INTERVIEW WITH THERESA OGBEKHIULU: DIVERSITY IN ACADEMIA
By Sophie Sadler
Sophie: Hi Theresa! Earlier, Bethan [Collins] spoke to you about the BAME advisory committee, but I wanted to ask you some questions more generally about diversity in academia. To start with, I’d love to hear a little bit about your own student experience.
Theresa: I was an international student and came down to do my undergraduate from Nigeria. I didn’t think I was going to do a master’s at first – that came later. I started with my foundation year in 2014 and was doing my undergraduate in Media and Public Relations until 2018, and then after that I got a scholarship to do my master’s because I got a First class.
My undergraduate experience was good in the sense that I wasn’t aware of a lot of these issues because, coming from another country, I didn’t think it was a big deal being the only Black student in the class or having a curriculum that was quite Euro-centric. However, it meant I wasn’t comfortable enough to contribute and I felt like my opinions weren’t valid because none of the other students looked like me. I would sit in the front, I would be very focused, but I wouldn’t answer questions or even ask questions either. So, I was genuinely struggling and I had to work twice as hard.
However, I was lucky to have a really good personal tutor who, interestingly, spoke one day about a Nigerian writer during one of my classes. That lifted my spirits. It made me think because I didn’t even know this was a big thing in Nigeria. I was willing to talk more to the lecturer because I wanted to know why she chose this example. It was exciting for me. Hearing that made me willing to ask more questions but prior to that, I’d been very quiet – imagine if I’d been seeing other examples from Nigeria in my reading list.
Do you think your experience at undergrad could’ve discouraged you from doing the master’s? Are there ways that lecturers should try to encourage students to continue in further education?
That’s a really good question. With my course I definitely had that really personal experience with my tutors and some of my lecturers and that encouraged me to move on and want to do other things. I spoke to someone at Swansea Uni who has her PhD and that really excited me. I was like, “she’s a woman with a PhD, I want to get my PhD too, I want to do my master’s!” So, I literally had a sit down with her one day and asked “can you tell me about yourself?”
Speaking to her, and having that personal relationship with my tutors, definitely encouraged my success. I felt like I could speak to these people and they were very respectful of my experience as an international student. It’s one thing to have lecturers that look like the students but I think even while we’re trying to get there, it’s very key that the lecturers who are already here understand and empathise with the experiences of students. Having a close pastoral relationship with students really does go a long way in disaggregating them rather than viewing them as a homogenised group.
Do you have plans to do a PhD soon, then?
Yes, yes! I have been looking around for scholarships because PhDs are expensive. But yes, I definitely still have plans to do my PhD. My father has started calling me Dr already, so.
You’re basically there already, then.
Going back to the things you were saying about your own student experience, what effect do you think diversity (or lack of diversity) in the staff can have on the students?
I think it links back to the attainment gap that institutions face. When there’s that disconnect between what the student body looks like and what the staff body looks like, there is an imbalance. It’s more psychological than anything else. Last year I was the only Black person at any staff meeting I attended, but then at one meeting there was another Black lady and even though I didn’t know her from anywhere before, she was already my sister. I was so excited!
Once the disconnect is there the staff can never fully understand the students’ experiences. I think in Swansea University we’re doing a good job with gender and with sexuality. But when it comes to race it’s so quiet. Representation in the staff body can positively affect the progress of the students and it can also draw in more students to the university, so it’s really a win-win situation.
Finally, could you talk about the process of becoming the Education Officer for the Student Union? Why did you decide to run for that role, and how did it come about?
Two years prior to when I ran, I saw Chisomo become the first Black, female president of the SU and that made me feel like I could run for a position myself. Before her, most of the people in that position had been white. I also knew of Robiu, who was a previous two-time Education Officer and is Nigerian. Just knowing those people made me feel like I could be there as well. I was also a student rep right from my foundation year up until my final year, and even during my master’s. So, I just thought it would be cool to represent students on a broader scale.
I was so nervous. I was like, “people aren’t going to vote for me because I’m Black”, but I rallied all of my friends and the support was there. During my first campaign I got the award for the biggest campaign team. People I knew, and even people I didn’t know, all rallied behind me and that alone showed how much people wanted to be represented and how much they wanted to see their own succeed.
In the end I knew I was going to win, and after the first election I ran for a second as well because I was like, you know what, I’m not quite done yet. But this time I had even more support.
Thank you so much for your time Theresa, it’s been great speaking to you!
Thank you for reaching out to me!
Illustration: KHALED BADAWI