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Who is Jason Arday? Cambridge’s youngest ever Black professor

BY Anas Shah Mar 23, 2023. 07:16 pm UPDATED: Mar 23, 2023. 07:16 pm

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Jason Arday, 37, made history this month when he became the youngest Black professor in the history of the prestigious Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.

“I want it to be the most normative thing that Black professors occupy spaces in these types of institutions all around the world,” Arday told ABC News.

The role was not only a professional victory for him, but also a reflection of how far he’s come personally. As a child, the South London native said he was exposed to systemic disparities in his community and dealt with neurodivergence.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, neurodivergent is a non-medical term that describes people whose brains develop or work differently than others. This means that a person may face different challenges than people whose brains develop or function more “typically.” While some neurodivergent people have medical conditions such as autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or Down syndrome, having a medical condition is not required for neurodivergence, nor does having neurodivergence mean you have a medical condition.

Arday stated that he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three and had a global development delay, which caused him to be unable to speak until the age of eleven and unable to read and write until the age of eighteen. According to Arday’s mother, at the age of 11, his first word was “hello” in the “proper context.”

Despite the fact that Arday recalls school being difficult, he never felt disabled as a result of his disabilities.

“My mom just kind of really reiterated how special I was and emphasized that [I] may not be the same as everybody else, but you have other gifts, and you can utilize them and mobilize them in ways that can really help to change the world,” he said.

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Referring to the neurodivergent community, Arday added, “What I learned about all of those people is that they’re incredibly gifted. And actually, the thing that was stunting or prohibiting those gifts, were kind of the institutional and systemic instruments that often prohibited individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds, particularly those of color in terms of being more socially mobile.”

Arday later earned two master’s degrees before becoming a physical education teacher. In 2015, he received his Ph.D. from Liverpool John Moores University.

Despite his education degrees, he was always interested in sociology and taught himself the subject while working at a supermarket and lecturing during the day, “struggling to make ends meet.”

Arday received job offers from various universities, including Ivy League schools in the U.S., he told ABC News, but he said Cambridge had long been one of his three big goals.

“At the time, I was 27, and the first [goal] was to get a Ph.D. — and the second one was to look after all my friends and family,” he said. “The third [goal] was to one day work at Oxford or Cambridge.”

According to the BBC, Arday eventually made history as the youngest Black professor at Cambridge, joining the ranks of one of the most prestigious universities in England, along with five other Black professors at the university overall.

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“Not only is Jason Arday a world-class scholar, he also brings a wealth of experience that can help us to take forward our efforts to widen participation at all levels,” said Professor Hilary Cremin, head of the faculty of education at Cambridge. “Hopefully it is becoming increasingly clear that with concerted effort and a genuine commitment to change, those barriers that still exist either to working or studying at top universities in the U.K. can be overcome.”

According to Higher Education Statistics Agency data from the 2021/22 school year, less than 1% (165 total) of the 21,750 professors in the United Kingdom with known ethnicity were Black.

Arday, who has worked with more than 70 U.K.-based charities over a 20-year period in addition to his career, said he wants to make sure that those for whom he is blazing a trail are at the center of his story.

“The mission is to democratize and redistribute resource in academia, to the most disadvantaged within society, so that they have access to the global academy,” Arday said. “So that they have access to higher education. So that they’re able to become more socially mobile through the vehicle of education, because we know that education has the power to do that.”

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