Class of Spectra: Qi Pan

Qi Pan, Brasenose College, Oxford, Biochemistry (2013-17)

What is your advice to those still at Oxford?

Oxford was the place where I rebuilt my self-confidence. Being mistaken for a tourist in your home for the next four years was an interesting start to my university experience. However, I refused to let this define me. I was lucky to have a wide-ranging group of friends, who accepted me for who I was, gave me courage and saw my potential where I couldn’t.

It’s not a secret that your degree can sometimes feel like unrelenting waves crashing down on you, with problem sheet after essay after lab report, week after week. What pushed me through my degree was not only my passion for the subject, but also the faith that my tutors had in me, and the support network of friends who were all going through the same struggle.

Many of you will face imposter’s syndrome throughout your time at Oxford. Just remember that your tutors chose you because they could see your potential and enthusiasm, and you deserve to be there. Keep your head up and embrace your background and heritage. Do not let yourself be pigeonholed into a stereotype. When the Oxford bubble gets too overwhelming, go to Port Meadow and get some perspective. Your prelims or finals marks will not define who you are in the future, but your experiences at Oxford will, so have fun.

Oxford is not only about academia. Branch out and join societies to find your people. When I told my friends from home I had started coxing for the college boat club they were surprised, as I had always been a shy girl at school. However, being a cox gave me a voice and made me more assertive, thanks to the honest feedback from the rowers. Find your own way of building your self-confidence, whether that be through theatre or quidditch.

There is no one definitive Oxford experience (as the Daily Mail often portrays it), so go ahead and curate your own. Perhaps the greatest aspect of my Oxford experience was day-to-day college life. Candlelit formals and spontaneous late night conversations on staircases on topics ranging from Cicero to designer babies to quantum field theory. My friends at Oxford broadened my horizons and stimulated me to think outside of the confines of my subject, and I am forever grateful to Oxford for bringing us together.

My number one piece of advice is: even when you have long hours in the lab or essay crises, remember to look up at the dreaming spires and breathe.

Class of Spectra: Keertana Ganesan

Keertana Ganesan, Magdalen College, Oxford, Experimental Psychology (2014-2017)

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I’m Keertana and I have just graduated from Oxford with a BA in Experimental Psychology. Before starting my degree, I was timid, anxious and extremely self-deprecating. I downplayed my achievements and constantly criticised the way I looked.

Now, I’m starting to achieve peace with myself. I’m starting to appreciate my quirks and what makes me unique. I am starting to celebrate myself.  Getting to this point has been difficult, but it has been possible because of the strong, female friends and role models I have in my life, who are unapologetically themselves.

I still have such a long way to go but I am excited for the road ahead. If I could write a letter to my teenage self, this is what I would say:

Hey Keertana,

You’re probably in some corner anxiously completing your assignments while fulfilling your social commitments. Please just take a minute to listen to me! You’re so hard on yourself sometimes – just breathe.

You’re quick to fault yourself and pick on your flaws (and perhaps you still are). The notepad you have with all those ugly words you call yourself? Throw that away and write beautiful things about yourself instead. You’re only 16.

You are going to make mistakes and that’s part of the process. There is no use thinking of how things could have gone better. Maybe have a little fun instead of trying to rehearse every single conversation in your head.

Also – yes you are different! But that’s what is great about you. Stop trying so hard to mask your differences to try to appear ‘normal’. It’s really exhausting and living in your true self can be somewhat liberating. It may not seem like it now – but one day someone will appreciate your unique abilities.

You’re beautiful too. The pale, thin models you look up to are beautiful but that doesn’t mean you aren’t. One day, you will find a way to see yourself in a different light.   It takes time and lots of self-love. It’s a journey to get to that point but I promise you it will make you a whole different woman; a woman, who is confident with big dreams and goals.

It doesn’t matter if everyone or no one believes in you: I want you to try and start with yourself.


Class of Spectra: Victoria Morris

Victoria Morris, History and Politics, Jesus College, Oxford (2014-2017)

How do you feel about your time at Oxford?

Looking back on my time at university I feel a mixture of pride and relief.

There are lots of reasons I’ll miss it. For obvious (and often repeated) reasons, I’ll miss all the wonderful and supportive people I saw every day. I’ll miss the feeling of newfound independence. I’ll miss the city itself. But the first thing I thought of when I sat down to write this was how much I’ll miss studying a subject I enjoyed full-time and what a luxury it was to be able to do that.

