Cambridge & diversity

Pav Akhtar: exploring a world of opportunities

Pav AkhtarPav Akhtar is a British Labour Party politician. He works for the trade union UNISON and is a councillor for Stockwell in the London Borough of Lambeth. He is one of a very few publicly gay Muslim politicians in the world. After leaving school with 11 GCSEs Pav worked in a bar, sold shoes in a shop, and got a job as an office junior in an estate agent's before attaining five A levels and applying to Cambridge University.

Pav read English at Homerton College (1997) and became the first non-white president of the University's Students Union. In 2001, Pav was awarded the national accolade of Ethnic Student of the Year. His work on The Little Black Book, a guide to Cambridge for ethnic minority students, won praise from the government.

What motivated you to come to Cambridge?

I grew up in care so it was a fairly non-traditional home-life environment. The statistics suggest that only five per cent of children in care ever make it to university, let alone to a place like Cambridge, so for me, going to university seemed like a pipe dream. Added to this, no-one else from my family had ever been to university and only seven children from my high school year went to college, let alone university. When I got 11 GCSEs it was one of the best results my school had had in over 25 years.

When the possibility of university became more realistic, then I think I opted for Cambridge out of sheer brazenness. Even though I didn't think Cambridge was for the likes of me because I was a working class boy, from a state school in the north of England and my dad was a truck driver. I simply didn't think a British Asian person was ever going to be able to make it.

I remember being upset by my FE college tutor when I touted the idea of applying. He said that he didn't think I had the right attitude because, he said, I asked too many questions! I was perplexed by this. Surely that was exactly what Cambridge wanted?

I applied anyway and was enchanted by the place when I went for interview, so when I arrived it was an enormous privilege.

Whilst at Cambridge I went back to my FE college as part of the Target Schools programme. I remember there was a young woman who was a first year A-Level student. She became president of CUSU three years after me, which was fantastic. My FE college didn't have a strong tradition of sending students to Cambridge, so to produce two CUSU presidents in the space of four years was quite amazing. She contacted me after she came up to Cambridge and said that I had inspired her to apply. This proves how important widening participation work is.

How did you find your time at the University and at Homerton?

I remember that a lot of students arrived at the University in their parents' big cars—I arrived with a backpack on a train!

I was awestruck by how many Colleges and students there were, and of course how clever everybody was. You suddenly go from being top of your class to being average, and I think that comes as a real culture shock for almost everybody; it also means you have to work really hard because everyone wants to be at the top.

I remember wanting to consume everything. In my first week in Cambridge I got myself a bicycle. I'd never owned a bicycle before and I rode around town seeing all the other Colleges… it was just brilliant.

Homerton was incredibly hospitable too. That's the beauty of the collegiate system: it is a community and very quickly becomes a family. There are conventions that you follow, but this can happen without you losing yourself. That was very important to me: a British Asian, Northern, state school kid and very proud of it; I was fiercely protective of my identity.

I'd never experienced such a diverse mix of people and I mean that not just in terms of race but also in terms of background and interests. We had so many international students; it was really quite an eclectic mix. I was dumbfounded at how diverse we were and that was absolutely brilliant.

How did your identity as a British Asian feature in terms of your integration at Cambridge?

Homerton made a concerted effort to ensure that I was able to settle quickly into College life, and that I was able to play a full part in my College environment. I really appreciated that because I feel if someone gives you that warmth you want to reciprocate.

On the academic side, I remember my tutors were very keen to hear my perspective because of my religious convictions and my cultural heritage. They encouraged me to bring these forward and didn't say that I could only have a British or Eurocentric approach to the study of literature or language. On any given topic I frequently asked myself: is there an Asian perspective? An Islamic perspective? A gay perspective? My views felt valued so I was able to contribute more and I felt that it enriched my college environment because people respected you and your rights and that created a particular synergy. At college in Cambridge you can be who you are and have your own identity.

Did your sexuality have an impact on your experience of Cambridge?

Cambridge is a very gay place! I don't know if the University will appreciate me saying that or not but Cambridge actually has an incredible diversity and that is one of its strongest points. I know from personal experience that when you're outside looking in you wouldn't expect it but once you are there you recognise it almost immediately. There is a whole palimpsest of perspectives: social, political, sexual and religious. Despite the popular perception in the media of upper class kids from public school, in reality there is enormous diversity.

The great thing is that you are judged by what you do, what you contribute to the College community, and what you deliver in the lecture hall. And that's really what it's about. Being gay was never a barrier.

Cambridge also has one of the friendliest LGBT societies in the country and that diversity is very much a part of the students union—where there was an LGBT Officer, and a whole campaign supporting LGBT students. It was well established in the psyche of the University that there were gay people, so it was not really a big deal.

How did your family feel about you studying at Cambridge?

My family have always had a healthy respect for me because I have always worked very hard despite some of the barriers of my upbringing. However, my family had no notion of what Cambridge was, and even less understanding that I'd got a place at the best university in Britain and one of the best institutions in the world. I remember that they came to visit me a few times when I was up at Cambridge, but it was a long way to travel from Lancashire. The whole family came for my graduation too, and for all of us it was like, wow! We were completely blown away. I know my parents were enormously proud.

Aside from your academic studies, what do you think your time at Cambridge taught you?

One thing Cambridge taught me was to be exceedingly confident—some people think too confident! Cambridge instils into you a belief that you are capable of being the best, and I think the greatest lesson was to learn not to doubt myself, and to have an unrelenting self belief and confidence.

Cambridge taught me to try, to explore and to learn. It also taught me not to be satisfied with whatever I was simply given but to demand more of myself, and also of others. But there is humility and gratitude too. I feel enormously privileged to have had the opportunities that I was given at Cambridge.

Since graduating, I've been President of the Students Union, a journalist and foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, an international aid worker for the British Government in Central America, I've worked with the UN, I've worked for a trade union and I'm a publicly elected local authority councillor. I have this plethora of experiences and to think that I'm just over 30, it's amazing.

Most people I know from Cambridge have made enormous progress very quickly. I have got one friend, from the same year as me, who is head of the UK's environmental strategy in one of the government's departments. Another is a private secretary to a minister. And another is a barrister who has led cases of national significance and this is just within the small set of people that I knew. Cambridge makes you believe that anything is achievable. I'm always amazed by how many Cambridge graduates there are in very good jobs, doing some incredible work in their own fields.

When you left Cambridge did you stay in touch with the University?

Absolutely. I remain in touch with the Students Union and I donate a little money to my College because they were so thoughtful and caring, a surrogate family. I'm incredibly grateful to the University and to my College for everything they did for me and the opportunities they gave to me. I don't think I'd be doing even half the things I'm doing now if it wasn't for Cambridge. The experience will be with me forever.