The Black-ademic Guide To Higher Education

Former BAME Rep Renée Landell celebrates the start of Black History Month with her guide to navigating university in a way that makes you feel comfortable to be your true authentic Black self.

It’s October, and that means it’s British Black History Month. You have just started your first week (or your first week back) at Royal Holloway, and while it may not be your biggest concern, many of you can’t help but consider how your racial, or religious, identity will impact your time here.

This October I want you to reflect on the many Black leaders who have fought so that you could get to where you are today. Don’t be grateful to the institution for accepting you, but be grateful for those leaders and remember that this place was made for you and that you have always been more than capable.

So, who am I?

My name is Renée Landell, a Black British Caribbean female who undoubtedly loves Royal Holloway! I have completed both my undergraduate and MRes here, and I’m now finishing up the first year of my PhD, which centres on postcolonial ecocritical Caribbean literature.

Yes, five years at Royal Holloway, and two more to go. During this time, I have served two years in the position of BAME Rep, running campaigns against racial and religious injustice, fighting for equality and diversity and being vocal about the policies and services that could improve student life. I now continue that work in an independent capacity.

Why am I telling you this?

That is to say, that you can be the change you want to see. That your voice is meaningful, that Royal Holloway wants to hear it and that you should never hesitate to speak up and speak out. General life can be hard as a so called ‘ethnic minority’, and with the current political climate, this is increasingly telling.

Below is a guide filled with tips that will hopefully help you navigate university in a way that makes you feel comfortable to be your true authentic Black self.

Let’s get started!

Never make yourself more ‘palatable’ in order to fit in

Stay grounded and don’t lose sense of where you’ve come from. Prepare yourselves for questions about your hair, your background and to some extent be willing to teach. For some people this is genuinely the first time that they have encountered Black people, and especially non-British Black people.

If you have an accent don’t shy away from speaking, don’t try to make it ‘softer’ or more ‘comprehensible.’ If you speak other languages, and just basic to no English, you are not illiterate, your bilingual ability is evidence of your intelligence; and being around people like you at university is so refreshing and rewarding.

Also, your name is beautiful! If others can’t pronounce it, never feel that you have to replace it with an English name for their benefit if you don’t want to. A huge part of your identity is the name you were given at birth. And, if you’re struggling to pronounce someone’s name, take time to learn it - practice makes perfect.

Find people like you

If you’re interested in establishing a sense of community with people of your racial or cultural background, joining a society with such a focus is a great idea. One of the quickest ways to meet new people, especially people of your own culture or ethnicity, is to join clubs like African-Caribbean Society (ACS), which focuses solely on providing a space for Black students.

Fortunately, there are tons of other societies available to Royal Holloway students, and many of them are culture and faith specific.  

Shopping for Black hair products and food

Egham is a small, quiet and leafy town with a friendly community. But I am sure you’ve noticed that it is not as racially diverse regarding products from the local amenities. However, if you take the train at Egham station heading towards Windsor, then from Windsor to Slough (a 40 minute journey overall) – you’ll find an abundance of Black hair shops (hairdressers, barbers and products) on the High Street.

Alternatively, Egham is located just 40 minutes from London, which is rich in Afro-Caribbean markets, restaurants, etc. Also, there are lots of mobile hairdressers who come to Egham and will do your hair in the convenience of your living room or accommodation.

Holding others accountable

If you ever find yourself in a position where you are uncomfortable, or where another is making you uncomfortable, there are lots of on-site services available to you. The Students’ Union has The Helpdesk and it is also where you can meet your VP Welfare and Diversity Lucy Simpson who can assist you in reporting and tackling hate crimes. Alternatively, do not hesitate to call any emergency services or helplines.

Personal help and support

Need personal help and support? Student Wellbeing are “the professional service with responsibility for advising and supporting you with all aspects of your health and wellbeing.”

They want you to have an enjoyable academic and social experience while you’re at Royal Holloway, and sometimes things may not go smoothly or the way you expected. Having trouble financially? Is your work-load seeming unbearable? Worried about a health concern? They have councillors, mental health and financial advisors and a GP service.

Battling the ‘Imposter Syndrome’

Royal Holloway is a top 20 university, according to the Times and Sunday Good Times University league tables. It produces great academics and researchers and provides exceptional levels of teaching. And you are a student here, which was NOT by chance, whatever your case may be.

You are a student here because you have the intellectual capability of graduating with a good degree. You are a student here because you have earned and deserve a place here. You are a student here because Royal Holloway needed YOU. Royal Holloway is honoured to have you here. Don’t ever forget that!

Any final words?

Yes, happy Black History Month to all my fellow Royal Holloway Black students – now go and make history!

Renée Landell // Former BAME Rep