An autistic man who could not read or write until he was 18 has become Cambridge University’s youngest-ever Black professor.
Professor Jason Arday, 37, has spoken out over his struggle with autism and learning delays that left him speechless till he was age 11.
Therapists and career advisers predicted he would spend his adult life in assisted living and require lifelong support.
He has now taken up one of the most prestigious professorship posts in one of the world’s leading top universities and is the youngest Black person to do it.
He joins just five other Black professors in the institution and will become one of just 155 Black university professors in the UK, out of a total of 23,000.
The sociology professor remembers being “violently rejected” when he first started writing academically.
The professor from Clapham, London, said: “When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing.
“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.”
He was diagnosed with global developmental delay when he was a child, affecting his ability to learn how to talk and read.
Despite this had huge questions to ask the world.
Prof Arday remembers thinking: “Why are some people homeless? Why is there 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 finally learnt to read and write in his teens and became a PE teacher after studying at the University of Surrey.
Growing up in a disadvantaged area and becoming a school teacher gave him first-hand insight into the systemic inequalities that youngsters belonging to ethnic minorities faced in education.
He knew he wanted to study and learn more and more but had little training or guidance to do so.
At age 27 he wrote on his bedroom wall at his parents’ house: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.”
He remembers talking to his friend and college mentor Sandro Sandi: “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.
“On reflection, this is what I meant to do.”
He wrote papers and studied by night, learning texts verbatim and working as a PE by day.
He went on to become an acclaimed professor with two master’s degrees and a PhD in educational studies from
Liverpool John Moores University.
Whilst studying for his PhD in 2015 he co-edited a groundbreaking report for the Runnymede Trust, ‘Aiming Higher’, about racial and ethnic inequalities in British Universities.
He eventually published his first solo paper in 2018.
The same year, he successfully secured a Senior Lectureship at Roehampton University before moving on to Durham University, where he was an Associate Professor of Sociology.
He went on to another prestigious professorship at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, making him, at the time, one of the youngest professors in the UK.
He has since become a leading academic writing on the experiences of Black students in education and the long-term impacts of racial discrimination in education.
He has also written books including works that explore the roots of structural racism in higher education, and the ‘Cool Britannia’ phenomenon of the 1990s from an ethnic minority perspective.
He will now start at the University of Cambridge on Mar 6 as Professor of Sociology of Education in the Faculty of Education, hoping to inspire people from under-represented backgrounds into higher education.
He said: “My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratise higher education.
“Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally.
“Obviously unpicking a long history in which Cambridge has been, or seemed, very exclusive is difficult.
“There are now lots of pockets of good practice, but culturally this needs to extend throughout the entire university.”