Oxford was extremely difficult at times, but looking back I wonder how much of that stress and difficulty was brought on by myself. By ‘brought on by myself’, I’m not saying that stress is something that you can recognise and then just switch off. What I think is true is that I put a lot of pressure on myself by trying to get the most out of my time at university. I wanted to be organised, accomplished in everything and make the experience ‘perfect’. I had high self-expectations and I felt like I had to prove something.

Obviously, self-motivation is a good thing, but a lot of what was pressuring me to do well was self-doubt. I was continually reminded how ‘lucky’ I was to be here. I don’t remember having confidence issues with public speaking or debates when I was younger; I think those are things that wormed their way into my head because I grew so scared of making mistakes.

I had been very aware of more overt sexism before uni: from implications I didn’t understand simple orders to not being allowed to carry mildly heavy objects. When an elderly male acquaintance refused to believe my sister when she told him I had gone to Oxford (“Oxford Brookes, you mean?”), I was annoyed, but not surprised. It was the expected reaction from someone who had me down as a quiet and incompetent girl in a mostly male organisation. What did creep up on me was that every time I said “I’m not sure” in tutorials, even though I was quite sure, I became more and more like the quiet, unsure, female archetype that the acquaintance had boxed me in as.

I started writing this with the aim of giving advice to my younger self and I think it boils down to this: be more confident during discussions. Make a mistake once in a while, and don’t be scared to be loud.

Class of Spectra: Anne Lim

Anne Lim, Law, St Anne’s College, Oxford (2014-17)


My time in Oxford was weird and wonderful, but more often than not it was everything in between – challenging, exhausting, and sometimes discouraging. There were many late nights, essay crisis-induced complaints, and the constant reminder that there was always more to do. Things did not start out easy, go smoothly, or end simply. However, choosing to take on the difficulties I faced during my degree (self-induced or not) has been the best thing I have ever done for myself.

I will be the first to say that I was not a star pupil in Oxford. In first year, my personal tutor asked me if I ever thought about being a judge. I was quick to say ‘no’ while gesturing at my latest essay plan. She was one of the first people I have met who made me stop and ask myself ‘why’. To her, there was no reason why I should let pre-conceived notions of my ability as an individual, and as a woman in the legal industry, convince me to place dreams out of my own reach. There was no reason I could not work to achieve something if I wanted it. There was no reason to let anyone tell me ‘no’.

During my three years at Oxford, I have crossed paths with many people like her – people who remind you of your strengths when you refuse to see them and encourage you when you feel like you fall short. In this place, I have heard the phrase ‘you can’t do it’ uttered constantly, but I soon realised the only person who has ever said this to me was myself. No one here will give you a free pass and no one is here to make things easy for you, but through the challenges you face, that loud ‘I can’t’ you tell yourself will be softened by the assurances of those around you that ‘you can’.

I may not have graduated with the ambition of becoming a judge, but I have left with a grateful heart for those who have tested my resolve and challenged me to be better, all the while standing beside me in support. I will not promise you that things will always be easy or fun, but if you choose Oxford you choose a place that will give you the challenges, experiences and support to tell yourself that in spite of what you face, ‘you can, and you will’.

Class of Spectra: Saloni Patel

Saloni Patel, Law, Jesus College, Oxford (2014-2017)

How would you describe your ‘Oxford Experience’?

It was a time of intense challenge and yet the time of my proudest achievements. It was my greatest learning experience and yet I rarely fully understood course topics. It was an instance that raced by and then, a period that dragged slowly. A paradox. However, amidst all these contradictions Oxford never failed to surprise me.

For me, Oxford is best described as a place of surprise.

Aged 18, the first surprise was being confronted with the reality that I was a minority. Being a through-and-through mainstream girl I wasn’t used to being unusual. Having never perceived a tangible difference to my life, I’d never really deliberated upon what it meant to be an Indian girl. The Oxford environment gave me this recognition, but it also prompted this exploration. Living with a dual identity can be a struggle as you try to stabilise yourself in competing winds.

