University careers fairs are failing black students

Cage Boons explains why he and other University of Hertfordshire students decided to run their own careers fair for ethnic minority undergraduates

March 10, 2019
bame-student-fair
Source: Alamy

I should be in the library working on my final philosophy assignments but instead I am conducting health and safety assessments, checking logistics and putting up posters.

And I couldn’t be more satisfied with my decision. That is because next week will be a highlight of my University of Hertfordshire journey – heading up a team of students who have organised our first BAME [Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic] careers event – created by and for BAME students.

I know that careers offices in other universities put on BAME careers events, but we didn’t want to do that.

I – and the other BAME advocates from the Schools of Education, Business and Law – felt that for this to work, it had to be created by students for students because we had unique insight, which staff didn’t, into our aspirations.

As students, we are best equipped to know what works for us. It is great to have staff support, but there is a generational, age and culture gap. For instance, my family had to leave Liberia because of the civil war. We fled to the Netherlands and then on to Britain. I am the first member of my family to go to university. That makes my life experience very different from that of most of my peers.

This is why I am so ambitious to have a career. I remember going to a humanities careers fair and out of the companies that I was keen on, not one person on those stalls had a familiar face.

There is nothing wrong with that but from a confidence and self-esteem perspective, you want to see people like you in the places that you want to go because it allows you to picture yourself doing a job like that.

It was disheartening. It put doubts in my mind as to whether I could be successful. I am not saying that there is discrimination, but I did think about how I would fit in, who my role models would be. I came away from those events feeling less confident than before I went in.

I spoke to other BAME students in Humanities and other Schools – about 30 in all – and they felt the same: that there was a lack of representation.

It was as though we had all been thinking it but had never really said it. So, a year ago, I talked to the other BAME advocates and they were like, yeah, let’s go for it, even though we all knew that it would be a lot of work. 

But it had to be led by students because when students see people like them, with the same deadlines, stress, reading lists, putting this on, they realise it is worth the effort and want to come along. So one of the things that we have done is to start the event with a panel of alumni from the university who have succeeded but are not that much older than us.

I know that it sounds like we didn’t involve staff but we needed their help for this to happen. Widening participation gave us the funds, and staff have acted as our mentors, helping us to work out how to study, work and organise this as well.

They have attended our weekly morning meetings  and helped us with all the processes and logistics – things that none of us knew we even had to know about. My tutors in the School of Humanities have been so supportive because they also realise how important it is that this is led by students. I was applying for internships at the same time too, so it has been very full-on. Fortunately I have now secured one in banking.

With two weeks to go, we were almost at our capacity of 200 in terms of people signing up.

But it is only when we have had the introductory session and I am sitting down, listening to that panel of successful BAME people and seeing other students equally enthusiastic, that I will relax.

Cage Boons, a final-year philosophy student at the University of Hertfordshire, was speaking to Sharon Maxwell Magnus, principal lecturer in media. The university’s first student-led BAME event will be held on 12 March.

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