A community is born at Uni
There was the community at Shenley. There must have been 60 or more of us billeted up in the Nurses’ home. We were isolated by the distance from the University but that served us to be closer.
I may have left Northern Ireland (NI) but it hadn’t left me. On one occasion when the bus said it was not going through St Albans I said, “ Well I am not getting off the bus.” I had campaigned about the inadequate bus service and in so doing I had gotten to know the transport manager. The driver looked at me and I replied to him, “ Phone Phil and tell him that I need this bus to go through St Albans.” He did and the bus kept to its route. I did in time have to learn to re acclimatise. ‘Bin lid banging’ at home was going to raise eyebrows here.
Training to be a social worker was much more challenging than I had considered. In retrospect, it was life-changing as we all had to confront our beliefs and ensure we were aware of them to give the people we worked with a professional service. This was not easy for me coming from NI were it was both a society regulated by religious belief and we expressed our opinions whatever they may be.
This led to much discussion and debate within the course and some of us sat at odds with each other. Our differences found their way to the floor of the Students’ Union meetings. A couple of hundred students would gather, debate and then vote on policy. It was impressive and it became my model for good trade unionism. Good as it was, I was usually in the minority which was not always a comfortable place to be.
Somehow I managed to remain friends with most of my opponents. Perhaps what I had learned in NI was staying with me, that our differences don’t mean any of us are less. It is true to say after 3 years at University I was changing. I now know change never stops for as long as we want to become the fullest of who we are.
It was important nonetheless to have a community to relax with and feel safe with as all these changes were occurring. I found my way to the Christian Union (CU). One of the greatest things about University is that students have to organise themselves. If they want a society they have to run it. Typically you get inducted into your societies as a first-year and by the second year, you will be serving on the committee running it. By your third year, you will be getting ready to leave it.
The CU had about 60 members drawn from across largely Protestant evangelical churches. I guess like most societies the ‘first years’ were drawn to other first years not necessarily because of age as I was about 5 years older than most but due to them having a similar experience.
It was towards the end of the first year I was approached to be on the CU committee. I was surprised yet affirmed that as I had just got on with being me some people had recognised that it could be an asset. Isn’t that the way it should be? Rather than striving for something you are just yourself and in being that others recognise it.
There were seven of us on the committee and in our year we achieved a lot. More important than the achievements and more long-lasting were the friendships that were created amongst us. Being from Northern Ireland I assumed whatever I witnessed in England was the norm. Out of the seven of us, we were one black, one Asain and 5 whites. It was only ‘a time’ later that I was to learn that this composition of ethnicities on the committee had departed from the norm.
In the final term of our year, we took as our theme diversity and invited speakers from Asian, Chinese and Black communities. I wondered whether I had a role in furthering healing between the Black and white communities.
Chimamanda and Daler who were on the committee remain close friends 27 years later. The experience and the friendship both within the CU and the social work course forged a vision of how things could be. I would continue to seek it and always found myself surprised when it was absent.
Thanks go to those who became my community at Uni and particularly those who remain.