Student Perspectives: Mercy Okutubo (UoW)

How would you describe yourself? What defines your identity?

I would start with the cultural bit of my identity. I am originally from Nigeria, I’ve grown up around that culture; this is one of the main things that defines my identity as a person in the UK in 2022. The second aspect I think about is that I’m a twin: I spent many years growing up with my twin, and a lot of the time I just found myself doing what she did because we’re very similar. It took a while to break out and find my own identity as an individual. Now my identity is shaped from other perspectives, for instance from a faith perspective as well.

Do you feel that your unique attributes, experiences, and background are valued at your university?

It depends on the people you’re around. In my second year, I was on the exec for a society, Warwick Inspire, that focuses on education and inequality. There, they really focus on people’s individual attributes and how these can positively influence your academic path and career path. Through this experience, I found there was a beauty in cultural differences and educational differences; these are not things that oppress us but things that allow us to flourish.

Doing an undergraduate degree in management, I encounter so many different cultures and places, and this opens up a space to talk about cultural differences and similarities. It’s very interesting exploring this, and being able to say, ‘You’re from this country and this is how you do this’, for instance while doing group-work, which we do a lot of in Warwick Business School (WBS). In my first year at Warwick, I joined the African & Caribbean Society (ACS), and we ran this big production called Afrofest, where there was drama and singing – it really opened up a space for you to learn and understand different people and different cultures.

These two examples show what you can make out of university in terms of being able to explore yourself culturally. For me, university is where I started to find myself again. I didn’t go to the same secondary school as my twin, but we went to the same sixth form. It was easy to convince ourselves that because we’d had some time part, we knew ourselves as individuals. But when we both came to the same university, we both realised that although we’re similar we are also so different, and we started to see the beauty in those differences. That came from being in this university environment where you’re constantly being asked who you are, what do you like, what don’t you like. It’s a new burst of independence, like a new birth, where you can do whatever you want. So I really believe university is what you make it to be.

Do you feel comfortable being yourself at university?

University is so unfamiliar – perhaps if you went to boarding school it would be more familiar – but for me, coming to a new city, it was all very unfamiliar. In my first year, I didn’t focus on making friends on my course but made them elsewhere. Going to lectures and seminars on my course, I was surrounded by people but had no one to speak to, which was quite sad.

In my second year, I wanted to redeem myself – and then the pandemic came. Everything was online and it became very, very difficult. We had groupwork online, but there were few meaningful conversations outside of ‘We need to get this done’, and everyone was quite drained.

But now in my third year, I’m very open to having different conversations and seeing my education in a different way. My seminar tutors have helped with this: on one module, the tutor is so great, she creates an environment where we can feel comfortable and safe speaking to new people. So the lecturers, and the people you encounter, and whether you enjoy the module, are important to making you feel comfortable.

On one module recently, the tutor asked how everyone was feeling, since we hadn’t had an in-person seminar in a long time. My immediate response was to say that I felt very shy, but as things have become more familiar, the shyness has gone away. I felt very contained during the pandemic, and now coming out of that I have to re-learn things and break out of that shyness again.

For me, what makes me want to stay, and pursue a friendship, is the environment people create: comfortable, peaceful, a safe space. And as weird as this sounds, it’s about the things they bring out of me: the character development that comes with the things they show you about yourself. Like they might show me that I can be a loving person or a good friend, or they tell me I’m funny. It’s about the things they allow you to reveal about yourself.

When I first started at university I was in a very competitive cohort on the ‘finance’ pathway, with students who have an end-goal they want to reach like banking or consulting. As I got to know myself better, I moved into the ‘entrepreneurship’ pathway on my course. The students in this cohort weren’t necessarily competing with one another, they were very much trying to explore creativity, and how that links with entrepreneurship and the mind. People are calmer, they take more time to process ideas: they ask ‘How does creativity influence this? Do I have an entrepreneurial mindset and how does that affect things?’ So over time, as my interests have developed, I’ve found this group who are not necessarily competitive-minded.

Do you mask or minimalise any aspect of yourself at university?

For me, in terms of what I share about myself, it mainly depends on the time and place: whether it’s an academic, social, or work setting. But over time, I’ve found that you don’t need to limit areas of yourself, just because you’re in a different setting. It’s good to be self-aware, to be conscious of time and place, and what is expected of you, but don’t let that lead to you pretending, or not being yourself. Sometimes I do find myself succumbing to society’s standard, to something I’ve grown up seeing. But over time, as I’ve discovered myself, I’ve also discovered the freedom to be myself in different settings.

How is inclusion discussed at your university?

Sometimes the most difficult thing is starting these conversations. Environment is very important: are you in an environment that encourages these conversations to happen? There are a lot of different things that influence this, like social media. People don’t want to say the wrong thing, so don’t say anything. I’ve definitely observed this at university and in other spaces. There are a lot of things that people brush under the carpet, because they don’t have the words to articulate it, or don’t know how to get the message across without offending people, and then things build up. That’s definitely something that needs to be addressed.

The university definitely has a duty to teach you more. Yes, you can learn from experience, but it’s hard to learn unless you’re being educated. The university has a role in supporting you in completing your education, so you can leave university as someone who is growing in terms of how you understand these cultural issues. The university should educate students on the intricacies of things like racism and inclusion, on how to go deeper into these issues rather than taking them at face value, while also offering a holistic perspective.

To be honest, in my first year, it wasn’t the university, it was students creating spaces where we could discuss inclusion. But since the pandemic started, the university have increased wellbeing support, and increased awareness of wellbeing support – that support was probably there in my first year, but I wasn’t aware of it. Because of this global issue, there was a mutual understanding that it affected people in different ways, and the university provided spaces where issues that would normally be brushed under the carpet can be addressed. It’s been a joint effort with students, and with the Students’ Union.

How should students be involved as co-creators in Higher Education?

Co-creation has to happen from the beginning to the end, not just getting people involved in defining the problem, then asking what they think about the final product. It’s everything in between that gets neglected.

From a co-creation perspective, it’s also really important that university structures are visible and accessible – a lot of the time they’re working behind the scenes, but are not necessarily open and transparent to other people, so students don’t know they can engage with them.

What new or improved practices would you like to see?

We need to focus on interdisciplinary collaboration. For example, in the University of Warwick I know they’re trying to integrate innovation in all the different departments. It’s important to make an active effort to integrate inclusion into module discussions, and not let it be something that you only find if you study history or politics, but also something that students in business, life sciences, or engineering talk about.