Advancing the black student experience

Tobi Adeyemi (MA International Relations and Diplomacy, 2019) has long been involved in community and charity work, volunteering for a youth organisation at home in Nigeria before coming to the UK to study her Masters Degree. Now, as President of the Guild of Students, she talked to Old Joe about her intent to serve as a role model for students and play an active role in improving the academic and social experience of black students at the University of Birmingham.

Old Joe: Having grown up in Nigeria, how do you find life is different in the UK?

Tobi AdeyemiTobi Adeyemi: Living in Nigeria, where the majority of the population is black, there's no discussion about race or identity. Everyone perceives themselves as the same. The first time I was in the UK and was referred to as a minority, I felt offended. I was not used to the term and had to adjust.

In terms of Black Lives Matter, in Nigeria we see what's happening elsewhere in the developed world, and how these issues are being spoken about. Often only a few people speak out as they feel detached from the issue. In the UK, people expected I should have an opinion as I'm black. 

I've had to balance not trying to come off as an imposter on my own race. I do not 100% relate to how people are feeling because I haven't lived with those experiences, but I do understand it. And there is that constant conflict: are you actually black if you haven't experienced racism? Are you actually black if you haven't lived in a community where your race constantly determines your opportunities or your successes? So, it's been a bit difficult to navigate.

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I've seen the way people get treated; I've seen the way close friends have experienced the feeling of being treated as less than human. I stand with those who have had negative experiences like racism and people who have campaigned for change. It's not right, and I lend my voice to that, rather than exclude myself from allowing people to think that I have had those exact experiences. However, I make sure to educate those around me to believe in the movement and also support those who are going through hard times.

OJ: What plans are you putting in place at the Guild to support the campaign and improve the studentexperience?

TA: Based on the National Student Survey scores, we noticed that there was a black attainment gap and that the experience and satisfaction levels of black students are significantly lower than those of white students. 

We reached out to our black students for insight. Many said they did not feel a part of the wider UoB community, based on their background. Some mentioned how they didn't feel they could comfortably access the University wellbeing services, because they felt the staff delivering those services would not understand where they're from.

Most of the things that came out of that are about identity, the support services available and how they might seem to favour white students, therefore leaving room for high dissatisfaction levels among black students.

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In terms of the Guild, we had feedback about our activities not being diverse enough. We've taken all of it on board and created a manifesto, which involved a range of action plans. We're looking at ways to decolonise the curriculum because students mentioned how the curriculum was too Eurocentric, didn't give room for other ideas and felt really narrow.

We are lobbying the University to review the wellbeing support that they have on offer and proactively reviewing strategy to make the staff more racially diverse. We've asked for staff to receive inclusivity training and ensure they are properly trained on things like unconscious bias or micro-aggressions, because these are things that students face.

It's important the University understands these issues are real and that they pay attention to them. 

At an academic level, we're working with equality, diversity and inclusion leads. We recently celebrated Black History Month and gave students the resources to come up with unique ideas to celebrate the black student community, engage with them and help them feel a lot more connected to the general community.

Finally, our Officer team is very keen on inclusion and diversity and everyone is trying within their respective remits to make change. It's not just been me driving that conversation; it's been an entire team project.

OJ: What are the top three things you would like to see change within the University?

TA: I think the first thing would be the decolonising of the curriculum and having the University review its current structures and ensuring that it caters to the need of students from minority ethnic groups and provides adequate support inline with what our priority campaign manifesto recommends. The UK is a multicultural nation, Birmingham is very, very diverse and the University of Birmingham has an amazing number of international students from different backgrounds.

Secondly, I think the University has to communicate more with the students and that could be done via the Guild as well. Collaborate with us to engage students, understand where they're coming from, understand the challenges and how to tackle them.

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It’s not enough to come up with ideas that people thinkwill benefit the students, and making the students fit in. Bring them into that conversation, celebrate their backgrounds and their cultures and help them feel comfortable to thrive within the student community.

Finally, for the Guild, we need to improve representation of different backgrounds in student governance. That is a work in progress, but we must make it easy for students to understand what we do, how we operate, and how they can engage with us.

We're representing more than 30,000 students and the more they understand what we do, the more they engage with us, and the more they tell us what they want to see. I am grateful that my position as Guild President allows me to demonstrate properly the essence of the Students' Union and what we do, and make sure students see how they can be a part of a community that can drive change.