At the start of term, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ibrahim Mohammed, better known as Ibz Mo, for our ‘Student Spotlight’ series. Educational Influencer, YouTuber, Cambridge graduate, lawyer in the making, and now Oxford postgrad, Ibz’s resume is undeniably impressive. However, what really marks him out is his inspiring story and character. Anyone who has watched his videos, or interacted with him, can attest to his compelling authenticity, a wicked sense of humour, and work ethic. Since starting his channel Ibz has amassed 133k subscribers, and become a leading voice in discussions around education, diversity and access in the Oxbridge context and beyond. Hackney-born and raised, Ibz’s videos document his education story, touching on everything from study advice to navigating Cambridge as an ethnic minority student with a working-class background, to dealing with bullying, and more. We managed to fit a few hours of discussion into a Zoom call limit, a testament to our similar loquaciousness, touching on everything from mental health, to 5-year plans, and what it means to play the game as a BAME student.
How are you doing? The current state of the world, starting at Oxford, lockdown etc…
I’m currently in Oxford, trying to get my bearings and settle in. It’s very different from Cambridge. Regarding the pandemic and what’s happening in the world, it’s a really horrible situation. I think we’re becoming desensitised to what’s happening, and the fact that people are dying every single day. There just seems to be a continuous awful aftermath throughout this year. When people say “oh 2020 is hell”, I really think it is! The pandemic has been awful, and the news has been so consistently negative, I’m really trying to take every day as it comes and just be positive, and stay sane! We are literally living in such unprecedented times, and so I’m hoping Oxford can be a bit of an escape from the outside world.
We go on to discuss the Oxford bubble and its pros and cons as far as mental health is concerned, it prompts some reflection on the similar experience of Cambridge.
People call Cambridge a bubble too, and I used to joke and call it a snow globe, with the white people being the snow. You’re in this bubble, but really it’s this intense white space that feels disconnected from reality. It’s ironic because you go into these top universities and you don’t want to feel trapped or cut off from the outside world, but actually, now I’m looking forward to being disconnected as much as I can.
I’ve been following your channel for a while, you were so helpful when I was doing A-Levels so thank you! I wanted to discuss the shift in focus you’ve started taking, you’ve started a new chapter, and talked about growing up, priorities changing, and being in a new place mentally, professionally, academically etc. Could you elaborate on this?
I think when I started YouTube, it was during my second term at Cambridge, I was really set on working to make the university more diverse. I figured the best way for me to do that was by being as active online as I could be, calling out the whiteness of the institution, and raising awareness and visibility of students of colour, first-generation students, students from poor areas, and social media allowed me to do that. I think as my channel grew, and people started stating that they watched my videos when applying to universities, the institution started to take me more seriously, and I started to do things beyond social media.
It meant that I could work closely with different leaders in Cambridge, I became Vice President of my MCR, I was able to manage open days and events and so I started to move from being a social media personality to someone who was leading a lot of outreach and diversity events and discussions. When you’re online, you’re online, but when you’re managing initiatives and having serious in-person discussions, you’re learning about the inner workings of higher education. It just required different energy, it brought out a new side of me. It felt like a more holistic approach to equality and diversity, I wasn’t just raising awareness on social media, I was having discussions behind the scenes with academic leaders, it involved me travelling and having these discussions abroad as well, connecting with alumni internationally. It led me to want to be more of an education consultant that used my channel, a professional as opposed to a social media personality. I think I’ve matured with my channel.
Let’s talk a bit more about access, I’ve just finished my year of being a JCR Access and Outreach Rep and have worked a lot with different ACS initiatives. The events of the summer, from Black Lives Matter protests to the Christ Church fiasco, to Rhodes Must Fall, sparked a lot of discussion within student access circles. People are feeling more conflicted than ever about how to approach the issue. On the one hand, we really want to encourage more students to apply and bring diversity to these spaces. However, the personal cost that entering into an institution like Oxford or Cambridge can come at was brought to light in a big way during Trinity 2020, and it’s food for thought. What are your thoughts on working in access right now?
The first thing I would say is I don’t think that I would want a permanent job in access because I think it always feels like you have to approach things from a negative perspective. You have to think “who is not here?”. Let’s say we drastically increased the admissions of students who received free school meals to 20%, your job in access is still not done, or even enough, because “what about care leavers?”. There is always another underrepresented demographic and so I think it’s important as an individual working in access not to get overwhelmed. It’s a daunting task, especially when you start to think about access beyond the Oxbridge context! The very fact that we made it here means that we have privilege.
So I think it is really important that you celebrate the wins, big and small. You have to think about what it is you personally want to see improve, remember you are working against a capitalist system that was not built for everyone. On a structural level, the field is dominated by white people, who are often quite removed from the students these programmes target. Working in access as a student can feel tokenistic, so you need to be clear and realistic about what you want to see, and celebrate your wins.
