Life lessons from a south London girl to Kingston University graduates

I was hugely honoured to me made an honorary Doctor of Letters by Kingston University today, “in recognition of her contribution to journalism and gender equality”. Here’s the speech I gave at the graduation ceremony. You can watch it on YouTube here from 1 hour 39 m. And you can find the notes from past lectures I gave students by searching under Kingston University class notes.

Thankyou so much. When I was a little girl growing up in the 70s, we used to have to watch the Miss World beauty pageant to see women winning awards for anything, so we’ve come a long way.

Over the last year or so I’ve been having a new kind of anxiety dream — that I’m back at university. When I say back, I mean I’m the age I am now, but I forgot I signed up for another degree and I’m back on campus in a tiny student room, worrying about an imminent essay. In one case I dreamt I had to hand in a dissertation the next day and hadn’t had a clue. Wondered if I could busk writing 15,000 words overnight.  And also thinking I don’t know any of these people. Oh, and what about my children, and my job? How will I juggle them all?

I think it shows that even all these years later how great a challenge university study is. So while I want to say thank you so much, for bestowing this honour on me, I want to first offer my congratulations to all of you for reaching that peak.  Well done all of you. But also thank you so much to the university, for bestowing this honour on me. I’m really hoping this not a dream!

I grew up in New Malden, very much a local girl, and was always aware of the Uni, particularly its fame for its design and fashion courses, which as we’ve heard, are still such a huge part of this university. I love the legacy of this place, finding it in books I borrowed from the library, when I was visiting professor, that still had Kingston Polytechnic stamped in their covers. The kind of whole history of this place.

As a visiting Professor in the 2010s I was delighted to meet so many students, from all over the world and learn so much from you. Learn that your enthusiasm is what promised success. I gave one class on pop music and politics and there was an American student who knew all the answers to every question about British pop music history going back to the Beatles in the early 1960s, when the British students didn’t. I loved seeing that unexpected expertise from people. In the same way I still love my science fiction and my pop music, I would urge all of you to keep the spirit of your young selves in you, throughout your careers. That passion, that personal passion for your interests, that teenage you; the early twentysomething you. Never lose touch with that person. And always be true to yourself.

My mother, who is here now, – you may have guessed I’m of South Asian heritage. And I hate to bring up a stereotype but she always wanted me to be a doctor. And you know what kind of doctor; a medical doctor. And if I’m honest she’s still wondering now that I have this honorary doctorate whether she can tell people that I am a doctor. Sorry mum.

But, of course, my mother encouraged me to follow my own heart. And at a time when we know there are politicians talking about downgrading the value of arts and humanities degrees, I’m not downgrading STEM, but I think we must all be proud of these courses.

I once met a very senior computer expert who’d worked in Silicon Valley. This was a few years ago and we were at a science conference, talking about the future dangers of AI, and she said what AI reveals is the greater importance of human decision making, of creative thinking, of the human in all of this. So more than ever, if anyone tries to push back against humanities degrees, you absolutely need to stand up for them.   

My father encouraged me too – he never went to university. Or even finished school properly. But he knew the value of education and he encouraged me. And I know for some of you here, that may be true of your families. You may be the first generation to have attended university. And I congratulate you for all of that too.

My passion meant a degree in English literature and language. It wasn’t strictly vocational, but it taught me so much about critical thinking, and how to learn to trust your own instincts.  I’d always wanted to be a journalist. I was lucky enough to join the BBC as a graduate news trainee and have never, for a day, been bored. It’s been a privilege.

In fact, with my degree in English literature, when I interviewed the director of the Barbie movie, which if you haven’t seen you should, I brought up the fact that it was clearly inspired by the story of Lord Buddha, which it was, and no one else had spotted, and we also discussed Milton’s Paradise Lost. So your degree in humanities will take you anywhere you want.

So I want to thank to all our parents and guardians and carers for backing us to follow our hearts and study the degrees we wanted. Congratulations to all the parents and carers.

Thanks to my degree I have a mantra now, it is.. show me the data and I will show you the story. Whether that’s reading a report for a journalistic investigation, or someone’s bank statements, or working out when I’m being ripped off on pay.

I think it’s useful for you to know as well, what I wish I’d known when I was at university. 

First, being judged on my own hard work at school and university set me up with a confidence of knowing my own abilities. I want all of you with your degrees to take that confidence with you and never forget it.  Never doubt your abilities, no matter what others might say.

When I began my career I assumed discrimination had all been sorted. I really did. After all the Equal Pay Act and the Race Relations act and the Sex Discrimination act for 10-20 years when I went to university. So what I wish I’d realised, and want you to, is to never assume you’re being paid or treated fairly. Trust your instincts, to share pay information with colleagues, ask your employers for transparency and equal pay. To join a union. Stand together. I couldn’t have successfully sued the BBC for sex discrimination without the backing of mine, the National Union of Journalists and the amazing lawyers and all my colleagues and friends who supported me.

I like to think I’ve always had an instinct for justice and to uncover the truth. My mum says I do, and she’s always right. I’m proud of standing up for the parents of Rochelle Holness who was murdered by a serial rapist and then had a false story about her murder printed in The Sun, apparently fed by a Metropolitan police officer. I’m proud of reporting the so-called corrective rape and murder of lesbian women in South Africa – women like Eudy Simelane – and bringing global attention to the way the criminal justice system around the world and misogyny around the world still betray too many women.

When I made my BBC4 documentary series Art of Persia in Iran I showcased the Iranian people and their rich culture – to help us see they weren’t the same as the regime ruling the country.

I can’t pretend every story I’ve covered has solved anything, but shining a light on the truth is where we have to start if we want to make our world fairer. I like to think I’ve never given up hope and I hope you won’t either.

Of course, you’ve had challenges that my generation didn’t expect. There’s been the ongoing issue of strikes and I need to say I support the lecturers fighting for pay and conditions. It’s not right that there should be such a huge gulf between the pay of those at the top and the rest of us. I can’t believe it’s got so much worse in the last few years.

Then you faced tuition fees, and the pandemic. My own children are very much the same age as most of you. And I’m so aware how the pandemic has seen your generation suffer. Divisions are being sown between us again, amplified by social media. I hope you can try to limit its pernicious influence in your life. I’m a great fan of IRL. Going out and meeting people and doing things is essential to your wellbeing and making your life the way you want it to be.

I hope you can all appreciate how remarkable you are to have come through this difficult time and be here to celebrate. When it comes to the rest of your life, though it’s a long and hopefully exciting journey. You may pause or change paths; there may be setbacks. You don’t need everything mapped out now. So my one other mantra to you is.. remember it’s stamina, not speed.

Thank you again for this huge honour. And I wish you all the best for your future.

Graduation Oxford 1990 with my mother

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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