He couldn’t read until 18, now he is the youngest Black professor at Cambridge

Mildred Europa Taylor February 27, 2023
Jason Arday got his PhD in educational studies in 2016 from Liverpool John Moores University. Photo: BBC

When Jason Arday was three years old, he was diagnosed with global development delay and autism spectrum disorder. He could not speak until he was 11 years old and could not read or write until he was 18. Today, at the age of 37, he has become Cambridge University’s youngest Black professor.

Arday will begin his new role as professor of sociology of education at the university’s Faculty of Education on March 6, joining five other Black professors at the university. Born and raised in Clapham, southwest London, Arday spent much of his young days with speech and language therapists. One of four children, he thought of becoming a football player or a professional snooker player. Besides that, he wanted to “save the world”, he told the BBC.

Growing up, watching videos of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and South Africa’s historic victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup inspired him to help make the world a better place despite his condition. Thanks to his mom and music therapy, he was able to build his skills and confidence. The various forms of music he listened to also got him attracted to popular culture and with the help of his mentor and college tutor Sandro Sandri, Arday eventually started to read and write in his late teens, BBC reported.

He then headed to the University of Surrey where he earned a degree in Physical Education and Education Studies. He trained to be a PE teacher and by the age of 22, he realized that he wanted to be an academic. But pursuing a career in academia was not easy as he didn’t have anyone to guide him on how to go about it. He persevered by working as a PE lecturer in higher education during the day and studying sociology at night while drafting academic papers.

“When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not have a mentor and no-one ever showed me how to write,” he recalled to the BBC. “Everything I submitted got violently rejected. The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience and, perversely, began to enjoy it.”

At the end of the day, the young boy, who was once told he would need lifelong support, earned two masters qualifications and a Ph.D. in educational studies. By 2015, he was a sociologist. Three years later, he had his first paper published and became a senior lecturer at Roehampton University. He then moved to Durham University, where he worked as an associate professor of sociology. 

In 2021, Arday was at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education working there as a professor of sociology of education. Now, he is ready to make an impact at Cambridge, with the goal that ethnic minorities are not underrepresented in higher education.

“Cambridge is already making significant changes and has achieved some notable gains in attempting to diversify the landscape,” said Arday. “But there is so much more to be done – here and across the sector.”

Ten years ago, while Arday was studying for his Ph.D., he listed a set of personal goals on his mother’s bedroom wall. The third goal read: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.” This dream has come true today.

Per data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency in 2022, less than 1% of professors at United Kingdom universities are Black. The data show that the number of Black professors totals just 160 of the 22,855. This makes Arday’s story very inspiring.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: February 27, 2023


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