With everything you have going on, how do you establish and enforce boundaries? It’s obviously so important to protect and conserve your energy, how do you decide how much of yourself to give to different things?
The reality is that whatever position you are in, that is the most important thing. So for example, if you are a student, think “what is a student supposed to do?” and of course the answer is study, so you have to then ensure your grades are a priority. I set a minimum standard, and whether its YouTube or time I make for family and friends I make sure I am meeting that. Make sure whatever your main role is you’re doing that before you take on extracurricular activities. I think it’s also important to practise being organised with your time and learning to work smart, you want to get your to-dos done without burning yourself out.
In one of your recent videos, you touched on something super important, which is learning how to ‘play the game’ so to speak, making the Oxbridge system work for you. Can you talk more about this?
The Oxbridge system is unique, it has certain structures, norms and values. Every student is new to that, its a different world. The first thing I learnt at Cambridge was how to get over the imposter syndrome thing. I realised, I wrote my personal statement, I got the grades, I passed the interview, it’s like what more can I do? I did the work. So coming through Cambridge, knowing that I’ve done this before, it’s helped me feel confident that I will be able to do well at Oxford, and it’s not about arrogance, it’s about not starting this degree from a place of fear. Everyone deserves their place here. Our applications were grilled, the universities did not make a mistake, we’ve met the requirements. I’ve learnt not to be intimidated by the system.
Re-entering the system as a student of colour I was also thinking “am I going to go through racism part two?”, and of course it’s part of the deal, but I think it’s far less scary knowing that it is part two, I’ve done it before. Once you get over the culture shock you learn to apply the cognitive coping mechanisms and then you realise that you can apply what you’ve learnt anywhere. Having support systems and being part of a strong community is central to navigating this space, and so I think you have to think about the role you want to play in this system. Support each other, think about the importance of advocacy, and if you don’t want that role, support the people who do.
I think part of succeeding at Oxbridge, and making the most of the system is looking after your mental health. University is such a key time to figure things out and grow personally as well as intellectually. What are your thoughts on the University’s provisions for supporting students?
I went to three counselling sessions during my first year at Cambridge. Not really realising why I was there, initially I wasn’t really that sure about it, but I went because it is really nice to have someone you can go to whose job it is to listen. In my final year, I went through a lot with family and relationships. I didn’t go back to counselling, but I found myself really opening up, and appreciating those one to one discussions. It’s so important to have moments where you can switch off your phone and just talk.
I’ve heard people talk about the idea that you have to “feel it before you heal it”, and sometimes that is really what you have to do. Many men especially don’t let themselves feel enough, and so I am such an advocate for counselling. The first thing I did when I got into Oxford was to sign up to the counselling service. Not because I’m going through anything or I’m really sad behind the scenes, but because I think this is a time when I am dedicated to working on myself. In between networking, building my professional and academic development, why can’t I work on my mental health? I don’t think counselling should only be a last resort. Everyone should take mental health seriously.
Let’s talk about your career goals, do you have a 5-year plan?
I do have a 5-year plan. I have 6, 7, 8, 20 year plans! In terms of the next year, I want to upload regularly, the aim is 2 videos a week, I want to socialise with different students in Oxford, it will probably have to be virtually though. Another personal goal of mine is to have something published, I really want to write! I am also very serious about redeeming my dissertation and doing well. Career-wise I want to go into Law, and long term I want to work in Law and Education. My 30 or 40-year plan/end goal? I’d like to become the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge, or maybe even Oxford now!
Can you talk a bit about your definition of success?
When you’re in the Oxbridge system there is a pressure to go down the corporate route, and I think I am realising that there are so many more options and opportunities. When you’re online there is also a lot of pressure about finding your next, new thing. I got so many messages about “what’s next?” after getting into Oxford before I’d even moved in! So I always try to internalise my successes. I remind myself that I am successful in what I am doing, I remember my background, I have friends that ground me, I put things into perspective. The only people besides myself I need to impress are the graduate recruiters and my future mother in law!
What is something every student should know?
Students should know that a Deliveroo purchase is not always worth it! Sometimes cook and save money.
What is something every student should do?
Be as open as possible when it comes to making friends. Regardless of class, race, gender, sexuality, we are the future, be open when it comes to meeting people!
What is something every student should read/watch/listen to?
Every student should listen to WAP by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion
Every student should read back their personal statement. Whenever you feel insecure or stressed about your degree, read it back and remind yourself how passionate and excited you were and how much you wanted your place at this uni.
Every student should watch both versions of Rihanna’s Work music video!