Oxford showed me that racial identity isn’t binary, and nor is it a spectrum on which you decide where you sit between Indian and British. Rather it’s an appreciation of the complimentary – as well as conflicting elements – between the two cultures, and the discernment that it is for you alone to define your cultural identity. At Oxford there was no prescription as to what it meant to be Indian, and instead I was greeted with vast diversity in interpretation of what this label represented. These open communities meant I could engage with this heritage without fearing that I was going to be wrong, that I was going to be too Indian or that I wasn’t going to be Indian enough.

Whoever you are – if it’s right for you, it’s right. Everyone will have something that makes them feel different but one of the things I love the most about Oxford is that there is a space for everyone, and if there isn’t you can make it. I was different and it surprised me; it surprised me because I embraced it.

Oxford is buzzing with a myriad of societies and groups, giving you the opportunity to develop existing skills, acquire new ones, and to surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. Throwing myself into these extra-curriculars meant I could see value in myself outside the sole structure of academic success. In an institution which is synonymous with academics it was surprising – in a liberating way – that what I found was an identity away from exam achievement. Even more significantly, Oxford gave me the power of agency.

On arrival at Oxford I was excruciatingly quiet. Perhaps this was because of socialisation, a good woman is a good listener? Yet through the tutorial system where with small class-sizes you’re forced to speak up, and by being surrounded by so many supportive people who wanted to hear what I had to say, Oxford gave me a voice.

Voice isn’t just about volume; it’s about conviction and assuredness, and when the emphasis is put on you developing your own thoughts and asserting your own opinions, as opposed to rote-reciting others’, these things come naturally. Oxford surprised me because I found myself in positions of leadership and roles of responsibility, all from the girl who couldn’t be heard.

Finally, Oxford surprised me because it wasn’t the answer that I had imagined. I thought achieving a degree at Oxford would prime my life, and after this last obstacle, life would be stable and secure. After all Oxford is one of the most established markers of success. Instead, Oxford showed me that struggle isn’t something to avoid but to relish. In life there is no magical finish line, there is constantly learning to be done and progress to be made. There is no fact or event which will launch you up a ladder of success. Rather you’ll encounter many a slippery snake as you realise that success isn’t a fixed standard, it constantly evolves and grows, as you do. There will always be loose ends but accepting this and enjoying life as it comes rather than striving towards the next milestone will make your success sustainable.

Oxford is full of surprise. Whatever your background Oxford will be new; it’s a melting pot of personalities, perspectives and people. Embrace change, welcome difference, and Oxford is the place for you.

Spectra Meets: Ricarda Pietschmann

NAME: Ricarda Pietschmann

EDUCATION: Bachelor in Hospitality Management at Les Roches International School of Hotel Management

JOB TITLE: Accor’s School of Excellence Management Training (focus on Rooms Division)


Describe yourself in 3 words

Friendly, outgoing, motivated.

What’s your story?

I grew up in Stuttgart, Germany where I went to International School. At the age of 14 I felt like I needed to try something new and moved to an all-girls boarding school (Cobham Hall), where I skipped 9th grade and completed my GCSE’s within a year. After this experience, I was longing to go home to Germany and decided to move in with my stepfather in Munich, which is where I completed high school (IB). As my stepfather owns a Bavarian Restaurant he introduced me to the restaurant business which later on motivated me to study Hotel Management. After completing various internships I am now in Amsterdam working as a management trainee and hoping to pursue a career in HR.

What influenced your decision to go into the hospitality industry?

I definitely think my stepfather played a huge part in my decision to work in the hotel industry. He started his career as an apprentice in a Holiday Inn and grew from there. Now he owns his own restaurant. I was astonished by his success and constant hard-work. He inspired me and taught me various aspects of his job. So, I traveled to Switzerland, the place where “the best hoteliers are born”, to look at various schools.

What does your job entail on a day to day basis?

My program starts with a 6-month cross training through departments of my choice. I am currently in the fifth month of the traineeship working in the Finance department. I would say that every day is different, which is what I love about my current position. The company gives me the opportunity to learn about all aspects of the hotel (reception, night audit, housekeeping, guest relations, butler service, reservations, finance, HR).

What do you like the most about what you do?

My favorite part of the job is working with people. Although I always preferred completing individual tasks at university, I really enjoy working with a team and feeling a part of something.

What was your ever first work experience?

