Diagnosed with autism and general developmental delay as a child, Jason Arday could not speak until he was 11 and could not write and read until 18., Now aged 37, he will become the first black youth to be given a professorship at the University of Cambridge.
Even though he couldn't speak yet, little Jason always had questions about the world around him.
“Why are some people homeless and living on the streets?” he remembered asking that. “Why is there a war?”
Born and raised in Clapham, in the southwest of London, sociologist Prof Arday says some of the most important moments in his life were witnessing Nelson Mandela's release from prison and witnessing South Africa‘s symbolic victory at the Rugby World Cup in 1995.
He recalls being deeply moved by the suffering of others and feeling a strong urge to do something about it.
“I thought, if I can't be a professional soccer player or snooker player, then I will try to save the world,” he said.
ason's mother played a huge role in developing his confidence and abilities.
It was he who introduced him to a wide variety of music in the hopes this would help Jason with his conceptualization of language.
All of this music later attracted his interest in popular culture which colored some of his research.
Supported by his mentor, school tutor, and friend Sandro Sandri, Prof Arday finally started reading and writing in his late teens.
He then studied Physical Education and Educational Studies at the University of Surrey before taking up training to become a PE teacher.
Growing up in a relatively poor area and then working as a school teacher, he said, had given him first-hand experience in feeling the systemic inequality experienced by young people with ethnic minorities in education.
At the age of 22, Prof Arday was intrigued by the idea of pursuing postgraduate education and discussed it with his mentor.
“Sandro said, ‘I believe you can – I believe we can beat the world and win,'” he said.
“Now that I think about it, that was the first time I really believed in myself. A lot of academics say they stepped into this world by accident, but for me, that moment was the beginning of faith and I was very focused–I know this is my purpose in life.”
Learning to be an academic was surprisingly difficult, says Arday, mainly because he didn't have much experience or training to do it.
During the day, Prof Arday works as a PE teacher in a high school.
In the evenings, he spent doing academic papers and studying sociology.
“When I first started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing,” he says.
“I had no mentor and no one to show me how to write it.
“All the papers I submitted were harshly rejected.
“The peer review process was so cruel, to the point of being humorous, but I found it to be a learning experience, and oddly enough, I'm starting to enjoy it.”
Prof Arday then managed to earn two master's degrees and a PhD in Educational Studies.
When asked when he realized he was a sociologist, he said around 2015.
“I realized this is what I should be doing.”
Eight years later, he would be confirmed as a professor of educational sociology at Cambridge.
Currently, there are five black professors at the university.
Official figures from the Agency for Higher Education Statistics show that, in 2021, only 155 of the more than 23,000 university professors in the UK will be black.
Starting his new role as a professor on March 6, Prof Arday intends to increase the representation of ethnic minorities in universities.
“My work will focus on how we can open our doors to more people from less fortunate backgrounds and truly democratize higher education,” he said.
In 2018, Prof Arday published his first paper and earned a senior teaching post at Roehampton University before moving to Durham University, where he became a sociology professor.
In 2021, he became a professor of sociology of education at the University of Glasgow School of Education, making him, at the time, one of the youngest professors in the UK.
“Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will give me the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally,” he said.
“It's one thing to talk about it; it's important to do it.”
On her current work on neurodivergence and black students, she collaborates with Dr Chantelle Lewis of the University of Oxford.
“Cambridge has made significant changes and has achieved some important milestones in its efforts to diversify education,” said Prof Arday. “But much remains to be done – here and across the sector.
“The university has amazing people and resources; the challenge is how do we use that capital to improve things for everyone and not just the few.
“Getting this right is an art – it takes real diplomacy and everyone should feel inspired to work together.
“If we want to make education more inclusive, the best tools we have are solidarity, understanding and love.”