Celebrating Black Excellence at Oxford

28 Oct 2019
Lanisha Butterfield

Benson Egwuonwu

Then: St Catherine’s College (2013), BA Law

Now: Solicitor in commercial litigation

When you look back at your time at Oxford what stands out most?

I am sure everyone says this, but Oxford really was some of the best years of my life.

I met a lot of great people and studied a really interesting subject, and got involved in some weird and wacky extra-curricular activities. Spoken word poetry is a love of mine and was a big part of my time at Oxford.

I started writing in A-Levels and carried it forward to university. I hadn’t really done a lot of public speaking or performances before Oxford, but seeing that there was a very vibrant poetry space and community at Oxford was very encouraging. I got involved and performed my poetry at open mike nights. People seemed to like it so I did more at college festivals and events.

My love of poetry reaffirmed how much I like language, communicating ideas in a dynamic way and having an audience receive what I say, and understand and empathise with it, which is more surprising than you might think.

Will you give us a taste?

 ‘Choose the right words and you can summon an army, choose the wrong words and you can lose the land. Choose no words and the void may be filled by the ballad of the wind, or the buzzing of the bland.’

Did you have any concerns about Oxford’s diversity track record when you applied?

I had heard a lot of stereotypes about how Oxford is, the culture and the kind of people that attend. But I knew from the first day it was going to be ok.

Oxford compared to some other parts of the UK is definitely less racially diverse. Having come from London it was a totally different vibe from going to a school with many different nationalities and shades of people there. That said, I do believe that Oxford has clearly taken steps to improve through access, as have other organisations.

What are you most proud of from your time at Oxford?

One of my highlights was being elected JCR President of my college in 2011.

I didn’t think I was going to run for ‘office’, but I felt I wanted to give back to the college community. I ran and got voted in, and got to really see how college works, represent student interests.

It gave me a chance to get to know a lot more of the college across all year groups than I would have otherwise. I still had to do a degree on top of having a job mind, but, I learned a lot about myself and what college community spirit was all about.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

To me it is a period of focus. It is a period of reflection on where we as black people come from, where we are now and creating a vision where we and the rest of the world need to go.

A celebration of black people doing well, being the best that they can be in any endeavour or field that they are in, and being true to themselves.

It gives us a chance to reflect on many aspects of black history, whether that is history, literature, culture, art, philosophy, science. All have a place in black history and world history. I think that kind of educational aspect of black history needs to remain and people need to know about it. I am proud to be part of an initiative promoting black history.

What is one thing you want people to know about Oxford?

I really believe that Oxford is for everyone. I think there is a lot you see in the media that actively discourages young people from applying to university, and I don’t think they should be. Part of it for me was taking a bloody-minded approach, and saying to myself ‘do you know what, it’s the best university out there for the course I want to study. I did well in my grades, I am going to give this a shot.’ You are more likely to succeed when you give it a shot than if you don’t.

Can you tell us a little about your life now?

Going to Oxford helped me find a job afterwards. I am a lawyer now, a qualified solicitor.

In a way I have become more geeky about law since leaving Oxford. I appreciate it more, in terms of how much it fits in the real world, as opposed to an academic world. A lot of what I do from writing to communicating with other people, doing research and organising cases, are lessons I learned from Oxford.

In terms of life outside Oxford, I still have friends, who I hang out with and chill with, who I met at Oxford. Those friendships still hold strong. And in the end, when all you have is each other, I think that is some of the most enduring powerful memories that I have of this place.

What would you like the legacy of the Black Alumni Network to be?

It did not exist when I was at Oxford, but I am so glad it does now.  

I think it will do a lot to bring people together form different black backgrounds around the University. Hopefully it will encourage people to apply and also get in touch for advice. It shows a very powerful example of who actually goes to Oxford; talented, interesting black students who understand where they are from and where they are going.

Twitter: @bensonpens

Launched in 2017, the Oxford Black Alumni Network connects hundreds of black Oxford graduates with peers from across the generations. Through these connections and sharing their achievements, the platform allows them to be power players in the University’s legacy, future, and access to higher education in general. For current and aspiring Oxford students, their experiences are an encouraging appeal to dream bigger, achieve their goals and follow in their footsteps.

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