‘It can be tough to settle into a new, middle-class culture’

Trinity College’ Schools Liaison Officer Terri-Leigh Riley is spearheading a new University society to help students from diverse backgrounds throughout their time at Cambridge.

Cambridge Social Diversity will host social events and talks, offer a mentoring scheme for Freshers and assist with professional development. The first event – in Trinity’s bar – takes place on Monday 7 March, 7:30pm. Ms Riley explains:

The University puts so much time and effort into widening participation, but access shouldn’t end when you get here – this society is about continuing the dialogue among students from diverse backgrounds.  

The society was borne in part out of Ms Riley’s experience arriving at Cambridge from a working-class home in Newcastle. 

I remember leafing through a pamphlet of all the campaigns and societies, and desperately wishing there was one for students who were worried about not fitting in because of their background. It can be tough to settle into a new, middle-class culture, on top of all of the other lifestyle changes that come with starting university. CamSoc Diversity exists to help ease that transition.

Students who might identify with the society include being first in their family to go to university, being a carer or care-leaver, or attending a school where few people went to university. This list isn’t exhaustive though, says Ms Riley. More generally you might come from a social background that is under-represented at Cambridge.

The students CamSoc Diversity seeks to represent make up less than 10% of Cambridge students. That’s despite forming around 40% of the population, says Ms Riley.

The Society is a first for Cambridge but there are precedents in Oxford First-Generation Students and Harvard College First Generation Student Union. SOAS’ students union has a Working Class Officer. But initially, Ms Riley had her doubts. 

Social class and background can be difficult issues to talk about. I decided that if the group didn’t take off and no one was interested, that would be fine – it would mean that my experience wasn’t as widespread as I’d thought and if people didn’t leap at the chance of getting involved then the group probably wasn’t needed.

However, the fervent debate about what to call the society – ‘under-represented’ was too negative, ‘working class’ too divisive – confirmed her belief in the need for such a group.

I prefer to describe my background as working class but other students said they would be too intimidated as a first year to join such a group and others said it was too divisive and would exclude students uncomfortable with the term.

A second group emerged from the debate: Cambridge Working Class Students, founded by Sidney Sussex student Michael Travers, who said the student-run campaign aimed to reclaim the term and celebrate working-class culture.

Ms Riley, who is collaborating with Trinity College Students Union Access Officer, Lauren Brown, said both groups had similar aims and would work together.

Senior Tutor at Trinity, Professor Catherine Barnard, welcomed the initiative.

Cambridge works hard to attract the brightest students regardless of their background. But we do need to recognise that getting here is one thing – fulfilling your potential and enjoying all that Cambridge has to offer is another.

CamSoc Diversity will give students from backgrounds under-represented at Cambridge a stronger voice and provide support, help and opportunities throughout their time here.

And it isn’t only about making the most of ‘the Cambridge experience’.

A key issue the society wants to address is narrowing the gap in career progression. Lack of professional contacts, unpaid internships and unaffordable London rents can put students at a serious disadvantage, says Ms Riley, who hopes to collaborate with the careers service on careers advice and opportunities for students from diverse or non-traditional backgrounds.

Some people might argue that this isn’t necessary, but I really think it is. In my first year I remember coming across a new word at Cambridge and thinking it was interesting, from a sociological perspective, that I hadn’t heard it before.

I asked all of my family if they knew what ‘internship’ meant and most of them didn’t. That the professional equivalent of an apprenticeship is completely absent from working-class culture is fascinating.

This feeds into a wider issue – that the language, assumptions and culture among top universities is noticeably biased towards middle-class people. We really need a voice for those coming from the outside, and that’s what Cambridge Social Diversity and Cambridge Working Class Students aim to do.

More about CamSoc Diversity

To attend the launch party, come to Trinity’s bar at 7:30pm on Monday 7 March.

Recent News

Valerie Gibson receives Royal Society Athena accolade

Professor Valerie Gibson has received a Royal Society award for her activities to increase ...

Read More

Reassurance for EU students on funding

Senior Tutor at Trinity, Professor Catherine Barnard, welcomed the announcement by the UK ...

Read More