My first ever work experience was at the Kempinski Vier Jahreszeiten in Munich, where I worked as a Roomservice attendant. Back then I had no clue about hotels, service or how to handle guest complaints. Although I realized that Food and Beverage is not my passion I learnt a lot and grew professionally as well as personally.

What are you passionate about?

I am passionate about learning. That is also the main reason why I went for a trainee position rather than a direct entry job. I believe it is important to take the time to learn about various aspects of the industry and try out multiple positions to not only understand all the processes required for a business to be successful, but also figure out what job suits one best.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

In 5 years I hope to find myself in a job that I am passionate about and love doing. Of course, I want to be successful and have a management title but more importantly I strive to find a job that I view more like a “hobby” rather than a “necessity”.

What’s your proudest moment?

My proudest moment was being voted president of Eta Sigma Delta (ESD) honor society in Les Roches. I was in charge of the top 20% academic achievers in my batch and had to hold a speech for our ESD ceremony. Speaking in front of a large audience is one of my main fears, so I practice loads, aiming to deliver a speech that would not only make people laugh but “feel” what it is like to be a graduating student at that university. The speech was a great success and looking back I believe it reflects everything I have learnt at university. So it is probably my proudest moment as I did not only achieve the goal of becoming part of the society (I had been working towards this goal from day 1) but also that I was voted president by my classmates and successfully spoke in public.  

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Before I finished my internship at Mandarin Oriental Corporate Office in London my manager told me “Ricarda, you need to know what you want and learn how to ask for it”. I will never forget those words as they taught me that you need to push and ask for things in life, as they won’t come flying at you! It changed the way I work and see things and caused me to stand up for myself, following and reaching my own objectives rather than some else’s.

What message/tips would you like to give to young women with similar aspirations?

One thing I am still working on is confidence. I believe that it’s an essential characteristic that every woman needs in order to achieve her goals. If you are not confident in what you do, people will try to manipulate you to help them achieve their dream, stopping you from following your own path.

Ricarda is an amazing person and here at Spectra we’re convinced she’ll go far! If you’ve been inspired by her story and want to get in touch with her, please contact us and we’ll make the magic happen.

If you’d like to share your story with Spectra just like Ricarda, go here and we’ll be in touch.


Spectra Meets: Anaïs Mutumba

NAME: Anaïs Mutumba

EDUCATION: Pharmaceutical Management at Bradford University and Broadcast Journalism at Brunel University

JOB TITLE: Freelance Broadcast Journalist


Describe yourself in 3 words.

Determined. Excitable. Organised.

You have so many different jobs! How did you get here? What’s your story?

I wonder that myself sometimes. I’ve had incredible opportunities. Initially, I studied and planned to become a hospital director with my first degree. For 3 years after graduation I tried. Unsuccessfully. My best friend could see how upset I was about not starting my career so she recommended the NCTJ. The National Council for the Training of Journalists who exist to help people from various backgrounds into journalism. All I had was a blog reviewing movies and that apparently was enough and the rest is history. Now I have a day job in IT (which I love) to supplement my own business as a freelance journalist. I also sing professionally because, why not?

What do your different jobs entail on a day to day basis?

By day, I help manage and assist with repairing issues with 6 IT systems for all European cities with a focus on France and the U.K for a global IT company. All other free time is either spent at church (I sometimes sing and help manage a production team as a volunteer) or doing client work. So I either go home straight after work to do what my clients need or sit in a café or my freelance offices in Camden.

What do you like the most about what you do?

The variety. If something is too mundane, I can become bored. This is probably why I have so many things on the go. Being able to use my skills in a few different areas also keeps me sharp.

What do you think is the key skill that has made you successful?

 Tenacity. I’ve had a lot of setbacks amongst my successes and it’s my refusal to give up. I still feel I have a long way to go but at least I’m still going.

What was your ever first job?

Customer Service for a company that assisted elderly people into luxury assisted accommodation.

What are you passionate about?

 Telling the truth.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Working full time as a presenter and writer as an investigative journalist. I would love to use my languages such as for Al Jazeera.

What’s your proudest moment?

I like to celebrate big and small moments so I have plenty. But probably most recently, my opinion piece on the racist attacks in America being published online by The Huffington Post called “Dear White People”.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

Keep moving forward even if you’re crawling.

What message/tips would you like to give to young women with similar aspirations?

