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Visual Representation Is Crucial In Improving Prospects For Black Students

In May this year the #BlackExcellence campaign went viral, inspiring students across the country with a series of photos capturing black men enjoying life at Yale and Cambridge universities.
John Woodworth via Getty Images

In May this year the #BlackExcellence campaign went viral, inspiring students across the country with a series of photos capturing black men enjoying life at Yale and Cambridge universities.

A few weeks later I received a message from a fellow Oxford alumni, Samuel Gebreselassie. He was working with Lewis Iwu - the first black president of the Oxford University Student Union in 2008 - to get together over 50 African and Caribbean Oxford alumni for a photoshoot.

Image:Paul Tait

The aim of the campaign is to showcase the varied achievements of black Oxford alumni, both academically and in their subsequent careers. The hope is that the photos will help young black students realise there is a history of black students studying at Oxford - a history that they could become a part of.

Why does this matter? Because visual representation is essential if there is going to be improved representation of black students at Oxford. In fact, it was this lack of visual representation that prompted me to design and launch the Target Oxbridge programme while working at the diversity recruitment company Rare in 2012.

Target Oxbridge aims to combat one of the main barriers to black students applying to Oxbridge: the concern that Oxbridge 'isn't for them'. The programme combats this misconception by providing students with access to black Oxbridge students and alumni. The students also receive support throughout the application process to help them approach it with confidence.

For two years running we've also been hosted by the University of Oxford for a three-day residential, helping young people visualise themselves as Oxford students. The approach works: 46 Target Oxbridge students have received offers from Oxford or Cambridge in the past five years.

Image:Paul Tait

Because of the University of Oxford's willingness to support efforts to improve the diversity of its intake, Lewis, Sam and I decided to work with the university to formalise the Oxford Black Alumni Network. We are joined on the committee by Daniel Stone, who is working at the University of Birmingham, Hope Levy-Shepherd, who is training as a solicitor, and Joshua Oware, who is studying for a PhD. With more than 200 alumni signed up, we are excited to be hosting our launch event later this month, at which we will become the first Oxford alumni network of this type.

The network aims to provide support to its members as they navigate their careers. While progress is being made, it is still the case that black graduates are under-represented in a number of industries. Through mentoring, buddying and networking events, we hope the network will provide its members with the connections they need to continue breaking down barriers.

We will also be working with current black students at Oxford, through the trailblazing Oxford African and Caribbean Society, to share the lessons we learn. Finally, by compiling profiles of black alumni for our website, we aim to provide schools and students with access to role models throughout the year.

By releasing the network's photos today we hope to encourage black students who are considering applying to Oxford to hit the submit button by the 15 October deadline. We know from our experiences that studying at Oxford can open up a wealth of opportunities - opportunities we hope more black students will access in the future.

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