Cambridge & diversity

Snehal Sidhu: University challenge

Snehal SidhuFrom the age of 16 Snehal Sidhu was determined to study at Cambridge; despite the significant challenges she faced, she was not deterred. In 2001, Snehal moved from her home in Calcutta, India, to study natural sciences at Churchill College, specialising in Microbiology. She graduated in 2004, went onto to do a Masters at Warwick University and is now working for the University's Disability Resource Centre.

What inspired you to come to Cambridge?

My father had visited Cambridge for work and I was encouraged to come and visit the University and I really liked it. Until that point I was home schooling myself because I didn't have any accessible schools to go to where I lived in the tea gardens in Assam, India. When I was 16, I came to Cambridge and thought, I could study here. I asked: what do I need to do to get here to study Natural Sciences? And they said I needed A-Levels. So, I moved cities, got my A-Levels and came here.

I loved the atmosphere and I had heard lots of good things about Cambridge. I liked the fact that with natural sciences I didn't have to choose my speciality until I had arrived; I liked the fact that you get so much one-to-one contact with pretty much the best in the field, and I really couldn't find that at any other university.

Were there many obstacles to overcome in your coming here?

Well, other than the fact that I had to move cities, home school myself, find funding to move to a country where I didn't know anyone… other than that, not really any obstacles!

I think when you're young or younger, you're quite naïve about how big some problems can be, so you do go into it quite blindly, and go, well I'm just going to do it, whatever comes. I think that helped me. I also had a very supportive family who always believed that it was a possibility, that this was what I wanted to do. I have an older sister who is extremely supportive, and my parents, and they've always—I wouldn't say pushed—but encouraged me to work hard.

Aside from the academic, what did your time at Cambridge teach you?

I think two slightly contradictory things. It taught me humility but also the need to be quite confident as a person. Humility, because, I think, when you are in school and you do well you think you are one of the cleverest people around—come to Cambridge and everyone is just as clever or cleverer. I think you realise you're not that special, and that's good! It's part of growing up. And self confidence, I think, because you are constantly asked to question assumptions, to question scientific authority, presuppositions. As you leave Cambridge you take that with you. You don't take things at face value.

Is there anything that stands out for you in your experience here?

Whilst people may not have known the most effective course of action to best help me, the majority of people are quite open to changing the way they do things when confronted with someone who needs additional support. Perhaps it's harder on a policy level, but on a day-to-day level most people are flexible and that's quite positive.

As a wheelchair user, how did you experience Cambridge?

Bumpily! [Laughs.] I think it's important to realise that people don't come to Cambridge because it's any more accessible than anywhere else. They come to Cambridge because of the academic excellence. I came to Cambridge knowing it was not going to be that accessible. I came in knowing it was going to be difficult.

It has improved significantly since I've been here. In my first year I had to go up four ramps, two lifts and 20 minutes of walking through corridors to get from one lecture to the other, so I was constantly late, which probably didn't help. It wasn't the most accessible place in the world, but it was manageable.

I chose Churchill College, which is quite far from the centre of town. I visited four or five Colleges when I first came to Cambridge at 16 and Churchill had an atmosphere which I couldn't find anywhere else. It was an international atmosphere; it was one of the younger Colleges; it had a far more open attitude to what would be possible and seemed far more willing to look at people who didn't fit the mould of what a traditional Cambridge student should be. So that attracted me, and yes, I lived a 45-minute wheel away from lectures, but I think it was worth it.

In the middle of winter when it was raining and I was 45 minutes away from my 9 o'clock lecture, it sometimes didn't feel as if Churchill was the right choice! But ultimately I think it was the best thing for me.

What have you taken away with you from your time studying at Cambridge?

I've come away with a sense that what I got was an extraordinary opportunity: I had the luck to have an extremely positive admissions tutor and an extremely helpful College; I had the support of my family; and I had financial support from various scholarships. I realise that this opportunity isn't open to a lot of people. It has changed me so significantly that a lot of my work now is to try and encourage people to come to Cambridge.

I think it's very easy to dismiss Cambridge as being elitist. If you enjoy what you do, you enjoy your subject, the atmosphere you will get here will be fantastic. A vast number of students here are passionate about the subject they are doing—it's not just a course. They are interested in what they are studying, which makes for a very active and lively academic and intellectual atmosphere. The conversations you have about your subject with your peer group are almost as valuable as the lectures. If you work hard really there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to come to Cambridge. Give it a chance.

What made you choose Cambridge as an employer?

There were things as a student that I wanted to change, but couldn't. So when I was offered a position at the Disability Resource Centre I took it. This was my opportunity to make those changes and that's what my goal is.

I think I was slightly naïve coming in; change takes longer than one would expect. But then it's an 800-year-old university and things will not happen quickly. However, because my student experience wasn't that long ago, for everything I do I'm constantly putting on my student hat and asking is this relevant, will this actually help or is this just ticking some box?

The student population at Cambridge can be quite apathetic, and one of my goals is to try and involve students more in the support they are being given and tailor the support according to their needs.