Don’t compare your journey to someone else’s. YOU are unique and what you have to offer is important. So keep working at your craft and be flexible to learn from those further along in the journey.

Thank you Anaïs for the wise words!

If you want to share your story and feature on #spectrameets please let us know here!

Spectra Meets: Suet Lee

NAME: Suet Lee

EDUCATION: Imperial College London

JOB TITLE: Software Developer at Expedian


Describe yourself in 3 words.

Creative, optimistic, problem-solver.

What’s your story?

I studied mathematics at Imperial College London with a year abroad in France. I’m now a software developer working on a social media advertising tool. Previously I worked at a small web development company and it was there that I really got started in the world of tech.

My dad is also a developer so I grew up with a lot of programming books in the house, not to say that I actually read any but it did mean that the tech world wasn’t so alien to me. When it came to choosing a degree, I was stubborn though and wanted to do something that wasn’t expected of me. So I never considered a degree in computer science, and at the time I was actually torn between art and science. In the end, I decided on mathematics because I loved the logic, and I was good at it!.

At university, I did some computing modules which gave me coding experience and in my final year, I took a course in C. However, I still didn’t really understand how to build something that could actually be used in the real world. I had only written programs to solve mathematical problems up to this point.

When I started working in web development, I discovered the creative side of building something for people to use. Moving forwards, I’m keen to continue developing my skills. I think tech is such an exciting sector to be working in. There are so many possibilities – you could be making an app with a positive social impact for instance. And the web is a massive platform for information and data, it’s really up to you to be creative and produce something tangible and meaningful from it 🙂

We live in a world where there are not enough women in tech. What got you into Software Development?

I grew up with traditional Chinese parents who made sure that I studied hard and got good grades. For them, and therefore for me, it was only natural that science and technology were part of my studies. These were not subjects only for boys. Looking back, I’m appreciative that I was never made to feel that science and technology were beyond my reach as a young girl unsure of what she wanted to pursue. In secondary school, I had teachers who were strong role models, who encouraged us as students to learn without limits.

Now I can’t say that software development has been my lifelong dream since childhood. I did choose to study mathematics, not computer science, at university. But I think there is a massive overlap in the two fields. It was during my degree that I learned to code – first with maths based tools like Maple and Matlab, and later C.

I found that the world of tech had much of what I was looking for in a career – problem solving, challenging projects and continuous learning. It was then, towards the end of my degree, that I decided to pursue software development as a career.

What does your job entail on a day to day basis?

I am a full-stack developer which means that I deal with the backend infrastructure of the code as well as the front-end user interface and visual elements. We use a ticketing system in our team to flag bugs and spec new features. As a new member of the team, I am learning the system through working on the tickets assigned to me and that ranges from fixing bugs to building new features for the product – it’s the best way to learn!

What do you like the most about what you do? 

I like being able to solve problems and think logically. But I also like how I can create a product for people to use – you get instant feedback from the users which you then use to improve the product further. I also feel there’s a creative element to coding because there are so many ways of doing the same thing, sometimes you have to think creatively to find the most efficient or elegant solution to the problem.

What are you passionate about?

I’m interested in how tech can build social platforms to support communities and solve problems. We are now more connected than ever before through social media and apps, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. On the one hand, social media is being blamed for creating echo chambers and the rise of fake news. But I also think tech is just a tool and it’s how people use it that matters. Maybe we need a different kind of social media, one that isn’t focused on the individual but is based around communities. I watched a great TED talk recently about an app that encourages people to pick up litter ( That’s the kind of project that I’d like to work on.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’ll have some solid experience in software development by then (hopefully) and I’d like to be working on inspiring projects. Maybe I’ll be CTO of a startup, who knows. I feel like there’s a bit of a startup bubble. As long as I have a good team working on something that matters I’ll be happy.

What’s your proudest moment?

At the first hackathon I went to, my team won. It was a little unexpected because there were some really good ideas from the other teams but also very satisfying because we had worked so hard – some of us (myself included) stayed over two nights running!

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

There’s a filmmaking group called Wong Fu Productions that I discovered through youtube. The members are Asian American and many of their videos are made from this perspective so I can relate well. One of the members gave a commencement speech where he said “ I didn’t chase my passion, but I became passionate about what I chased”. I think there is a lot of truth in this, it resonates with me because sometimes I don’t know what to pursue out of the many things I love. But I think it’s true that as long as you work hard at the task in hand and you are moving towards a goal then you will do well. (The whole speech is really great actually, both funny and inspiring

What message/tips would you like to give to young women interested in tech?

