Last year, Sonita Alleyne made history as the first Black woman to lead an Oxbridge college, after being elected Master of Jesus College at Cambridge University.
Previously to her latest role Sonita’s had a varied career working in the media; founding the Radio Production Company ‘Somethin’ Else’, as well serving as a trustee for the BBC. In 2004 she was awarded an OBE for her services to broadcasting.
Here Sonita, speaks to Good Housekeeping about her inspiring journey and working in a community that she loves...
I was born in Barbados, and came to the UK with my family when I was three. The reason my parents came here was education. The importance of learning was something they instilled in me. As a child I loved going to the library in the East End of London where we lived, and checking out as many books as I could.
At school, my teachers were very encouraging. ‘You're a promising writer,’ my English teacher once said to me. Spurred on, I applied to Cambridge to read Philosophy. I remember having an amazing conversation with the woman who interviewed me. I left the room feeling desperate to get in.
I was thrilled to get a place, and had a brilliant three years at Cambridge. It was a very different world to the one I grew up in, but I found that exciting rather than intimidating. I loved my degree, although I can’t say I studied 24/7. There were lots of late nights and I got involved in everything, from politics society to singing, as well as writing for the student magazine. I believed it was important to have a rounded university experience and I still stand by that.
My first job was working in life insurance. I knew it wasn’t going to be my whole career, but it was still a good experience. I learned how to cold-call, which came in handy when I realised I actually wanted to work in jazz. I rang up Jazz FM and asked if they had a job for me. Although it wasn’t straight away, I did end up getting a role there.
At 24, I was made redundant, but I didn’t see it as a setback. Instead, I set up a radio production company called Somethin’ Else with my former colleague Jez Nelson. It became successful and was a brilliant creative business to be a part of. After 18 years, I stepped down as CEO because I had a young son and felt it was time for a change.
I’ve always been interested in the big issues in society, so I have sat on a lot of boards over the course of my career. I was a non-executive director for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for a time and was on the National Employment Panel too. Then, last year, I got an exciting phone call from a head-hunter about the role of Master of Jesus College, Cambridge.
When I was appointed, I became the first Black woman to hold the post in any Oxbridge college. That gives me a sense of responsibility, but I didn’t apply to the job hoping to make history. It wasn’t about that for me; it was about returning to Cambridge and being part of a community that I loved so much.
This is a job I will have for 10 years. My role as Master is multi-faceted. I represent Jesus College within the university, attend dinners, ceremonies, graduations and make speeches. I look after the vision and direction of the college. I also have a great relationship with its students and I make sure I’m always approachable. I love to hear about their courses and their hopes for the future.
Over the next decade, I’ll meet so many more students who will come through and go on to do great things. I hope that they remember me and think of me as someone who was helpful. Our university years are so formative and Cambridge has such a great legacy. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that.
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