When asked how it felt going into a space like engineering that is typically dominated by white men, Tolúwalàse (Tolu) pointed out that having grown up in the UK she was used to standing out in most places. Therefore, studying her Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nottingham was not the first time she felt the isolation of a space that was not diverse.
Tolu notes that one of the biggest problems was not being able to find a community within her course as the culture was not created with her in mind. “The activities and socials were all geared towards white men, the nights out were all like ‘rugby boys nights out.’ And most of them just see you as the black women in the group, and they don’t think you’re as smart as them.” Tolu explains that the problem was not only with the students, but also with the professors and tutors. “There were no black tutors, and no black professors. There was also only one female tutor, who I was the closest to. I think she made an effort to help those of us that were essentially ‘othered.’” The lack of diversity in tertiary education is an epidemic, and lacking that same diversity among the staff only serves to exacerbate the problem and exclude those who are there.
Furthermore, a lot of the problems present at University are institutional and the problem extends beyond the staff or student body, but also present in things like the content that is being taught. One of the most significant problems is the exclusive nature of the curriculum, and students like Tolu are attempting to tackle this with movements like decolonising the curriculum. While most people see the effort of decolonising going towards Humanities subjects such as history or psychology, Tolu explains that it is equally needed in STEM courses like engineering. “Most people don’t expect this, because STEM subjects are often maths and science based.” But Tolu explains that the need for it first truly dawned on her when she realised the only time that African engineering was shown to her class was to critique the development of engineering on the whole continent, and to question ‘have they developed?’ Other than that, there was no representation of African or Asian engineers, no sustainability models or examples of work that had originated outside of the West. This lack of representation is what makes a lot of students feel alienated in their courses, and why the decolonisation of the curriculum is important throughout the University campus. While Tolu has brought this up, she has seen little results, “It is an institutional problem, and there is a lot of pushback from the STEM professors when you bring it forward.” Tolu also noted that this is not just a problem at a University level, but throughout the education system.
During her time at Nottingham University, Tolu was also one of the co-founders of the One Heritage Society, a society for the Afro-Caribbean student body of the University. They are focused on promoting awareness on the history and current realities of being of African and Caribbean Heritage. Tolu explains that it started with a group of 12, and was originally based around education and all of the events were debates and discussions. But now the society has expanded in size and interest. “It became a space where we talked about current events, around issues like colourism and history. One event was even music-based. We didn’t expect so many people to join.” Tolu notes that the society is still going on, as she has now moved on and is studying her Masters in Physics at King’s College London.
Universities were never built with inclusivity in mind, and as the stepping stone for many into the working world, the exclusivity of them often has a knock-on effect on those we see rising up the ranks into employment. It is therefore necessary to dismantle the institution in order to create change at the top, and create spaces that everyone feels safe and welcome in. But it should not be up to students like Tolu to drive efforts to decolonise the curriculum and diversify the classes and professors - this change should be coming from the institution itself. Tolu is now also a research assistant at King’s College London, working on a project that deals with the effects of racism on the mental health of parents and children.
Want to keep up to date with Tolu’s work? You can find her at the following places:
Website : https://imoyetea.wixsite.com/my-site