  • There are a lot of online resources to get you started, even if you have no experience in coding. Codecademy ( is free and has tutorials for a wide range of languages
  • Attend coding courses in your area. Code First: Girls run free courses around the country
  • Talk to people working in tech and find out about the types of roles in the industry. Meetup groups are a good place to meet tech people! Women Who Code ( host many talks and events, the community is very supportive and welcoming
  • Look out for work experience/internship opportunities, Work In Startups ( is a good place to look
  • Go to hackathons: don’t worry about not having experience in coding, tech people are generally a friendly bunch and it’s actually a good way to learn from more experienced developers. Plus, many are free events with food and drink included. You might even win something nice.. ! (

Suet is an amazing developer and I am glad to count her among my friends (Asta talking here). If you want to find out more about tech and what being a developer is all about, let us know and we will put you in touch with Suet!

If you want to share your story with Spectra and be featured in #spectrameets, please go here!

Spectra Meets: Jessica Joslin

JESSICA JOSLINJessica-Joslin-086-FINISHED-colour-10x8.jpg

I first met Jessica when we were both five, just having started primary school. From then until high school we were inseparable. Sharing such a friendship is a privilege, and even as we have grown up and followed different paths in life I will always remember the first time I saw her star on stage.

I had seen her before in some minor roles, but when she took to the stage starring in the local theatre’s ‘Oklahoma!’ it was as if she was transformed. Her energy, her personality – which I had previously only known in the confines of our tight, and at times, claustrophobic, friendship – suddenly expanded to fill the whole theatre. She was captivating, her every movement inviting you to follow her with your eyes whenever she was on stage. She climbed upon a piano that was wheeled from curtain to curtain as she sang the story of the young girl with big dreams from Oklahoma – I know Jessica has never stopped chasing her own dreams of an acting career on the West End since.

I caught up with her to find out what it’s like to be an aspiring actor in London today.

Eleanor: Where does your love of acting come from and when did you decide to pursue it as a career? 

It’s something I fell in love with from a young age. My mum enrolled me for drama classes at the Helen O’Grady Drama Academy as I was shy as a child and it grew from there. I was in the Children’s Ensemble for the New Vic Theatre’s Christmas production of ‘Oliver!’ in 2006/07. It was my first professional production and the first stepping stone that confirmed by desire to be an actress.

Eleanor: Who or what were / are your idols and inspiration?

I admire so many actors and actresses, and feel constantly inspired by the plethora of work I get to see on stage and screen. But above all, my mum is my idol. I am constantly inspired by her strength and beauty inside and out and she has taught me so much of what I know.

Eleanor: How have you found your experiences in amateur / professional dramatics in terms of representation of people of colour and diversity in general?

Sadly, I was often the only person of colour in the amateur dramatics I took part in. Despite this, I feel this could be related to location as I grew up in a town in the North West of England, and I have met and worked with a much greater diversity of people since moving to London.

Eleanor: Growing up, what impact do you think representation of people of colour (in particular, women of colour) in the dramatic arts has on aspirational young women?

It’s incredibly encouraging to see the development of racial equality, particularly in the entertainment industry. As a young woman of a mixed racial background, it’s a wonderful thing to see women of colour being featured in varied roles on stage and screen. It feels like a special and exciting time to be graduating.

Eleanor: What has been your biggest obstacle? 

Self-doubt. It takes a lot of courage to work for success in this field. I feel blessed to have an incredibly supportive family and group of friends, and wouldn’t have achieved what I have without them behind me.

Eleanor: What has been your proudest moment so far? 

Most recently, one of my proudest moments was performing in my drama school showcase. I was very proud of myself – and my classmates – to have stood and performed on a West End stage for a vast number of agents and casting directors. Performing on that stage felt electric. I was so proud of all that I had been through to get to that moment and it felt like an incredible conclusion to so much hard work.

Eleanor: How, if at all, do you think being a woman of colour has affected your ability to attain your current level of achievement?

I feel lucky to have never felt subject to discrimination because of my racial background. I’ve always felt encouraged that I have the same opportunities as anyone else.

