Cambridge & diversity

Katrina Ffrench: transforming tomorrow

Katrina FfrenchKatrina Ffrench is a mature student at Hughes Hall (2006) reading Social and Political Science. State school educated from a single parent family Katrina was determined to go to university despite struggling initially with her A-Levels and a late diagnosis for dyslexia.

Can you give a brief overview of your background?

I struggled during my A-Levels and had to take a month out after the death of my grandmother. I decided to take the rest of the year out and go back to college the following year. I did an ACVE in Business but was made homeless during my course, so couldn't finish it. Instead I started full-time work. I got sick of working in a supermarket and decided to go back to college. I applied for my A-Levels at 18 but was told that I had to be 19 to do them in an intensive one-year course, which was what I wanted. Instead I took a vocational course and I'm actually a qualified massage and beauty therapist.

When I finally started my A-Levels I was told that it was impossible to get the three As I wanted in one year. I was actually quite upset, because it seemed to me that I'd wasted a year and if I'd known I couldn't do what I wanted, I'd have started my A-Levels much earlier. The two-year course also meant I would now have to face University top-up fees. It was also at this time that I was diagnosed as being dyslexic. Things kind of fitted into place, but at first I actually cried, thinking I was stupid. I was determined to work hard and there was lots of support for me. In my first year I got two As and a B. I thought, OK, I've got really good results and I'm going to have to pay £3,000 for my education. If I'm going to go anywhere, I want to go to the best university I can. I put my application in to Cambridge and hoped for the best.

Can you give a flavour of your Cambridge experience?

As a mature student I think I appreciate it a lot more than I would have done when I was 18. Having worked, I completely understand that having my degree is going to enable me to do so much more. But having taken time out of education, and only finding out about my dyslexia two years before I came here, I initially felt I was struggling compared to some of the students who came straight from school at 18.

In my first year, I was the only black undergraduate at Hughes Hall, so that was a bit weird. But as time went on I got used to it and it really makes no difference to me. There was no question of racism, it was more cultural; there was no-one to plait my hair, or understand that it takes an extra hour before I go out to get my hair under control, when everyone else could just wash and go! I can honestly say when it comes to lectures it's not about the colour of your skin, it's about the content of your argument. People couldn't care less what you are.

There are loads of black people at the University, but not many British black people. I find there's lot of African people that have fathers who are ambassadors or who come from rich families, but what about our home-grown ethnic minority talent? There seems to be a lack of that in Cambridge to be honest. We do have minorities, but they often come from abroad, and I'd like to see a lot more coming from home.

How have you found Cambridge in dealing with your dyslexia?

Excellent. At the Disability Resource Centre (DRC), I have a tutor I go and see for essay structure and revision technique—they've just been absolutely superb. There's also the disability allowance that I get from my local LEA and that's been incredibly helpful. I've had a computer, a scanner, a printer, a printing allowance, and this year, because I was getting a bit anxious about exams, I've been allocated a note taker for the last few weeks of term. So the DRC has been very supportive and kind. Whenever I speak to other students, I say don't be discouraged about a disability because Cambridge has the resources to make sure you don't get left behind. That's one thing I can honestly say: disability—don't worry about it. There is so much help.

What would you say to people who say Cambridge isn't for them?

I'd say why not come up to Cambridge and have a look? You have so much choice with Cambridge. All young people should find out as much information as possible, come to an open day, have a look, and don't be scared to make an application. Yes, it's very competitive, but you have to be in it to win it.

I'd also tackle people's misconceptions: Who do you know that's been to Cambridge? No one. How do you know it's not for you, have you ever been? What do you know about it? It's quite posh. Well, am I posh? No. Well there we are then! To make an informed decision, you need to have as much information as possible.

But Cambridge might not be for everybody, and that's the truth. If you're a vocational person, it might not be for you, but the point is that you should actually go and look at it, research it, and make that decision before writing it off. You shouldn't go on the basis of the misconceptions and the stereotypes. Cambridge is a very competitive place and I don't lie about that, but they are looking for the best and most able students, regardless of background, regardless of race, regardless of everything. So if you feel you've got that to offer, all you can do is try, and it's better to know than to think… if only.

You've been involved with the Admissions Office and widening participation, can you explain why?

To be honest, I initially came to Cambridge with the idea of making big bucks, leaving and buying my mum a big house… But as time progressed I realised that I wanted more people to have the opportunities that I have had. It became a personal mission for me to push for opportunity.

Widening participation is all about showing that the stereotypes don't exist. Cambridge is a traditional institution but it is very progressive. What I say all the time is, yes, we have big old buildings, but the people in them are very up to date. We know what's going on, we know the world. For the mature students it's about saying life isn't over, it's not too late to go back, it's never too late for a career change, or to do what want, and Cambridge offers you all the resources to do that.

How important do you think the College system is to Cambridge?

The College system provides you with academic and welfare support. You have the freedom of being away from your family, but you've also got the back up of knowing if there's ever anything wrong there's always someone at hand and I think that makes all the difference. My wellbeing is at the heart of my College. That's what they are there for, to ensure that I'm OK and that I'm progressing. Without that, you could find that you'd feel quite lost in Cambridge.

Have you had any mentors or anyone to guide you along the way?

My mum and dad were together for the first 10 years of my life. My dad wasn't an educated man, but he always read a paper like The Times or The Independent. My dad was always very strict with my homework and from the age of about two or three I remember having to say my alphabet twice before I went to bed, and then backwards, and that was the standard. I was always reading; I always had encyclopaedias. Even when my father left, I always had my head in a book; so I did this for my dad, if I'm honest.

What are your Cambridge highlights?

I'd honestly say the people. My education has been excellent, but I've met some incredible people; friends, academics, I've really had to question the beliefs I had before. I look back now to the person I was when I came here and I feel I'm a better person in so many ways. It's made me very humble but at the same time, I can be very arrogant, being a Cambridge student, you know, very confident! But it has made me very humble, and made me realise that if you have determination and you persevere you can do whatever you want.

The education at Cambridge speaks for itself, but I feel the social life and what you get from that is underrated. People assume that Cambridge is academia, academia, and I'm like, no! We don't have our heads in books all the time. The social life was something, to be honest, that was unexpected. I came here to get a degree; I didn't really want friends, I was old enough and had enough of those already. But the people I've met, they're lifetime friends; I could see myself in 10 years time, having kids and saying you're the godparents.

So what does the future hold?

The future holds good stuff! I've been looking at jobs in my local council either to do with teenage pregnancies or teen parents, trying to get them back into education and employment. I really want to work with young people, or people that feel disadvantaged or unable to realise their true potential. I honestly believe that everybody is capable of achieving huge things. And that's not necessarily Cambridge. You could be a plumber, an electrician, a nanny; you could be anything, but you could be very big in whatever you decide to do. You need to show people that they need to stay on in education; education will help you to get the house, the car, the things you want.

How would you sum up your time at Cambridge in one word?

Transformational. It's very hard to just say one word! But it is a transformational experience. You start off being like this little cocoon, and you end up being a butterfly. You think everyone at Cambridge is so smart and so confident, but very few people arrive like that. After the first week everybody pinches themselves thinking the porters are going to kick them out because they have realised you're not what they want. But that's not what it's about, it's just about you being there and enjoying it; it's definitely a transformational experience, both academically and emotionally. You mix with people from different backgrounds and different parts of the world … it is transformational in so many senses. I think it's a good word, as it's only one word but it covers so many different things.