Wonder Women, Part One: Sonita Alleyne
To mark International Women’s Day, Velvet’s Alex Buxton meets three local ladies all blazing a trail in their chosen field. First up - Sonita Alleyne
When Jesus College appointed a new Master last year, their chosen candidate defied several of the stereotypes associated with an ancient academic institution. The present Master looks set to inject fresh energy and ideas into a community determined to bring about change.
The attention could have been overwhelming. But when her appointment to one of the most high-profile roles in higher education was announced in May 2019, Sonita Alleyne’s handling of the media coverage was spot on. She was, she insisted, simply one of 146 new faces soon to begin an exciting phase of life at Jesus College.
There was, however, one small difference. All those newcomers were freshers, most aged 18 or 19. Sonita, on the other hand, was soon to arrive as the college’s new Master. Its first ever female Master in its history and, perhaps even more significantly, the first woman of colour ever to head an Oxbridge college.
It’s more than four months since Sonita took up the reins as the 41st Master of Jesus. Does she resent the press furore that has surrounded her arrival? The answer is a firm no. And it’s a response that certainly makes sense: throughout her career as an entrepreneur and trustee of the BBC, Sonita has been an unswerving champion of equality and diversity.
“I’m more than happy to be a visible and vocal role model if that helps, especially when it comes to reaching out to students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” she says.
Sonita might be a new face at Jesus College but she most definitely isn’t new to Cambridge. At the age of 18, she was one of three pupils in her year group to gain a place at the university. She went to Fitzwilliam College, where she read philosophy, helped to organise the college ball, and had a go at jazz singing.
“The course was great but the best thing about studying at Cambridge was the chance to make lifelong friendships,” she says.
Born in Barbados in 1968, from the age of 3 Sonita was brought up in culturally diverse East London where she went to a local comprehensive. Home was “quite strict but plenty of fun” and school was “energising”. Most importantly, she thinks looking back, she was always a hugely enthusiastic reader.
“I learned to read early,” she says. “The first book I remember taking out of the local library was a book of myths from around the world. It fired my imagination.”
It was when her school took a group of sixth formers to visit Cambridge and meet up with a girl who’d been at the same East London comprehensive that an application seemed like a realistic option. “Her name was Ann Ogidi and she had a huge smile on her face,” says Sonita. “She was clearly thriving.”
Cambridge University makes strenuous efforts to reach out to state schools and potential applicants from less privileged backgrounds. Those efforts seem to be paying off. This year more than 74 per cent of first-years at Jesus are from state schools. Some 25 per cent come from less affluent areas of the country and 20 per cent are BAME (black or minority ethnic).
Do these statistics matter? “I really think they do,” says Sonita. “But it’s all about individual students. When I look round at that sea of faces at college dinners, I feel proud of all our students, whatever their backgrounds. They’re all stepping into a new stage and experience very similar hopes and fears.”
Founded in 1496, Jesus College is one of Cambridge’s older colleges, institutions long seen as bastions of male privilege. In fact, the college took over the buildings of a nunnery dating back to the 12th century. The nuns’ refectory became the college hall and the lodging of the prioress became the Master’s Lodge, now Sonita’s Cambridge home.
Last term the college ran a ghost story competition for students. At night in her ancient lodging, does Sonita ever think about the 15th century prioress and her reputedly far-from-pious nuns? “No, she hasn’t crossed my mind,” she answers. “But now you’ve mentioned her, I’m going to imagine the ghost of a prioress at the end of my bed!”
With its expansive lawns, fabulous art and vibrant community of scholars and others, Jesus College is an enviable workplace. No wonder Sonita described her new life to a recent interviewer as “like Christmas every day”. After the giddy excitement of the first few weeks, freshers famously find themselves afflicted by imposter syndrome – the sense of not being quite good enough.
Has Sonita ever experienced anything similar? “Actually I’m a great believer in a healthy dose of imposter syndrome,” she says. “You need that frisson of fear to push you to try new things. If you stick to what comes most easily to you, life would be quite boring.”
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More by this authorAlex Buxton