Eleanor: How will this change, if at all, as you begin your professional career?

As I’ve said before, it feels like an exciting time for me to graduate. There is an increased level of racial diversity across the entertainment industry and a greater amount of opportunity for actors of colour. I feel blessed to be a face of diversity in the arts and I am proud to acknowledge this. However, I would want my success to be based on merit and not colour.

Eleanor: How well do you think the dramatic arts as an industry is tackling lack of representation and diversity and casting?

It seems that small steps are being taken that will go a long way. Actors of different race and colour are being cast in leading roles on stage and screen. Furthermore, there continues to be a greater level of diversity within the recognised talent in the entertainment industry’s award ceremonies. I believe that everyone should be given equal opportunity, and I would be saddened to hear that someone’s skin colour could prevent their casting. Theatre often asks us to suspend belief (I recently watched a stunning production of Into The Woods with a heavily pregnant actress playing the Baker’s Wife – it is a crucial plot point that she is not pregnant in the first act!) and I do believe in looking past the colour of someone’s skin. Despite this, I would never want to feel that actors of colour are somewhat exploited to make a statement about racial diversity. I also acknowledge that there are limitations on some roles and an actor may be prevented from a casting for various factors such as height, weight, physicality, experience and other elements other than skin colour. This is all part and parcel of being an actor!

Eleanor: What would you like to see change with regards to diversity of race, sex and gender? 

I would like the development of diversity to continue. I would love for more leading roles to be written both for women and actors of colour – and ideally roles that do not stereotype a woman as the obedient housewife, or a woman of colour with a predictable ethnic accent. Films such as Gone Girl and Star Wars: The Force Awakens challenge the role of women – though I was saddened to see a slight case of sexism by not including Rey as a figurine in the children’s toy Star Wars merchandise…!

Eleanor: What do you foresee to be your biggest challenges in your new professional life?

It’s an incredibly competitive, demanding industry so it’ll be a challenge to establish a successful acting career for myself, and additionally to adapt to the actor’s lifestyle of being in and out of work.

Eleanor: What is your dream achievement?

I would love to play a leading role in a production on the West End.

Eleanor: What message would you like to give to other young girls (particularly of colour) with similar aspirations to your younger self? 

Take courage, hold your loved ones close, believe in your ability and have the confidence to make your dream a reality.

Do Not Pity Me: Beginning Life as a Refugee

At best, the current media coverage of the horrors of the Syrian civil war and the hundreds of thousands of people forced to become refugees in response shows us only victims. At worst, we are presented with Nigel Farage evidencing the ‘threat’ to the ‘decent’ British citizen with billboard posters of queues of refugees awaiting basic humanitarian support. At best, fleeting celebrity facebook posts encourage us to see passive figures, whose story is not their own but one focussed on the opinions, policies and decisions of the governments and citizenries unwilling to receive them. Each is a dangerous narrative. Among much else, such a narrow visions miss the resolute strength of these individuals. What begins in words –  newspapers, television broadcasts, video reports – becomes reflected in reality, and people presented as non-autonomous, passive, unwilling and burdensome are left to struggle against an identity constructed and forced upon them.

This strength does not show itself in huge and miraculous acts. It is not a strength we find easy to recognise because it is not championed, emblazoned on news articles, awarded applause nor congratulations. It is a strength just in survival, and a resolve to continue.  Sitting across from me, in a small café on a warm summer evening in Sofia, Bulgaria, Dima Ismail is a paradigm example of this strength. She speaks in stilted but commanding English, full of imperatives. What she has had to do, what she must, in order to make a place for herself in this new and alien world that is struggling to make sense of the Syrian war.

Celebrities flock to dilapidated refugee camps and take photos beside the weakest and most wretched. “They’re just like us,” they chant, “They need our help”. Such flash-pan humanitarianism comes from a good place, but it is misguided. There are unspoken words that appeal to our sense of pity for those weaker than ourselves, that paint a picture of people unable to help themselves, in need of our salvation. These individuals do not need our pity – how rich of us to offer it in the first place, when we are complicit in a system that has been integral in perpetuating the instability and turmoil in their homeland. What we need to offer is solidarity, to recognise the strengths, skills and determination of individuals eager to rebuild their lives, and fundamentally, to provide access to the tools to do so.

