"Representation is really important; showing young Black students that opportunities in STEM exist"
Undergraduate, Chemical Engineering
Different people, different perspectives
"I joined Imperial as an undergraduate in 2019 studying Chemical Engineering. I was born and raised in London and knew that I wanted to stay in the city for university – I love the culture and the diversity in London. Imperial in particular appealed to me because I knew I could meet people from all over the world. Studying at Imperial has meant that I've got to know people from so many different places. People have different insight into things depending on where they come from so you can learn so much more. I love that!
There's a huge diaspora culture here which has been massively significant in my life.
Both my parents are Nigerian. I have family living in London, around the UK, the USA and family who live in Nigeria. There's a huge diaspora culture here which has been massively significant in my life. At Christmas and Easter my family who live in the UK meet at my grandparents' house to celebrate. It’s nice to be able to experience different elements of my heritage in this way.
Standing up, being seen
I don't think I bring as much of my culture to my work as I should. Growing up, I kept my culture between myself and my family. At school, Black students were the minority and I wanted to avoid drawing attention to myself. When I was younger, I found the way people interacted with me because of my ethnicity and culture uncomfortable. Microaggressions, for example comments about my hair, were difficult to deal with.
I didn't know whether they were an insult or just interest, and I didn't know how to respond. I get comments like that less frequently now, and I think it’s because people are more aware of racism and the impact of microaggressions. I've also got much better at responding, but my culture and studies are something I've separated subconsciously. In an ideal world, that isn't something I'd want to do.
I feel like we're making a real difference in helping people to access more opportunities.
There’s still work to be done
At Imperial I joined the African Caribbean Society which I'm now secretary for. We organise events, eat together and put on a cultural show, Afrogala, once a year. It's great being able to share our different perspectives and experiences. For me, it’s particularly nice to hear from people who aren't just from London so I can understand more about different places.
When I first joined the society, it was a way for me to meet people within my culture, but since taking up my role as secretary I've had the opportunity to make a difference. We work with the Student Recruitment and Outreach team to increase Black representation across the College, and I've worked with companies which help Black students to get internships and jobs. I feel like we're making a real difference in helping people to access more opportunities.
It's important that we acknowledge that there is a problem, and that everyone should be working to solve it.
Coming from London, I was expecting that the diversity at Imperial would be different to what I had experienced growing up. I was surprised there were so few Black students – especially in comparison to the number of Black people living in London.
I think the Black representation at Imperial should be a lot higher. The problem is that it starts at a very young age. Representation is really important; showing young black students that opportunities in STEM exist and that it's possible. It's important that we acknowledge that there is a problem, and that everyone should be working to solve it."
Olawunmi shares her story as part of Shifting the Lens: a celebration of diversity at Imperial.
This interview was edited by Corinne Tomsett and photographed by Jason Alden.