My name is Varaidzo Felistus Kativhu, I am a 19-year-old student currently studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Oxford.
I was born and raised in Zimbabwe before moving to England, where I now live with my mother and sister in a small town called Dudley (near Birmingham). My father passed away when I was two and growing up in a working class single parent household has played a part in shaping my academic career. When it came to homework, choosing GCSE options, breaking down exams marks, assistance during A-Levels or even choosing a university, my sister and I depended on each other heavily.
I started my primary school education not being able to speak fluent English, which made the process of making friends and practising basic socialisation skills extremely difficult. Within a year, I had learned a substantial amount of English and was even named the fastest reader in my class. I enjoyed learning and the aspect of going to school, but I wasn’t particularly fond of all my classmates or many of the teachers, so I spent most of my time reading. Reading and writing enabled me to ignore the mean boys in my class who often made me feel inferior because I was African. These boys found comedy in my afro which reminded them of a clown, mocked my accent because it wasn’t ‘clear’ and isolated me because my skin was too dark. Thus, writing short stories, making daily diary entries and reading a variety of books became my escape and allowed me to feel safe.
After completing primary school, we moved to Wales where I began my first year of high school. I enjoyed the scenery in Wales as it was a beautiful country and the valley where we lived was nice and quiet. However, we quickly moved back to England after school became a traumatic experience due to the racism my sister and I faced. Upon moving back, high school became a completely different and much more positive experience. I discovered my love for English Literature and History through having dedicated and inspiring teachers motivating me to work hard. Although my secondary education was disrupted due to numerous external circumstances, overall, I enjoyed my years at my local high school.
Sixth form was the place where I mastered the art of independent study and self-teaching. My teachers were forever changing, thus we lacked stability. I had a total of three main History teachers, five substitute English Literature teachers in the months leading up to my exams and a completely new teacher for Philosophy and Ethics after our main one had received a new job offer. My friends and I resorted to skipping classes and using online resources such as YouTube as a means of teaching ourselves. My sixth form tried incredibly hard to support all its students to progress onto higher education and I will forever be grateful for their efforts. However, for high achieving students, like myself and my friends, ‘just passing’ simply wasn’t enough. In hindsight, I wish they had encouraged us to apply for Russell group universities like Oxbridge as many of us were capable and eligible. I wish we had been pushed to do more and guided to reach our full potentials.
For university I used my own initiative and applied for the pioneering Foundation Year scheme run by Oxford University’s Lady Margaret Hall College. I was accepted onto the programme and became one the first 10 students in both Oxford and Cambridge to have completed a Foundation Year, an achievement that has helped make history in the university. I am now in my first year of my undergraduate study and will be graduating in 2020.
I now take pride in giving speeches and doing presentations for young people who come from similar backgrounds to mine. I have shared a stage with the former UK deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, given speeches in-front of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Louise Richardson, the politician David Lammy and many others. I have also been featured on BBC News, ITV News, the Times, The Economist and GQ -campaigning for diversity within elite Russell group universities. I have started a YouTube channel (missvarz) where I can share my personal story in the hopes of inspiring others. I share tips on how to secure internships, achieve good GCSE grades and tips on applying for university. All of which has been done in an effort to reach out to prospective BME students and encourage them to apply for various opportunities as they equally deserve them as much as their non-BME counterparts.
I try to encourage students to aim high, despite society telling them that they are not good enough or are not for example, the “Oxford type”. I am aware that there are many barriers that stop ethnic minority students from accessing elite institutions, obtaining higher grades or gaining internships at the top firms. But I believe that encouragement, support and motivation can also go a long way in defining a young BME persons’ academic progression. I believe that there needs to be more diversity in top firms and elite universities in order to tackle problems such as institutional racism and unconscious bias. I believe that young ethnic minority students need to be told they are good enough from a very early age. The only way that these places will be diversified is if the institutions in question work alongside students and staff who are BME. There also needs to be more media representation of ethnic minorities who are genuinely prospering at top firms and universities to debunk the notion that we only gain places by ‘luck’ or to fill a quota. We need to normalise the idea of BME people EARNING and rightfully occupying their spaces at places like Oxbridge.
I am aware that I have simplified the argument here, but to make progress, we must hold all aspects of society responsible for their role in ensuring that BME students who are capable are given access into places like Oxbridge. The playing field is not level as many of us have different starting points. So, there must be a system in place to ensure students who come from lower socio-economic, disadvantaged or BME backgrounds have been given a fair chance. Initiatives such as to the Annual Access Conference, Visions Workshops or Shadowing days held by the African and Caribbean Society at the University of Oxford should be acknowledged and invested in more by universities. These initiatives support students with their applications for university and help them visually see themselves represented in higher education, and most importantly places like Oxbridge.
If they want to make a change and widen participation, universities have got to start an open dialogue with high schools, sixth forms and all other aspects of society that are responsible for the academic progression of BME students in the UK.
You can follow Vee on YouTube for more advice for BME students.
For further information on the HEA's work on improving BME attainment, click here.