Student Spotlight: Matt Emmerson

Image Description: Matt Emmerson standing in front of a desert landscape

This week our ‘Student Spotlight’ series features Matt Emmerson, a third-year medical student at Lincoln College. Alongside working hard in his studies, Matt has played an active role in his College and in the wider University. Formerly Lincoln JCR’s sports representative and a Lincoln Ball 2020 committee member, he has now taken up the presidency of the Oxford University Mixed Heritage Society. In these uncertain times of the pandemic, he has worked tirelessly with his committee to ensure that members of his society remained connected despite being physically apart from each other. 

Matt took some time out of his studies to talk about his presidency, how we all can support students of mixed heritage and his advice for students struggling to find their place at the University. 

What has been your experience of studying at the University of Oxford so far? How do you think you have changed since beginning your degree?

It has been pretty positive so far! With Medicine, what I have been amazed by is the support from other medics in my year, especially at my College, Lincoln. When the work gets tough (as it seems to do so often at Oxford!) we really look out for each other. This attitude that we’re going to get through this together has been such a relief. In terms of how I have changed, I definitely feel the freedom that comes with University has shaped who I have become. Being open to having your thoughts and perspectives challenged helps to refine what is truly important to you. For example, my Mum is from Hong Kong and my Dad is from Newcastle so I’ve been lucky to grow up in quite a multicultural household. Living overseas for a period of my life has also helped to shape that perspective of myself. Only in coming to the University and seeing a drastic change in demographics did I realise how important being mixed heritage is to me. It was something I had really taken for granted; now it is such an important part of who I am.

You recently became President of the Oxford University Mixed Heritage Society. Could you give us a bit of background about how the Society came to be? Also, what inspired you to get involved with the Society and what are some events that you have enjoyed attending?

Sure! Oxford Mixed Heritage Society (OMHS) was founded two years ago by Jess MacDonald and Alyssa Crabb. The idea for the society began with a growing desire from mixed heritage students to build a community which celebrated all aspects of their identity and to have a platform to promote discourse around mixed heritage identity. The catalyst for my involvement was attending my first ‘Welcome Drinks’ last year. I don’t want to exaggerate but the event was unlike anything I had experienced at Oxford so far! I was greeted with such a warm, welcoming atmosphere and felt an amazing sense of belonging following the event. I didn’t feel I had to justify where I was from or who I was, there was just a common acknowledgement of our shared experiences that made me feel seen! It was really enjoyable trying to recreate this atmosphere for our Junkyard Golf outing earlier this term, despite my horrific performance!

What does the presidency entail and what would you like to achieve in this role? 

I honestly think the most important part of the presidency is fostering an inclusive environment where your committee feels comfortable to generate ideas, speak their mind and collaborate. Running a society is by no means a one-person job and I would be completely lost without my committee! Having an idea of the direction we want the society to go in, effectively communicating this and taking responsibility for our actions is also fundamental. Unfortunately, judging by my average reply speeds, I’m not sure if my friends and family will say ‘efficient communication’ is one of my strong suits!

In terms of what I want to achieve, I want to make sure the society reaches more mixed heritage students who may be disillusioned with their sense of self, so they too can experience this feeling of home. I also want to build on the amazing work Julia, the previous President, has done in providing a platform for mixed heritage issues, both from around the world and here on our doorstep. Although Oxford may not be known as the most ‘diverse’ place in the world, we do have a thriving mixed heritage community in terms of students, content and academics that I want to promote. Finally, I want to link up with other mixed heritage societies across the UK, further broadening the audience we can support.

The society aims to celebrate cultural multiplicity as well as creating a community and encouraging discussion surrounding mixed heritage. What have you found to be some of the main issues that people of mixed heritage face at the University and beyond? 

