Why I ...

December 4, 1998

Howard Jeffrey Director of the mentor programme at City and Islington College, London

At City and Islington College we run a mentor programme for students of African, Asian and Caribbean origin, and last year Morehouse College in Atlanta, a historically black college for men, offered scholarships to some of our students. As a result, five went to Morehouse in August this year.

Morehouse is a very interesting college: it teaches its students leadership and instils in them the idea that there are no barriers to doing well. Other colleges do not seem to be able to do what Morehouse does, but the economy is different in the United States too: once you leave university you can make your mark on society, you are not held back if you are black. That is an important message.

These students are now thinking of their future, beyond education, and they see far more opportunities for them in America than in Britain, where they feel that they have a ceiling above them. In America they see people of colour in all positions and in all kinds of corporate environments, which you do not see here.

I want to emphasise that it is not my view that black people do not do well here, it is the students' own perception that they are going to struggle; so when this opportunity came, they took it. If they had wanted to stay here they could have. They all had offers of university places in Britain.

I have just come back from visiting Morehouse, and the college is very pleased with how our students have managed. One of them said: "This is really for us, we have really got a future here - in Britain we always felt that even if we passed an exam we still had to prove ourselves." It is early days yet, and academically some of them are struggling, but they are all saying they would like to stay and possibly make their lives in America.

It can take months to acclimatise to the US university system. Also, Morehouse is a college that has a lot of ceremony, a lot of tradition - it was founded in 1867 - and not everybody can follow that. But those five are happy there, that is all I can say. I think it is to do with treating black students with respect and giving them confidence; it is to do with the opportunities they feel they are going to get out of education. In Britain, they sense at the back of their minds that they are up against it compared with their white counterparts on the same course. It is a shame, but that is how they feel.

I think British universities can learn a lot of things from America about testing, about back-up support, about a range of things. But then Americans can also learn from us.

* Interview by John Davies.

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