Meley Gdey is a fifth year medical student at Imperial.
After her own positive experience in Imperial outreach programmes, Meley now mentors school students on the Insight2Uni programme.
In this article, Meley shares the benefits and importance of outreach programmes, as both a mentor and a mentee.
She also talks about her personal experiences of studying at Imperial and the challenges of representation in higher education.
What is Imperial doing well to create a welcoming place for students of Black heritage?
One of their strengths of their approach is their outreach programmes. There are some specifically designed for Black heritage students, which I assist with. What makes this truly remarkable is my personal experience as a former participant in one of these outreach programmes. Through this programme, I gained the confidence to apply to universities such as Imperial. It is commendable that they reach out to potential and aspiring students at a young age before they enter university.
Student welfare is an important part of Imperial culture. Students are assigned a personal tutor who will support them for at least one year and often for longer. My personal tutor is immensely helpful and supportive, and I am grateful for our regular meetings. Students need to be comfortable talking to their personal tutors about any challenges they may face as tutors can serve as a gateway to other resources and support services on campus.
A notable development was a few years ago when the British Medical Association (BMA) investigated racial justice and discrimination at medical schools by publishing a Racial harassment charter for medical schools. While racial issues and political culture have been identified at Imperial, it is evident that there are concerted efforts to increase understanding of these issues and take steps towards resolution.
We are also making significant progress in addressing welfare issues and raising concerns through the curriculum. In medicine, for example, we now have classes dedicated to discussing racial justice, especially its role in the medical field. This is a commendable addition to the curriculum, and there is scope for expanding it, covering related topics elsewhere and introducing it to other degrees.
I would not have applied to Imperial without the support of the staff and people working in the Outreach team. Now I’m on the other side of the programme, I feel a responsibility to give back to younger students who are in similar situations."
Could you tell us more about your experience of outreach work at Imperial and how we can encourage others to take part?
When I was applying to medical school, I had no family members or friends who worked in a GP (General Practitioner) practice, hospital, or other healthcare setting, so it was difficult to find opportunities.
I was grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the Sutton Trust Summer School at Imperial. It was a valuable and emotional experience for me. I would not have applied to Imperial without the support of the staff and people working in the Outreach team. Now I’m on the other side of the programme, I feel a responsibility to give back to younger students who are in similar situations. I am particularly involved in the brand-new STEM Futures programme, specifically tailored for Black heritage students. I also helped organise the STEM Futures event and supported the Bridging the Gap Conference and other events that bring students to Imperial so they can see the campus and get used to being in that kind of environment.
I have been an Insight2Uni mentor for two years and currently have two mentees. This year, they initiated a programme for younger students called Foresight, which is fantastic as it reaches out to students who might not otherwise have the chance to interact with someone in their desired field. Outreach programmes are vital as they provide students with access to individuals who can answer their questions about university applications and personal statements. This is particularly crucial for Black heritage students, many of whom are often the first in their families to attend university.
It can be challenging to recruit Black heritage students for ambassador roles, especially at Imperial with its significant minority of Black heritage students. Raising awareness and letting students know of outreach activities and roles could encourage more people to get involved.
What could Imperial be doing better to improve representation of Black staff and students?
Speaking from my perspective as a medical student, it can be challenging as my interactions are mostly limited to students within my own faculty. There are instances where it can feel quite isolating, particularly when I find myself as the only Black student in a classroom or tutorial group. There have been placements where I was the only member of staff at a hospital, which was quite surprising considering that Black staff are usually well-represented. This isolation can be mitigated by having more Black staff on campus such as Black lecturers. It was only last year when one of my module leads, who was of Black heritage, became one of the first regular lecturers I encountered.
It would be helpful to continue working on this aspect of Black heritage representation on campus. There can be a catch-22 situation where the lack of Black heritage students contributes to a lack of diversity and improvement in Black heritage representation, making the situation challenging. This is why outreach work is crucial, as increasing the influx of Black heritage students will naturally improve conditions for those who follow.
It is also important to raise awareness of networks such as Imperial College Union's Liberation & Community Networks and encourage students to get involved, even if they are not of Black heritage. Everyone has a role to play in promoting Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) on campus.
What challenges do you see for students of Black heritage in Imperial?
The isolation aspect can be quite challenging. My best friend, for instance, attended a university with many Black heritage students. This represented a large percentage of the student body. Whenever I visited her, I would often feel lonely. Upon returning to Imperial, this feeling would intensify. This was one of the most difficult aspects to deal with, particularly in the early years when one is trying to make friends for the first time. It can sometimes be difficult to feel seen or fit in. Furthermore, many students lack the necessary network or connections when it comes to applications. While connections can facilitate communication and provide opportunities, their absence can make it challenging for students to take the first step.
Many Black students experience imposter syndrome when they arrive at university. I remember feeling this way myself - I could not believe that someone had admitted me to their department."
Certain aspects can be challenging at the outset, such as making quick, tough decisions before even considering applying to university. It can be particularly difficult to gain first-hand experience in a clinical environment and determine whether it is enjoyable or not. A prospective medical student would ideally like to have at least some work experience to ensure they understand what they are getting into before fully committing. The inability to gain access to certain environments or secure actual shadowing work experience can be quite discouraging and present significant challenges. This is particularly true for many aspiring students.
Many Black students experience imposter syndrome when they arrive at university. I remember feeling this way myself - I could not believe that someone had admitted me to their department.
I believe that dealing with imposter syndrome at university presents a significant challenge. Students often grapple with this issue, which can be psychologically taxing. It can be quite challenging to manage these feelings while continuing to study in a high-pressure environment. The combination of isolation, lack of mentorship or guidance, and imposter syndrome can make it especially hard to persist, particularly with longer degree programmes.
I am grateful for the progress made by the NHS (National Health Service) in recruiting Black doctors and nurses. It is important to look back and appreciate the pioneers who paved the way for us."
The theme of Black History Month 2023 is 'Celebrating our Sisters' – which women have inspired you in your life so far?
The women in my life, especially my family, encouraged me to excel and pursue my passions. Their support was instrumental when I applied to medical school. My role model is Mary Seacole, a nurse who inspired me from a young age. I have learned more about Sickle Cell disease as I have grown older and encountered patients, especially in Black communities, who suffer from it.
Dame Elizabeth Anionwu, the first sickle cell specialist nurse in the UK, inspires me. She helped to develop sickle cell treatment programmes and open the first centre dedicated to sickle cell treatment. She is a true catalyst for change.
I also want to mention Mikaela Loach, a climate activist and medical student actively involved in racial justice work. She is a role model for the current generation, engaging in EDI work. Her book, It’s Not That Radical, is insightful. She is an eloquent speaker who consistently advocates for racial justice and climate change.
I am grateful for the progress made by the NHS (National Health Service) in recruiting Black doctors and nurses. It is important to look back and appreciate the pioneers who paved the way for us.
What advice would you give to other students of Black heritage considering university?
Going to university is a big decision, and it is important to make the most of it. Get involved in the university community and reach out to people – these networks and connections can lead to lasting professional relationships. Finding a mentor can also provide guidance and support throughout the university application process and beyond. A mentor can help you transition from high school to university and navigate the challenges of academic life.
University can be challenging, but it is also a time to grow and learn. Take breaks, spend time with loved ones, and make friends. The first year of university is a wonderful time to get involved in extracurricular activities and meet new people. While preparing for your future career, it is also important to enjoy your time at university and make the most of the experience.