In this struggle for integration, refugees are not like us. They face a system of discrimination, prejudice, and inequality that seems intent on keeping such opportunities from them. This is a system against which Dima Ismail has consistently found herself at odds with. How to rebuild your life, when not only your home, possessions and past are destroyed, but the skills and passions you have nurtured in yourself are rendered meaningless?

Born in Syria, by the age of 21 Dima had graduated from law school and was training in the most important central law offices in Damascus. The work was intense and demanding, even more so for a young woman in a traditionally male dominated career. She recalls reading everything she could in order to survive, and succeed.  Court decisions, judicial precedents – each one  devoured, each one  catalogued, until she had built herself a private office, with two trainees of her own.

We are told by the media that our military and governmental involvement in the Middle East is premised on bringing justice to the downtrodden who are denied representation in their own countries.  But Dima’s experiences offer a more nuanced picture of autonomous and passionate individuals fighting for justice on their own terms. Within the independence of her own practice, she committed herself to supporting everyone who came to her with a case – clients who were weak, lacking education, money or opportunity –  all were defended where possible. She worked in rural communities educating against the tradition of child marriages of young girls.  This was more than just a job, this was a life built around talent, passion and determination. Yes, the media is right to say that the system was, and remains, corrupt, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t people fighting against it.

Of course, every refugee has experienced the helplessness of being forced to flee their homes. When war came to Damascus, it was violent, indiscriminate, and tireless. Dima speaks of trying to remain in the city, continuing her work, as long as she could. Her husband left first with her son, but she refused to follow. But when tanks began to stalk the high streets and facing the corrupt regime was a better alternative than facing the extreme misogyny and violence of the ISIS rebels, there was no longer any option but to leave.  But let’s not mistake this as a free choice, taken lightly just because the asylum benefits in Europe looked enticing when the future prospects seemed unhopeful in Syria. “It was a kind of suicide”, Dima describes leaving her homeland.

At first, she reunited with her family in Egypt, where she attempted to retrain in Egyptian law. But before she could take the exam, the instability in Syria was already overspilling and they were forced to flee again, this time to Bulgaria. But Sofia was no European paradise. On the one hand, Dima admits to having been lucky – though she had left all she owned beyond the far shore of the Mediterranean, she and her husband retained enough finances and education to move quickly through the Bulgarian asylum system in which some less fortunate are left cramped in dilapidated schools, with no privacy, for months on end waiting to receive their official refugee status. But this was a small boon. It soon became clear that Dima would struggle to practice law in Bulgaria. First, there was the language barrier. Then, the fact that the Bulgarian state refused to recognise any of Dima’s previous qualifications or experience. Far from letting her retrain in Bulgarian law, they demanded she begin law school from scratch, shouldering all the connected fees and costs. It soon became clear that Dima had left more than just a job and a home behind in Syria.

I left my life there and I left my heart”.

And yet, despite all of these trials, Dima has not been overcome. She has not let herself be defined as the helpless victim. From nothing she has begun to rebuild her life again. First, she started studying Bulgarian whilst working as a volunteer in asylum accommodation centres in the city, teaching English to other asylum seekers retained there. As she turned 37, she enrolled in University reading Languages and Administration, graduating 20 years after she first began studying, in that other time and other life, in Syria. 2016 has seen her begin her first job with a UK company.

She writes to me with a strength and a willpower that refuses to be constrained; I remember her presence, her intellect, her passion and openness when we met in that café in Sofia. The beauty I saw there was her strength – not the stuff of a Hollywood movie, a celebrity anecdote or a tired news piece, but a deep, complex, indomitable strength to survive and to begin again, in spite of everything.

I am starting to live again with a broken heart and the hope that one day we will return”.

The refugees we see on the news, in charity appeals and on celebrity instagrams – we need to be careful before we accept the simple narratives we are fed by mainstream media. Dima’s story is one of hundreds of thousands. We need to stop hearing only one half of the history, stop casting ourselves as saviours of the helpless and begin bringing to these formidable individuals the tools and opportunities to allow them to survive and succeed. They have travelled across a continent because they are determined to survive. Not because they are merely passive victims in a game of foreign policy gone wrong. Long term, structured integration support is what is needed. Access to language training, the recognition of transferable skills and the opportunity to develop previous qualifications or retrain. Dima Ismail does not need your pity.