Opening remarks from Dame Professor Sue Black, Baroness Black of Strome

Photo of Dame Professor Sue Black

Dame Professor Sue Black, Baroness Black of Strome

A very good morning to you all and a warm welcome to St John’s College.

We are honoured to host the Diversity of Student Experience Research Project Knowledge Exchange Forum today. Thank you all for braving train strikes and all other manner of challenges to be here for 9am.

I wonder if I might be permitted to indulge in a personal journey to share with you why widening participation and diversity of experience are so important to me and consequently why I am so proud to be President of this college. Age can be a wonderful thing. It affords you the luxury to turn around and examine the life led and isolate those critical moments where you were given a chance that sent your life down a different pathway.

I was born in the Highlands of Scotland over 60 years ago to a strict working-class Scottish Presbyterian family. Frivolity was viewed as a waste of good honest working time and my parents instilled into me a ferocious work ethic and indeed I first started working for my parents when I was around 7 years of age and have never stopped.

I went to a local secondary school – and it was tough. So, I enlisted a very big boyfriend to be my minder. I hated the school so much because of the bullying, intimidation and scorn placed on those who wanted to succeed, that I knew I had to get out or I would drown. Edward Heath’s government had introduced streaming and if I passed all my exams and got a higher mark than one third of my contemporaries, I would be moved to the academy. It was my life saver and I worked so hard to be in that group but I had nobody to teach me how to study. I did succeed – but it was a narrow margin and now it worries me just how narrow that was. But it is in the past.

Then my biology teacher suggested I should apply for University and I was horrified. Nobody in my family had ever gone to university. My parents expected me to leave school, get a job, get married and have a family. A career was never on my dance card. But I applied and succeeded – just. Again, it makes me nervous to think how close that was.

Because of my background, I was given a grant to attend but it was not a full grant. So, I lied to my parents as I decided that they could not afford to support me. So, I worked 3 simultaneous jobs throughout my university time and every holiday was spent working. I did get my degree – just. There is a repeating story here isn’t there?

Better than many, I understood the value of being given a chance and I can now look to where they occurred. An education system that gave me an opportunity to escape. A teacher who saw promise. A work ethic instilled by my parents. The luck to have sufficient talent just to get through until I could find my real passion. I know how lucky I was, but that is not so true for every student who crosses our threshold.

We want every one of them to reach their potential and be the best that they can be without restraint from the pressures of modern life that can so easily thwart ambition.

The University provides such a rich environment to all our students that allows them to thrive but of course things can still go wrong and we need to ensure that we meet the ever increasing support needs of our students in times of crisis. I would never have survived the Oxford pace and intensity of study. I would have been so painfully embarrassed and shy in the small group tutorial sessions. I didn’t like open-ended academic questions that make you think, I was a didactic learner with a good memory and I was never at the top of my class because life always had competing issues for me. So, I tell our students how amazing they are that they gained entry to the top university in the world directly out of school and it took me 45 years to get here.

The pressures placed on our students have unquestionably changed, but many have remained the same. The difference is that we now recognise them and the student is no longer left to sink or swim as we were in my day. That is an inordinately positive change and we are so proud of the multiple ways that St John’s widens its participation through our Inspire project, the support levels given by our academic and professional services staff and our new wellbeing team. It may take a village to raise a child but it takes a veritable army to train compassionate global leaders for the future and that is our job. How lucky we are.

I do hope this is a life changing symposium for you and I am honoured that it is taking place at St John’s.

Professor Dame Sue Black, Baroness Black of Strome DBE, OBE, FRS, FRSE, FRAI, FRSB, ChFA

The President, St John's College

IncludED. Helping all students make the most of Oxford's education

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