On September 23, 2015 I nervously sat in a courtroom with my family as the judge sentenced my 19-year-old sister to two years in prison for unarmed robbery and assault with intent to do bodily harm. Before I could give a proper goodbye or tell her how much I love her, she was whisked away in her orange jumpsuit with tears falling from her eyes. Eight hours later, I boarded a flight to London, England.
Like my sister, I was embarking on a new journey. But unlike her, I was headed for one of most prestigious universities in the world. She was beginning a journey that takes her away from her family and three-year-old son and includes timed phone calls, mandatory line-ups and suffocating cells; mine would include academic inquiry, posh dinners and conversations with people from all over the world.
I never really had a moment to digest what happened that morning in the courtroom. Instead, I have spent the last six months avoiding Cambridge faux pas, such as sitting down in hall before the Fellows at the high table. I’ve learned how to cycle on the left side of the street and tried my hand at punting on the River Cam. While as a vegan I have not been able to indulge in the local cuisine of fish and chips, I have drunk my share of English tea and taken advantage of cheap flights and travelled to various parts of Europe and northern Africa.
Whilst my family background is not emblematic of the norm at Cambridge, it illustrates the value of access to opportunities. Beyond my nationality and my status as a Gates Cambridge Scholar, I cycle through Cambridge as a Black woman who was the first person in her family to attend or graduate from college. I carry not only a backpack, but also the stress and worry of my parent’s financial situation, my little brother’s well-being and my sister’s incarceration. I do not roam the streets of Cambridge as simply a Master’s student concerned about exams and essay deadlines, but as a woman carrying the guilt of survival.
Survivor’s guilt is not uncommon for first generation college students and I am no exception. Every time I board a flight I think about how, at 47 years old, my mom has never travelled by plane. Each passport stamp represents the freedom I have to travel, reminding me of the limitations and confinement that not only my sister endures in jail, but the financial imprisonment of my parents. I so often wish that my family could share the experiences and luxuries I’ve been afforded.
Nevertheless, navigating Cambridge as not only a Black woman, but also American poses new challenges as I try to reconcile the privileges and statuses that my nationality affords me and the disadvantages my race and gender identities impose. Consequently, I find myself wanting to connect with my Black peers, but uncertain about where in the puzzle I fit. The collegiate system fragments the already small Black population and, as a African American, I often feel out of place at events hosted by the various Black ethnic societies and organisations, unable to satisfy the question ‘no, where are you really from?”
Furthermore, though I attended Georgetown University – an elite, predominately white institution, for undergrad – it pales in comparison to the feeling of privilege and elitism that Cambridge can induce. Given that Cambridge is the wealthiest university in Europe and only 24.4% undergraduates and 36.6% postgraduates identify as Black Minority and Ethnic (BME), assimilation and conformity pose comfortable options for those who do not look like or come from the socio-economic backgrounds of the average Cambridge student. Furthermore, unlike colleges and universities in the United States, universities in England do not report racial and ethnic groups separately and use one label BME – in which the legal definition includes any group other than White British. As a result, the figures tend to mask the lack of Black students and I walk around my college and campus most days not seeing one Black student, administrator or professor.
Finally, as I head into the last few months of my Master’s I am reminded that my presence at Cambridge has defied incredible odds. In the US where I worked as an Admissions Officer and coordinator of multicultural recruitment, 11 percent of low-income, students who are the first in their family to attend college will have a college degree within six years of enrolling, according to the Pell Institute. In addition, just 1 percent of first generation college students gain admission and decide to pursue a PhD.
I am unsure if graduation in October or my recent acceptance into the Education, Equality and Development doctoral programme at Cambridge means that I will ever stop experiencing survivor’s guilt. Yet, my commitment to advocating and serving traditionally disadvantaged students in higher education remains. Most importantly, for the first time in my life, I am dedicating time to address the inner turmoil and tensions that come with navigating a world so very different from the one of those I love.
*Aya Waller-Bey  is a Detroit native and Georgetown University alumna. She is currently pursuing a MPhil in Education in the Arts, Creativity, Education and Culture route as a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. When she is not studying Hip-Hop Based Education, she is reading about Black Feminism. Follow her daily musings at Twitter and Instagram at aya__marie, and see what’s she reading here.
- United States
- 2015 MPhil Education (Thematic route)
- Clare Hall
Aya M. Waller-Bey is a proud Detroiter and Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan where she also received her M.A. in Sociology in 2021. For undergrad, Aya attended Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., majoring in Sociology, graduating Cum Laude. After graduation, Aya remained at Georgetown working as an Admissions Officer and the Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. In 2015, she was awarded the Gates Cambridge Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in England—a scholarship awarded to only 40 people in the U.S. each year—and completed her Master of Philosophy in Education.
Aya has shared her insights on postsecondary access, diversity, and inclusion in op-eds in Forbes, Huffington Post U.K., University World News, and the 2016 White House Summit for Advancing Postsecondary Diversity and Inclusion. Her leadership and research have also been highlighted in a PBS Newshour special and the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, the Washington Post, and the University World News. She continued her commitment to access and inclusion through her work with national, not-for-profits and spoke with staffers on the Hill in September 2018 about advancing higher education policy that serves historically underrepresented college students. In March 2019, Aya discussed the experiences of historically disadvantaged students attending elite institutions as a panelist at SXSW Education in Austin, Texas.
Aya’s research on trauma narratives in college essays has also received national and local praise. In March 2020, Aya was selected as a Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship awardee—a prestigious fellowship awarded by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine aimed to increase the diversity of the national college and university professoriate. Aya received an invitation from the Aspen Center for Physics Virtual Winter Conference 2021 to present her research at the winter conference. She was also one of 20 graduate students to receive the National Center for Institutional Diversity Anti-Racism Summer Research Grant for her dissertation project titled, “I didn’t want it to be a sob story”: Black Student Identity Narration in College Personal Statements” in 2021. She has presented her research at the University of Amsterdam, University of Florida Center for Public Interests Communication frank gathering, and symposiums at the University of Michigan.