice [stereotyping], and don’t let others define you.”

Master of Jesus College outside Porters’ Lodge (Image Credit: Sahil Sama)

Alleyne has certainly been embracing this freedom over the past three weeks, as she settles into her new role as Master of Jesus College. As a Jesus student myself, I can affirm that she is often seen mid-conversation with someone, especially near our Café – The Roost – which she confesses is probably her favourite place in Jesus. It therefore comes as no surprise that her best moments since her official appointment on October 1st are from meeting new people. “I think meeting people is like an adventure, so I’ve had loads and loads of adventures.” She cites some of the most memorable events, which include thanking all the staff and contractors who worked on the Porters’ Lodge, and hosting Freshers’ Desserts. “I’ve really enjoyed all of it. It’s a real gift to be able to help people who are at that stage in life. You give yourself, and you can feel great about it.”

“I think meeting people is like an adventure, so I’ve had loads and loads of adventures…”

“What is the role of a Master?”

It’s a question that Alleyne asks me. She likes to “get to the essence of something, and for me, this role is to be the caretaker of the College for the next ten years, which tacks onto 523 years of history.” She reasserts that “the point of a College is community and home”; it’s about living together, and getting to know each other from that. “Everyone comes with their history. And in that sense, people are like walking books: you can open a book, and see the different chapters of their lives when you talk to them. It’s like living in a walking library of history, stories, hopes, fears and visions, and I think that’s really beautiful. That’s what I’m really enjoying about it. You need to give yourself the time to have those conversations,” I’m amazed by her eloquence. I think she notices this, as she rounds off the interview with one final joke: “That should have been my Freshers’ speech!”

“It’s like living in a walking library of history, stories, hopes, fears and visions, and I think that’s really beautiful…”

In the past month alone, Alleyne has been interviewed by BBC Radio 4, the Cambridge Independent, ITV East Anglia, and – dare I say it – Varsity (it’s friendly, really). But she does not show – and I genuinely believe that she does not feel – a trace of exhaustion from yet more ‘media coverage’. From the moment she invited me into her office with “would you like any tea or coffee?”, I felt that this interview would be a little different. It wasn’t an interview. It was a conversation – in her words, an “adventure”.

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