Survivor’s guilt

  • May 5, 2016
Survivor’s guilt

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 [2015] 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.


Aya Waller-Bey

Aya Waller-Bey

  • Alumni
  • United States
  • 2015 MPhil Education (Thematic route)
  • Clare Hall

I am a first-year doctoral student at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor. I completed my B.A. in Sociology with a Social Justice concentration and minor in African American studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I then received the Gates Cambridge Scholarship in 2015 and earned her MPhil in Education at the University of Cambridge in England. At Cambridge, I furthered my understanding of this topic through the Arts, Creativity, Education and Culture route in the Faculty of Education. Before beginning my doctoral work at Michigan, I worked in the Office of University Initiatives at Arizona State University as a University Innovation Fellow. My current research broadly includes the sociology of education: college access, student and campus activism, tokenism, and narrative and identity exploitation of racial minorities at predominantly white institutions.

Previous Education

Georgetown University

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