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Black Advisory Hub


By Fabianna Dennis. 

Maya McFarlane, sociology undergraduate

The Black Advisory Hub spoke to the Cambridge undergraduate who won the inaugural 2022 George Bridgetower essay prize, to find out more about her experience in taking part in the competition and the inspiration for her essay. 

This year the University hosted an essay-writing competition named after Cambridge Alumnus George Bridgetower, a Black violinist and composer who studied at Trinity Hall and was awarded a music degree from Cambridge in 1811.

The essay invited students to address the subject: ‘Cambridge prides itself on being a “globally diverse institution” at the forefront of social and political progress. Since Crummell’s graduation, to what extent has the University of Cambridge changed as a space for Black students, and as an institution responsible for transformation?'.

Maya, read Human, Social & Political Sciences (sociology track) at Pembroke College and entered the competition in her final year of study. Maya told me it was one of her supervisors that had told her about the competition, believing it may interest her following the nature of her final year dissertation on Black student experiences at Cambridge through the lens of Black hair.

Her inspiration for her essay came from Black Cambridge experiences, both personal and shared by friends. Similar to most Black students, Maya expressed feelings of anger and frustration about the experiences Black students face while studying at the University, both in our interview and in her prize-winning essay.

Furthermore, her experiences as Trinity Hall’s BME officer also served as inspiration for her argument in the essay. Maya was elected towards the end of her first year, the same year we went through racial upheaval in the form of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a global pandemic.

"This time meant I had to have a lot of really difficult conversations", stated Maya.

It was some of these difficult experiences that contributed to Maya’s argument throughout her essay, as they gave her good insight into what the problems are and why they continue to persist.

In the essay, Maya argued that there has been change but there is still more to be done. In her own words, “yes quantitatively more Black people are now at Cambridge, but qualitatively how it feels to inhabit it hasn’t changed. Numbers don’t mean anything if you’re still othered.” As a reader and Black Cambridge student, it was refreshing to read an essay that was honest about the progress made by the University. Maya expressed that she “just didn’t want to write that everything was great” and it was validating to have this view not only represented but rewarded.

Maya was announced the winner at a champagne reception ceremony in Hughes Hall. Rumbidzai Dube, President of the Black Cantabs Society, gave a speech and summary of all the essays following which Tara Choudhury, Cambridge Student Union BME Officer, announced the winner.

Maya was surprised to hear her name announced as the winner as she described how the announcement was made - “my name just didn’t keep coming and I thought maybe I didn’t place”. “I genuinely didn’t expect it, […] writing the essay was more self-serving and therapeutic for me” she continued.

As a winner, I think it is Maya’s humility whilst simultaneously writing what most of Black students have always wanted to say which makes her so inspiring. Her win in itself is a representation of the qualitative changes which need to be made, starting with listening to and celebrating the voices most affected – already a step in the right direction.

As Maya remarks in her winning essay: "To transform is to learn, and to learn is to recognise our imperfections, even if it hurts our pride and self-image as champions of change to do so".