Experiences in the Classroom and Beyond: The Role of Race and Ethnicity

Chetanraj Dhillon, Jennifer Kavanda Ebende, James Esson, Line Nyhagen and Alex Sherred

During the 2017/2018 academic year, staff and students in the School of Social Sciences conducted a research project on how someone’s race and ethnicity can influence their student experience here at Loughborough University (LU)[i]. The rationale for the project was data indicating that a degree attainment gap based on race and ethnicity exists here at LU. The degree attainment gap is “the difference in ‘top degrees’ – a First or 2:1 classification – awarded to different groups of students[ii]. In a previous blog post[iii], Nuzhat Fatima (former Loughborough Student Union Welfare and Diversity Executive Officer) provided an overview of the potential contributors to and implications of this situation for students.

Our study aimed to better understand the local factors at LU that may underpin the degree attainment gap between students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. To achieve this aim, we examined experiences both within and outside the classroom, taking into account the specific characteristics of the University, including the racial, ethnic and gendered composition of its undergraduate student body, the campus environment, and the market town that surrounds it. Crucially, we sought to include perspectives and experiences from students of white and black and other minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. This inclusive approach allowed us to identify perspectives and experiences that may be unique to the BAME student population at LU as well as those that may be shared by white and BAME students.

A key principle within the project was that students themselves are uniquely positioned to conduct research on the experiences of students. Therefore, a mixed team of BAME and white student researchers were part of the research team and helped carry out the data collection. Below, the student researchers provide some reflections on their experiences as part of the project.

Chetanraj Dhillon, Geography and Environment

Why this project?

There were three key reasons why I wanted to be part of this project. First, by the time I reached the end of my second year studying geography with economics, I had developed a strong interest in pursuing a career in academia. But while my grades indicated that I had pretty good analytical skills, I felt I lacked practical insights about what it is like to conduct research. Without these insights it was hard to determine whether academia was something I should pursue as a post-graduate. This project provided a way for me to get this first-hand experience conducting research. Second, and perhaps more importantly, this project gave me the opportunity to expand upon my knowledge of issues about ethnic and racial inequality within higher education, and contribute towards an endeavour which had the potential to significantly improve the wellbeing of current and future students at Loughborough University.

What was it like?

In a word, rewarding. This is not to say that the project did not have its challenges because it did – particularly recruiting participants for the focus groups. But being part of a highly supportive team of researchers where we shared ideas and best practice helped me overcome this issue. The project also enabled me to critically reflect on my experiences past and current where I was the recipient of hostility or awkwardness, which I could never establish with certainty were the result of pure chance or because of my ethnicity and appearance. Discovering that I was not the only one at Loughborough University to have had such experiences, nor such burning questions, provided me with a sense of comfort. On the one hand, I realised I was right not to assume that all these experiences were because of overt racism. On the other hand, my experiences and insights from speaking to participants and the other researchers did point to a concern that ethnic and/or racial prejudice, whether intentional or unintentional, has become commonplace on campus.

What have you taken away?

More than I have the space to elaborate on here. In particular, and beyond the development of valuable research experience that provided some useful transferable skills, I have come to better appreciate the wide range of experiences that individuals have while at university, and how these experiences can be impacted – for better or worse – by one’s race and/or ethnicity. Ultimately, I completed the project with a sense of satisfaction, reassured of the value of the work we did, and the necessity of further research on the topic of race and ethnicity, as well as other diversity factors such as gender and sexuality that shape someone’s journey through higher education.

Alex Sherred, Geography and Environment

Why this project?

Throughout my time at Loughborough studying Geography, I had a keen interest in human geography modules particularly related to issues surrounding ethnicity and racial differences. However, due to my desire to fulfil a career as a Meteorologist, most of my modules including my dissertation needed to revolve around physical geography where issues of social difference are not covered. This research project caught my attention because it enabled me to delve into issues on race and ethnicity outside of my taught modules, but in a context where I would still be guided by academic staff who could help me further my knowledge. Also, the research conducted could in turn could help Loughborough University understand student perspectives regarding the BME attainment gap within the higher education system, and potentially address issues students are having on account of their ethnicity or race.

