‘Dear Clare Williams, we are delighted to offer you a place…’ I remember these words as my mother read them over the phone. I was not at home when the acceptance letter from Jesus College arrived and so I had left strict instructions with my parents to open any embossed envelope, emblazoned with the College crest immediately! I did not breathe until my mother had finished reading the letter. Only then did I let out a scream of joy, incredulity, and relief. For months I had worked hard on my A Levels with the support of so many teachers, friends and, most important, my family.
Sadly, some teachers were not convinced that this state-schooler, British-born black girl, and daughter of Caribbean parents would make it to Oxford. In fact, one teacher said I wouldn’t likely get in, and even if I did it would be because of positive discrimination! But through the encouragement of my family, underpinned by many prayers, stories of overcoming adversity and my own personal Christian faith, I kept on going.
Arriving at Oxford was a culture shock in so many ways. I was one of two black women in my year group and English cohort. Freshers’ Week was a whirlwind, but I remember trapsing through the examination halls for Freshers’ Fair and being encouraged when I saw so many different societies, faith groups, clubs, and initiatives, including the Afro-Caribbean society.
At first, I was unfamiliar with the style of worship hosted weekly in the College chapel. Having grown up in lively black Pentecostalism as a preacher’s kid, the more contemplative style of high Anglican services was foreign to me. And yet, I was drawn to the architecture of the chapel, the formality of proceedings and the beautiful singing of the choir; Zadok the Priest became my all-time favourite! There was something mesmerizingly majestic about that anthem. Beyond the structured services, the chapel would be a place where I’d go to sit and reflect, especially when the feelings of being different or imposter syndrome set in.
Over my three years at Oxford, I learned to appreciate differences in the style of Christian services and soon got stuck in with the Christian Union. Within this group, I was able to enjoy the company of fellow Christians from different faith traditions and share some of my own Christian heritage. The local churches offered a variety of events to participate in and I even found a black majority Pentecostal church close by in my final year. Attending this church during finals gave me a little taste of home when the stress of revision became too much.
Celebrating and reflecting upon the Tests Act is important to me as it is a historical milestone in Oxford University’s ongoing work to widen access for students from underrepresented ethnic minority backgrounds, and candidates from all faiths and none.
Clare Williams, matriculated 2005, MA in Leadership 2012, MA Culture, Diaspora and Ethnicity, 2019-2021.