Black History Month: Zeinab Ali

Image Description: Zeinab Ali

To commemorate Black History Month, the Profile editors of the Oxford Student will be interviewing Black academics and students to explore their personal experiences and learn about the important work that they do at the University of Oxford and beyond. Join us in hearing some of the voices in our University that deserve more recognition than they currently have.

We begin this series with Zeinab Ali, a DPhil student in Neuroscience at Corpus Christi College and her MCR’s Equality and Diversity Officer. In her short time at Oxford she has been influential in shaping the inclusive community at her College, introducing mandatory race equality workshops and sparking conversations about race via different mediums, all whilst managing an intense PhD! Zeinab spoke to me about her time at Oxford so far, why she became her MCR’s Equality and Diversity officer and what black excellence and Black History Month mean to her.

Could you tell me about your background and what inspired you to pursue a DPhil in Neuroscience?

I am of Somali-Kenyan descent. I was raised in an estate in West London and attended the local state schools. I completed my undergraduate degree at King’s College London and then went straight to Oxford for my PhD. I’ve always had a personal interest in neurodegerative diseases and my summer placements in laboratories opened my eyes to research. I’m currently investigating the role of lipid metabolism in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), so watch this space!

How do you think you have changed since starting your studies?

I am a planner, but this PhD has taught me to take things as they come. Being able to adapt is an important skill in science since experiments rarely show what you expect. My project aims have changed so much in the last two years. I’m also stronger! So many project (personal too) issues and somehow, I’m still going strong.

You recently became Corpus Christi MCR’s Equality and Diversity Officer. What has been your experience of taking on this role? What have been your personal ambitions for the role?

It’s been hard but rewarding. Initially I took on this role because I was adamant that no other black student at Corpus should feel how I felt in my first year. Growing up in a diverse part of London, I had the privilege of rarely being aware of my race. Leaving this bubble has been a big adjustment. The lack of representation at Oxford and in Corpus heighted my imposter syndrome and left me feeling very isolated.

Being a member of the committee was my way of gaining power to make changes within the MCR and the wider college community. My goal is to make Corpus a nurturing environment for everyone. This involves addressing key issues that affect underrepresented groups and educating college members on how to become allies. I’ve introduced mandatory race equality workshops for Freshers’ week. I’ve also been involved in initiatives (a reading group and film series) that encourage conversations about race.

In broader terms, in light of what you have achieved in your college position, what do you think are the main issues that the wider university needs to address, first and foremost, with regards to equality, diversity and inclusion?

Where should I start? The first issue is the lack of representation that ultimately feeds into all the other issues. Oxford needs to be representative of the diverse backgrounds that exist within our community. However, this needs to be done at every level: student admissions, staff and senior governing bodies. Of course, there are many barriers that exists before the application stage which is why I’m passionate about earlier outreach programmes and mentoring schemes.

However, it’s hard to encourage someone to apply to a place that doesn’t feel welcoming. As with many higher educational institutions, Oxford needs to educate itself about its history and implement changes that tackle the different types of oppression that exists within its wall. There are a number of great organisations and societies that are trying to achieve this.

What advice would you give to other students who are trying to navigate Oxford and make it a more inclusive place?

Don’t be afraid to look outside your college/department for friends! Joining societies is a great way of finding safe spaces. Apply for committee, departmental or student union roles! Having representation in these roles means that your issues can be raised, and change can happen!

In the spirit of Black History Month, what does Black excellence mean to you?

Black excellence is black people living their everyday lives. Simply existing in a world that doesn’t always allow us to be ourselves. Black joy is something I also associate with excellence.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

I use this month to rebalance and feed my soul by celebrating black achievements. My role and identity mean that I’m usually dealing with emotionally taxing issues. It’s great to have a month where I don’t only think about the struggle. I love reading so my kindle is loaded with fiction novels by black British authors.

Quick-fire questions:

What is something every student should know?

Your academic journey is unique, so stop comparing!

What is something every student should do?

Take care of your mental health. Practise small, daily acts of self-care. Treat yourself!

What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?

‘Shantaram’ by Gregory David Roberts. It reminded me that there is a world beyond this degree. It will change your perspective on life.

Image courtesy of Zeinab Ali, taken during Matriculation