What was it like?

Challenging and thought-provoking. All the student researchers found it challenging to recruit participants, but an additional area that I found difficult was being diplomatic when analysing and discussing the results. As a white person, I sometimes found it hard to understand the cause of the negative encounters my BAME peers/participants encountered. This was mainly the case where overt racism hadn’t taken place, but perhaps the participant encountered what they perceived to be a ‘micro-aggression’. The difficulty of making sense of these encounters is something that I discussed in project meetings with the project team, especially Chetanraj. But overall, being part of a project that aimed to gain perspectives into student experiences at Loughborough University from different ethnicities and racial perspectives enabled me to reflect upon my own ethnicity and race in relation to those of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.

What have you taken away?

A major outcome I found was that on one hand not one student experience is the same as another student’s experience regardless of ethnic or racial differences, but on the other, someone’s ethnic and racial identity has a significant impact on their overall experiences at University. On a more personal level, I have become more conscious of my own ethnic and racial identity as a white person, because before working on this project I didn’t really think about whiteness as an ethnic or racial category.  I am also more understanding and aware of the challenges and issues that people of ethnic and racial minority backgrounds face in higher education and in wider society.

Jennifer Kavanda Ebende, Politics and International Studies

Why this project?

Daunting. This was the initial feeling I had when my eyes landed upon the word researcher in the project proposal and job advert. Before encountering this project, I had always associated the word ‘research’ with post-graduates and academics. The idea of an undergraduate student being a researcher on a funded project was unheard of to me, so the chance to take up what seemed like a unique opportunity was appealing.  But what really drew me into the project, was the fact that I could see myself in it. The project focused on the degree attainment gap in the Social Sciences, Geography, Politics, History & IR departments here at Loughborough University, with a special focus on Black and Ethnic minority students – a category I fall in to. It was touching to see a prestigious University being so proactive in bringing about a change, so much so that I wanted to be a part of that change.

What was it like?

Being a student researcher was challenging, but it was the challenge that made the experience worthwhile. I found I had to exercise an immense amount of patience when searching for students willing to take part in the focus groups. My favourite part of the project was listening to Black students share their experiences of everyday life at Loughborough University, and while I had to maintain my position as focus group moderator, I could often relate to the many positives and the few negatives the participants shared within the discussion. One participant recounted an incident when a fellow student made derogatory comments about the food they were cooking. The criticism was because the food was from a different culture. This reminded me of a similar situation I had encountered in my first year, but because of becoming desensitized to these types of encounters I had never given it much thought. But participants expressed that students encounter such micro-aggressions regularly and while this leads to becoming desensitised to them, it adds to a feeling of being out of place at Loughborough University.

What have you taken away?

In retrospect the project has developed me in many ways. My analytical skills were pushed to the limit when analysing the data and contributing to writing the final project report. I also learnt how to conduct a focus group, which involved developing a range of transferable skills, such as communication, time management and leadership. I also learnt the importance of being a good listener. It surprised me to hear that the white students did not regard themselves as belonging to a race per se. This was interesting to me because it almost suggested that anything outside of white needed to be classified, alluding to ideas of it not being ‘normal’. I did feel a sympathy for all the participants that were interviewed. I felt a sympathy for the White participants who unknowingly enjoy the fruits of having a raceless identity through no fault of their own. I also felt a sympathy for the Black and Ethnic Minority participants, who are frequently met by the ramifications of having a race. After being a part of the project, I am more understanding that it is nobody’s fault as to why things are as they are. Centuries worth of ill practices perhaps could take just as long to unlearn, and many projects such as this one to dismantle.


[i] Contact persons for more information: Dr Line Nyhagen (L.Nyhagen@lboro.ac.uk) and Dr James Esson (J.Esson@lboro.ac.uk)

[ii] The Equality Challenge Unit – https://www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/student-recruitment-retention-attainment/student-attainment/degree-attainment-gaps/

[iii] http://blog.lboro.ac.uk/teaching-learning/2017/06/15/degree-attainment-gaps/