Let Fear Fall Behind
There’s a deep sense of hope and conviction in those who not only overcome barriers in life, but are then fueled by a desire to build a better future and continue to excel in their pursuits. These people carry a belief that anything is possible if you’ve got the courage and commitment to sacrifice time and energy to realise your dreams.
London born and Bradford raised Joshua Chima is an inspirational and humble young man and although he’s not comfortable with his journey being described as ‘barrier breaking’ he’s one of the few northern, working class, black people to graduate with a Law degree from Oxford University and it’s been a journey that’s required a lot of focus and determination.
Shortly after starting his degree, Joshua found himself in the midst of a media spotlight after a photo of him and his friends went viral, hitting the mainstream newspapers. “It was insane, this was my first week” he recalls.
Joshua and nine other black undergraduates had recreated a famous photo from 1987 that featured Boris Johnson and David Cameron while they were students. “It was a cool, funny photo we’d taken to share with our friends back home, ” explaining further he says “As if to say ‘Look at them then, and look at us now. If we can get here, you guys can too’.”
The photo was intended to break the stereotypical view of an Oxbridge student and show that everyone has a right to study there no matter their socio-economic or cultural background. “It certainly wasn’t to make a big political statement, but it just blew up.” says Joshua.
“I come from humble beginnings – It was just me and my mum living together in inner-city Manningham, we were very close” he explains. “Bradford was very segregated in terms of areas, the outskirts had a lot more white and the inner-city had a huge Asian community, so I was one of a few black people I knew at the time, but I learnt a lot of cultural things from my neighbours and friends and just knew it as Bradford.”
His mum previously lived in Zambia as a successful senior teacher at an international school before taking a teaching opportunity in the UK. However, on arrival she found she wasn’t allowed to work because of her immigration status and that none of her qualifications were recognised, which led to both limited financial resources and work opportunities.
Hehas fond childhood memories though, and was too young to be aware of the struggles his mum faced. “I remember when we had the ‘big freeze’ thing. I was about seven years old, and my mum moved our bed through to the kitchen so we could use the stove as heating,” he says with a smile. ”I remember it was cold but at the time I wasn’t worried, I found it really fun. It was only later that I realised we couldn’t afford the heating.”
Refusing to be held back by her circumstances, his mum led by example. “She wanted to teach again, so self funded her whole education; GCSE’s, college, University and now finishing her PhD, she will soon start lecturing at the university.” It’s been a long journey but his mum always said, ‘I’m doing this to encourage you. You need to be aspirational in life and know your current situation will not be forever.’
Her tenacity was mirrored in their applications for becoming UK citizens, which took seventeen years in total. Joshua was registered as a citizen at six years old (2008) but his mum’s decision took another eight years (2016) and he remembers during those years that his mum’s friends were frightened they could get separated if she was deported whilst waiting for a decision.
As Joshua shares his story, you realise the huge influence his mother has had. “She’s my hero,” he says. “When I think about everything she’s overcome and had to work through, what I’m facing now is not significant.” Speaking about the source of her strength, Joshua says, “Her faith probably. She’s a very prayerful lady. I think that’s a big part of her resilience and also for me, God has been a huge part of my life too,” and describes how prayer sustained them through the years of immigration process.
Her philosophy on life and love for education was also formative for Joshua’s future. During primary school she worked through revision books with him in the evenings, and when it came to his rebellious years during secondary school “She’d tell teachers they didn’t need her permission to hold me back in detention and always supported them when I got told off. I thought ‘what’s her problem?’.”
At the time Joshua hated it, but looking back he realises it kept him on the straight and narrow and had a huge impact on his life. “Some of my friends from school are in prison now.” he says solemnly.
Another key character building experience has been his passion for music and approach to learning it. “Piano was my console when I was young and I’d spend hours learning how to play pieces of music. I used to record myself and other people thought it sounded great, but all I could hear were the mistakes. So I’d keep practising until I got it perfect.”
He continues, “There’s a lot of frustration in that process. You try it, you fail, you try it, you fail until you finally get it, then you can’t stop playing and it feels amazing. The work pays off and you get a sense of completion and you realise that actually it wasn’t that hard. What looked impossible before, is now possible and looks effortless.”
These principles of persistence and dedication have definitely contributed to his Oxford application process. He spent the month leading up to his LNAT (Law National Admissions Test) practising past papers. Each paper took two hours and he completed one every night, for a month. “It was just hell, horrible, but my score improved and when I did the test I got a good score.”
