I awoke to RNZ Morning Report delivering news of the tragic killing of British MP Jo Cox. Even before many facts had been verified around the media there was rapid commentary and blogging about whether the killer was a far-right assassin or crazed loner or both, about a stress on mental illness minimising the threat of organised racism, about white men not being labelled terrorists.
I doubt off-the-cuff blogging by me would add much but in the dawning horror of the news another snippet caught my ear and then my eye as I probed online. It turns out that Jo Cox was in my Politics class at university. Digging out a class list, there she is, five names away: H. J. Leadbeater. We must have both graduated on that scorching British summer’s day in 1995.
This is decidedly not newsworthy. I can’t even pretend we knew each other: we went to different colleges, and I can only guess that we sat in the same lectures. A reason the subject may not solely be navel-gazing is that Jo Cox’s recollection of her university experience has cropped up repeatedly as the media seek out details of her life and views as a member of Parliament’s new class of 2015.
Most borrow from a recent newspaper interview in which the Yorkshire Labour MP recalled the challenge of being the first generation of her family to attend university, going from a working-class background in northern England, where her father worked in a Leeds toothpaste factory, to study social and political sciences at Cambridge University.
The experience was bewildering, she recalled: ‘I didn’t really speak right or know the right people’, it ‘really knocked me for about five years. I just felt like I wasn’t up to speed with everyone else. … All my norms and everything I was used to didn’t feel like they were right anymore.’
I can understand this. I applied to Cambridge when King’s College encouraged applicants from under-represented backgrounds and I fitted the bill, being first-generation, northern, state school, working-class, as well as married with children. I fitted in that sense but it was still easy to feel out of place around university with the ‘wrong’ accent and background.
It would be sad, though, if the effect of recirculating Jo Cox’s words was to reinforce a view that certain universities, or university itself, are ‘not for the likes of us’, discouraging application from those like her and from other under-represented groups. I’d imagine the experience was disorienting but also the making of Helen Joanne Leadbeater. She admitted to not being political before university but turned to SPS in her second year and emerged to be constructively committed to causes including extending opportunities for others. If Cambridge could not exactly deserve credit for demonstrating a need for societal change, university must have helped give direction and purpose to the process of thinking matters through.
Cambridge is not necessarily the issue anyway. Universities in general can be strange and disorienting places, where it’s easy to think that everyone else is better qualified to be there than you and is more ‘up to speed’ than you. Students from certain groups and backgrounds are still likely to be the first generation in their family to attend, with limited familiarity and support. Studying at university shouldn’t be so hard it hurts, even if it can’t always be easy when people are going places they have never been before, physically, personally and intellectually.
Jo Cox’s words imply she was failing at university, an imposter, but her achievements confirm she was well worth her place and should be an inspiration to others from non-academic family backgrounds, who can know they have a place too.
It would have been good to have known her to speak to, even if we didn’t speak quite right.
Geoff Kemp is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland