Cambridge & diversity

Gregory Burke: broadening horizons

Gregory BurkeShortly before his GCSEs, Gregory Burke was disabled following an illness. Four years rehabilitating in hospital followed, with further time spent as an out-patient. When he finally returned to college he got an A for an essay on pride. Combined with the five GCSEs he had been awarded on the basis of coursework prior to his illness, Gregory applied to King's College. During his PhD he founded DisabledGo, an award-winning organisation established to find practical ways to encourage disabled people to access and contribute to their community.

Can you tell us about your application to Cambridge?

I was interviewed by Dr Michael Sonenscher, Director of Studies in History at King's College. He was not particularly interested in my qualifications but in how I thought. His opening question was, ‘What do you think of the concept of democracy?’ For 45 minutes we batted this concept back and forth, and I remember quite a heated argument took place. I thought I'd blown it. But I was given a place and I'll always owe a debt to Dr Sonenscher that can never be repaid.

Getting into Cambridge changed my life completely. Between the ages of 16 and 20 my life and my horizons were so tightly constrained, just for Cambridge to give me an interview gave me an enormous boost. To get a place was amazing. I wasn't physically strong enough to take up the place for another two years and had to be sent home intermittently throughout my studies, but Dr Sonenscher believed that I could achieve something, and hopefully he was right!

And your studies at Cambridge?

I had a superb supervisor for my undergraduate dissertation, Eugenio Biagini, and an inspirational lecturer in Peter Clarke. I was so galvanised by these two people that I wanted to do more. I won a Newton Scholarship which paid all of my tuition fees for a one-year MPhil. I loved it so much that I thought I'd do a PhD as well. I was still building up my stamina and my sense of what I was able to do within the confines of my improving physical condition. I'm now unrecognisable from where I was 15 years ago. When I started at Cambridge I could only sit up for 40 minutes at a time, and now I can do that all day, but it took time to build that up.

I ended up going on to do postgraduate work at King's, but in my second year as an undergraduate Dr Sonenscher, told me I'd be lucky to get a Third as my exam essays were so poor. He sat down with me for two terms to teach me how to do the exam essays, to teach me how to write in exam conditions. That's a level of care and interest—which doesn't sit with the stereotype of Cambridge tutoring; going the extra mile, going the extra hundred miles—that's what Dr Sonenscher did for me. My job now is very much about writing proposals, going to see chief executives of very large organisations to convince them about the veracity of what I'm saying. The historian's skills of reading documents very closely, being able to take things out of documents to use them to our advantage, to listen very carefully, to propound an argument convincingly, coherently and logically, to write arrestingly and persuasively, all these things were honed at Cambridge.

Aside from the academic, what other lessons did you learn?

If you look at what I've done since Cambridge, I've swum against the tide on a lot of different issues. Cambridge gave me the confidence and intellectual security to do that. Independent thinking was encouraged. It's not about going to the Cambridge interview with four or five As at A-Level saying that you want to be prime minister. It's about how well you can think, how you are able to look at a problem; your instinctive reaction could be one thing, but you turn it around and think about it from a different angle completely. That rigour of thinking, that appreciation and structuring of argument is important. Cambridge made me feel that I could make a contribution, that anything was possible, that anything is possible. That's what Cambridge gave me.

I met some fantastic fellow students at Cambridge—some wonderful people who gave me an awful lot of confidence. There are some friends that I still see on a very regular basis; my achievements since I went to King's have, I think, in a large part, been due to the influence of these friends, and my lecturers and supervisors.

Can you tell us more about DisabledGo?

I set up DisabledGo while I was doing my PhD, which was probably in contravention of the rules. There was a profile done on me in the Financial Times and Michael Sonenscher, sent me an email saying ‘Dear Greg, just seen this in the FT. My, my, haven't you been busy!’ That was a massive understatement!

DisabledGo provides fine grain disabled access guides to towns, cities, universities, hospitals on our website. The aim is to empower disabled people to have the confidence to access their communities and make their contribution.

When I went to sell the idea of DisabledGo for the very first time I didn't even have a screen shot to put on a laptop, I just had an idea in my head. I went to Croydon Council because I wanted them to endorse what we were doing. I was seeing the deputy chief executive, and I was a 26-year-old nobody, although I had the Cambridge thing on my card—so I had a bit of status! Before I went to see him I had looked at his speeches, and done my homework; I made my language his language so that when I was talking to him I was basically repeating what he had said, and he was nodding in agreement. Well, how couldn't he! Half-way through, I realised that he thought that I was asking him to pay for the service, not to endorse it. So I shut up! I came away with Croydon Council paying for the project. Those were skills I had learnt at Cambridge!

DisabledGo is now in its ninth year of operation. I lead a team of 40 people, with a turnover of £2 million. Our core work is to provide access guides for towns and cities across the UK. We serve over 110,000 disabled people every month; empowering them to make the sorts of autonomous choices that non-disabled people largely take for granted, like where can I go, what facilities are going to be there for me, would I be able to get to the toilet if I needed to—just some of the very basic things. We also cover places where we can enjoy our community like night clubs, theatres, cinemas, restaurants and job centres. We are probably the most grass-roots-connected disability organisation in the UK, probably the world. I'm very pleased that Cambridge University is part of the DisabledGo family as well.

What's your favourite memory of Cambridge?

After I got my place at Cambridge, my mum and dad went to meet Dr Sonenscher to make sure that I could get around all the different places. I wasn't well enough to go, unfortunately. I remember my mother, who died in July 2009, phoning me from Cambridge, so excited that I would be going there. That's a memory that I will treasure—her sounding so excited.

But my favourite memory has to be the first time I met my wife, which was in the post room at King's. I was in the post room and I looked down and I saw her take a step towards the Gibbs Building and then stop. She pivoted 180 degrees to go back towards the Great Gate and then stopped; her left foot had not lifted off the floor. She looked up at me, walked over and came into the post room and said hello; I said hello back. She walked out and I tracked her walk across the front court thinking ‘I've got to get that girl into my life’.

I've got so many wonderful memories about Cambridge, and I would say if you're thinking about applying, apply. The worst thing that can happen is that you get turned down. Why wouldn't you apply! If your teachers don't think you should apply, apply! What's the worst that can happen? The sun will still come up tomorrow. If you feel that it's somewhere you will flourish, give it a try. Give it a go.

What advice would you give to someone who says I just don't think I'd fit in there, it's not a place for people like me?

OK, well, do you think you'd fit in better than a guy who goes to Cambridge with five GCSEs, can't sit up for more than 40 minutes, can't hold a pen when he goes to lectures, can't get into his College library for the entire period that he's there because its not wheelchair accessible? Don't you think you'd have a better chance than that guy? Because I am that guy. Or rather, I was that guy. And I fitted in great and so can you.

There are some real, how would you say, people who typify the Cambridge stereotype, but there are snobs at any university, any area of life. Overwhelmingly there are some really great people too, and some fantastic experiences you can have. Life is so short, why wouldn't you just try and see if you liked it. You might think that Cambridge is just a whole bunch of people walking around in gowns and mortar boards talking Latin. It's not that, it's about people in jeans and sweatshirts, and meeting girls, drinking, debating, having arguments about whether Neighbours is better than Home and Away, was Germany really to blame for the Second World War. Was Margaret Thatcher all bad? You have a wonderful, wonderful time.

More than anything else: Cambridge is what you make it. And that really is the essence of what you should take after you leave—that life is what you make it. Going to Cambridge is a great opportunity, and it would be a real mistake not to at least investigate whether that opportunity is right for you.

And finally, how would you sum up your Cambridge experience in one word?

Liberation.