A key subject that specifically mixed heritage students have talked to me about is feeling the need to constantly justify their identity to others. Almost every one of our members has talked about not feeling enough like either of their ethnicities to join specific nationalities’ societies. The denial of part of one’s identity can affect how mixed heritage people present themselves to the outside world, wishing their ethnicity was simpler to categorise and making them feel like a fraud in their own skin. For some, there can even be a conflict between their respective identities, especially with regards to discussions about racial issues in biracial families, leading to a pressure to ‘choose’ one identity over the other. This tension between who you think you are, and who society says you are, is the root of most problems mixed heritage people face.

It seems really obvious to say that all too often discussions about marginalised communities are swept under the carpet. What do you think are the best ways of engaging with these discussions and what can members of the University do to support students of mixed heritage?

Engaging with discussions about marginalised communities isn’t a one-off action. It’s about making an active decision to expand your perspective and to continue making that decision again and again. There are so many talks which pop up on social media from amazing speakers, lists of sources to read, watch and listen, as well as great Instagram or Twitter accounts to follow. The OMHS social media has posted some if you want a starting place! These can give you a grounding, from which you can start discussions with your friends, family and community.

For supporting mixed heritage students, every person is unique as the intersections of different nationalities each bring up their own specific issues. As a starting point, I would try to work out if someone is open and willing to talk. It is not any single person’s responsibility to educate other people about race, but if someone wants to talk, it’s nice to feel listened to. 

Oxford can be a fantastic place, but it can also be a difficult space to navigate. What advice would you give to students who might be struggling to find their place at the University, especially during such uncertain times?  

I would say don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You will find your place, it just takes a bit of time. We are so often sold this idea that university is the time of our lives and that every moment is amazing but that simply isn’t true. Be kind to yourself! Even in these uncertain times, chance opportunities will arise and it’s fine to be nervous about them; but try not to let that initial hurdle hold you back. I almost didn’t go to my first mixed heritage event because I was afraid of standing in the corner and not having anyone to talk to; we’ve all felt it! Send that text, join that group, go to that (socially distanced) event! Sometimes worries that were so large at the time feel so small in hindsight. If you do feel you want to talk to someone, your college Peer Supporters are a great place to start.

With the pandemic, it has become a lot more difficult to stay connected with students across the University, how has the society tried to continue fostering a community for its members? Has lockdown made you see your role in a new light? 

We’ve run a number of different schemes and events aiming to help create a sense of togetherness within OMHS, some with more success than others! Recently, we have set up our ‘Lockdown Buddy’ scheme, following in the footsteps of other societies like Oxford Westernised Asians Community. The idea is that once you sign up to the scheme, you will be randomly paired with someone else in the society who wants to meet new people. You can then choose to talk, go on walks, send presents or whatever you like! I think this perfectly exemplifies how I now see my role in lockdown. It’s still about creating a community of mixed heritage people, but it’s less centred around the society meeting as a group. We can help facilitate these connections, for the time being, then once things get back to normal this community can hopefully have OMHS as a way to meet up!

Finally, what are you looking forward to this academic year? Are there any particular events that you’re excited to run this year?

Oh, there are so many events I’m excited about! We just had a meeting deciding our term card and it’s looking amazing! If I had to pick one it would definitely be our ‘Where are you really from?’ photo exhibition. Sponsored by the Diversity Fund from the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, we plan to host a 20-portrait exhibit to celebrate the achievements of mixed heritage students, staff and tutors within the University, as well as drawing attention to the issues that they have faced. Pending government regulations, we’ll have an ‘Opening Night Drinks’ event in early Trinity Term and we’ll keep the portraits up in a public gallery for a week for everyone to see! If anyone wants to get involved, both in terms of being photographed or taking photos please feel free to get in contact!

Quick-fire questions:

What is something every student should know?

Growth is hard, but very much worth it!

What is something every student should do?

Have a conversation with someone you don’t normally talk to and just listen. Not only will it broaden your horizons but by giving someone your ear for a couple of minutes, you might make someone’s day just a little bit better!

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

Read ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain. Aside from being an incredible exploration of introversion, one chapter examines how racial stereotypes have played into the perception of ourselves. Also read ‘When Breath becomes Air’ for an appreciation of life even in the bleakest of scenarios.

Image courtesy of Matt Emmerson