He was also wise enough to ask for help. “When I applied to Oxford I felt very alone, because I didn’t know anyone who could help, so I had to develop those connections.” At 16, Joshua reached out to law firms in Leeds for work experience and then leveraged those connections for advice. He also spoke to members of The Bradford Club. “They were in their eighties, but a lot of them went to Oxford and they also offered to help me prepare.”
No-one knew that he was applying for Oxford, not even his mum “It was a form of protection. I didn’t want anyone to discourage me, because I had this thought ‘people like me’ (working class and black) don’t go to places like that.”
Opening up about why he felt this way, he shares how one of his mum’s friends responded after he told her he wanted to be a lawyer ‘You’ll never get a job like that’ she said ‘black people don’t get jobs like that!’
“At the time it was annoying hearing it,” he says. “But in hindsight I can appreciate why she may have felt that way because of her experiences with discrimination and that she was trying to prepare me for the harshness of reality that comes with being an immigrant.”
On his interview day in Oxford Joshua found himself sitting round a horseshoe table with thirty other applicants. “I remember thinking ‘wow, there’s only six places’ and being really nervous, but I then decided to suppress those feelings and remind myself that I was good enough and ended up enjoying the interview.”
After he was offered a place, Joshua says “That’s when hell started.” His mum was obviously thrilled, but teachers and parents of friends told him that he ‘didn’t have the class to fit in’ or that ‘he’d never be good enough’ or questioned ‘why you?’. “I was shocked,” he says. “I thought, ‘what’s wrong with these people?’” However, he ignored the negativity and gained grades beyond what he needed.
The Oxford experience didn’t disappoint. “I had the best time ever. The buildings were inspiring and everyone came from all across the world and had lived such different lives to me. It’s like a completely different world, they have a specific way of behaving, like there’s a culture code. I just went in with an open mindset.”
“I feel like I’m one of the first black people from my background to break through. Each year the intake is around 3,000. In my year there were only 106 black students, however the majority of those were from London and the south, so the northern, working class representation isn’t there yet.”
During his time at Oxford Joshua made a commitment to represent his heritage and rose through the ranks of the famous Oxford Union debating society. He ended up as Treasurer (second to the top) where he pioneered the first ever ‘Black History Month’ panel and ‘Social Access’ event the society had ever held.
Now that he’s graduated, Joshua is going into corporate law and says, “I don’t want to become someone that makes loads of money but does nothing to help society, which is why I’m also drawn to public service. I want to have a voice that represents people from my background.”
He continues, “Law engages me intellectually and it governs every bit of everything we do as a society. I’m very interested in the broader picture of how law incentivises people to behave and influences how societies run. Also public international law and the broader big picture of politics, how governments interact with other governments – I find that very interesting and it’s got the potential to improve people’s lives.”
Joshua is humble about his achievements to date and likes to inspire others. During the pandemic he started a CIC (Community Interest Company) called ‘The Opportunity Directory’ after several other working class Oxford hopefuls reached out for advice on LinkedIn. “I’ve done this whole journey and if I can help other people, I will. The main thing is to take down the blockers people believe. The ceiling’s in their mind and I want to encourage them to see beyond that.”
“When goals feel unobtainable, you have to focus and figure out how to get there, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Keep reminding yourself, ‘If this is what I want to do, then why can’t I do it.’ Fear is always there, I still struggle with it now, but sometimes you just need to let it walk with you, and eventually it’ll fall behind.”
“There is still racism in the UK,” Joshua says. “But it’s subtle and easy to deny that it exists, which makes it hard to fight against. On a surface level things have changed and we have laws against discrimination, but people hang on to unconscious bias and don’t recognise it. So even though the laws are there, the behaviour and actions of the people haven’t caught up yet,”
When asked what needs to change, he says “This sounds like such a basic thing, but seeing people as people is what’s needed rather than making assumptions. Just see me as an individual human being, like a blank canvas.”
He summarises, “Coming from Bradford gave me a sense of individuality at Oxford because most people were from the south. I’m also proud to come from Bradford, it’s what’s shaped me into the person I am today.”
Joshua firmly believes in the importance of representation across all areas of society. “I’ve met people from wealthy backgrounds at Oxford that genuinely care about places like Bradford, but they just don’t understand it because they’ve not grown up here.”
Which is why stories like Joshua’s are so important for others to hear and be inspired by, stories that celebrate strength of belief, dedication and challenging the status quo. “If more people from more diverse backgrounds go to places like Oxford, so long as they don’t forget where they come from they will drive change because they’re driving from their experiences.”
Story and photography by Tom Harmer