Jason Arday, a renowned sociologist on the topics of race, inequality, and education has become Cambridge University's youngest Black professor after being appointed at age 37. While the achievement is extraordinary on its own, it's even more remarkable after one looks at what it took for Arday to get a teaching position at one of the world's top universities.
Born and raised in Clapham, South London, Arday was diagnosed with global development delay and autism spectrum disorder at age 3. He didn’t learn to speak until he was 11 years old and could not read or write until he was 18. However, he was always keenly aware of the world around him, wondering why there were homeless people and war. “I remember thinking if I don't make it as a football player or a professional snooker player, then I want to save the world,” he told the BBC.
Some of the moments that inspired him to take action were watching Nelson Mandela's release from prison on television, as well as South Africa's historic victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. On top of that, his mother introduced him to various genres of music. While she hoped it could help his conceptualization of language, it also boosted his self-confidence and skills, and sparked his love for popular culture, which has permeated some of his research.
After learning to read and write with the help of his mentor and college tutor Sandro Sandri, Arday got a degree in Physical Education and Education Studies from the University of Surrey before training as a Physical Education teacher. At age 22, he decided to pursue a postgraduate degree. By day, he worked as a PE lecturer, while writing academic papers and studying sociology by night. At some point during his studies, he had to work at supermarkets to pay for his tuition.
“When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing,” he said in a press release. “I did not have a mentor and no-one ever showed me how to write. Everything I submitted got violently rejected. The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience and, perversely, began to enjoy it.” One day, the tide turned, and he had his first paper published in 2018. Three years later, he secured a position as the professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education.
While he was still studying for his PhD, he drafted a list goals on his bedroom wall. One read: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.” Now, that dream has come true. On March 6, he'll begin his new job at Cambridge University's Faculty of Education.
“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratize higher education,” Arday says. Recalling an encouraging conversation with his mentor, he adds, “Sandro told me: ‘I think you can do this: I think we can take on the world and win.’ Looking back, that was when I first really believed in myself. A lot of academics say they stumbled into this line of work, but from that moment I was determined and focused: I knew that this would be my goal.”