Disadvantaged Teenager Couldn’t Read or Write — Now He Teaches at One of the World’s Most Prestigious Universities
Jason Arday is the youngest ever black professor at Cambridge.
Jason Arday holds a prestigious professorship at the University of Cambridge, and he’s the youngest ever black person to do so.
What people don’t realize when they meet him, though, is that the Professor of Sociology of Education couldn’t read or write until he was in his late teens—about half of his life. The 37-year-old whose voice now fills lecture halls didn’t even speak until he was 11 years old.
Specialists thought Arday’s learning disabilities would require lifelong support and that he wouldn’t be able to live on his own as an adult.
He Could See Beyond His Present Circumstances
Growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood, Arday wasn’t sure what the future had in store for him. But one thing was for sure: he had a lot of questions.
Arday’s questions were big ones, too. He questioned why people were homeless. He wanted to know why countries were at war with one another. He didn’t know where to go with his big questions, and his learning disabilities were certainly making it harder for him to find the answers.
But he didn’t stop asking those questions or cultivating big ideas.
“I remember thinking if I don’t make it as a football player, then I want to save the world,” he said.
It Required a Ton of Hard Work
And his new professorship at one of the world’s most prestigious universities may just put him in the position to do so.
“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratize higher education,” Arday explained.
It’s a subject he knows a lot about—from personal experience. After struggling as a teen, Arday studied at the University of Surrey to become a physical education teacher. He wanted to continue his education, so he took a stab at writing academic papers. But there was no one to guide him in the process.
Peer reviews were brutal. But Arday kept his chin up and kept trying. At the age of 27, he wrote some words of inspiration on his wall: One day, I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.
It was a pipe dream. But when a college friend saw it, he replied matter-of-factly, “I think you can do this. I think we can take on the world and win.” It was all the encouragement that Arday needed.
An Inspiration to People Worldwide
Though he kept his day job as a gym teacher, Arday’s true passion came out in the academic papers that he wrote at night while also studying for his PhD.
In 2015, a paper that he co-wrote titled “Aiming Higher” brought to light racial and ethnic inequalities in British universities. It was received with high acclaim.Arday continued to publish papers, and in 2018, he secured his first professorship.
It’s been a rocket ship to the top since then, as Arday became one of the youngest professors in the UK, and then the youngest black professor at Cambridge. He reached the goal that he had scrawled on his wall a decade earlier.
As it turns out, the childhood experts were wrong. But so was the young Arday: he didn’t become a football player. Luckily, especially for disadvantaged students in the UK, Arday has fallen upon his Plan B to save the world.