Originally established in 2019 as a group of students petitioning for name-blind applications, the Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Students’ Network became an official subcommittee of the Students' Association in August of 2020. In July of 2021, they published their BAME Action Plan, written in June of 2020.
At the time of its publication, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sally Mapstone responded by calling the BAME Action Plan, “a compelling and revealing report, necessarily uncomfortable in places, but positive, forward-looking and already driving lasting change.”
The Saint sat down with Ananya Jain, BAME Students’ Network President and Association BAME Officer to discuss the BAME Students’ Network’s unusual roots and ever-expanding ambitions.
“The BAME network started in 2019. It was an informal Facebook group chat, and there were two students at the university who, at that time, wanted to petition for name blind applications at the University. So they actually just put together all the black students they knew at the university in a group chat, and then it grew to other ethinic minority students. It was not really regulated. There were a couple of admins of the chat, and it was very informal,” Ms Jain explained.
It was the Black Lives Matter protests of the summer of 2020 which transformed the BAME Students’Network into a permanent institution.
Ms Jain said, “A student wrote an open letter to the university about [the protests] so it was basically a very long process, and somewhere during just looking at the amount of change that needs to happen at the University, and during the authoring of the BAME Action Plan Report, I had the idea along with a couple of other people to make this an official subcommittee because we were quite surprised that it hadn't already been done.”
And the full force of the BAME Students’ Network’s impact is felt in the connections it fosters, connections which are central to the mission of the organization.
As Ms Jain put it, “I think the aim of the BAME Students’ Network is to help students from different backgrounds or different ethnic minorities just get to know each other and feel a sense of community. Because yes, it's a known fact that there's less of us in St Andrews, but the community in itself is very supportive and strong. So it’s a community for students beyond anything else.”
Importantly, the BAME Students’ Network is for everyone, no matter how they identify, or even if they are uncomfortable with the term ‘BAME’ itself.
“I do know, and it's completely valid, that a lot of people don’t identify with the term BAME and have problems with it, and that's fine [...] everyone should be able to identify with the label or should not have to have a label that they don’t want to,” Ms Jain said.
Of course, the BAME Students’ Network wasn’t immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with much of their work having to move online.
“A lot of it was virtual, so it was super challenging, but we just had a bonfire and even though that seems like such a basic event, most people who came just said that, ‘We’ve never seen so many people of color at this university in one space together’ so it was a first,” Ms Jain said.
This year, though, there are plenty of opportunities to get involved. One way is through the BAME Students’ Network new volunteer program, which allows individuals to get involved with the Network without having to commit to a full time position.
“We’re hoping to run very regular events now and BAME students are welcome to just come along, know what we do, and just socialize if that's what they want to do,” Ms Jain said.
She continued, “We also run a volunteer program. It's our first year trying it out. So the idea is that a lot of students may want to get involved in the behind the scenes [...] of things we do, of things we run, but they might not want to commit to being on committee, or they might have missed the opportunity to apply.
“So we're trying to run a volunteer program where if you sign up to our mailing list and you say, ‘Okay, I want to be notified to volunteer with you,' we'll just send you a message or an email when we have an opportunity. For example, if we need an extra set of hands to help plan an event, and if you're available, you can just come help us out in the short term.”
The interactions students have with each other are an important part of starting a wider conversation about the BAME experience in St Andrews, which can often be different than that of their white counterparts. But having a community of people with shared experiences can make things seem less isolating.
“We try to get people to meet each other, share their differences, share their similarities. Because even though we’re BAME, there’s a lot of differences,” Ms Jain said.
She continued, “Making sure that people know there are other people like them here with similar experiences, that they’re not alone.
“I would say that in terms of helping people cope with how white this place is or just giving them a place to go where they're accepted just as they are, we just try to get people together and share their similarities and differences”
And the BAME student experience can also come with added pressure simply stemming from a person’s identity.
As Ms Jain explained, “There is this expectation that, ‘Okay, I’m a BAME student, now I have to go and change things’. Or there's also this interesting expectation that if I’m a BAME student, I should be involved in this, but I think that's very unrealistic.
“So I think there’s that aspect which we don't talk about quite often because it sounds a bit strange. But I think the acceptance that just because you identify as BAME doesn’t mean you have to actively advocate for inclusivity and equality. I don't want it to sound like I’m saying that people should not be inclusive and equal, but it’s as if BAME people or people identifying as ethnic minority have to go out and change things, and that's not how it should be.”
She added, “I think if we have more awareness around the disproportionate burden placed on just... even like coming far away from home, experiencing a completely different culture, not being able to get your braids done because of a place like St Andrews. I think an awareness and an acknowledgement of the fact that these issues exist, and they're completely valid, and legitimate, and they're not excuses, they are very valid reasons to be feeling a certain way is the way to go forward.”
Ms Jain highlighted the importance of making the wider university community aware of systemic issues, and pushing for continued accountability.
“I do think there is awareness now, at least within a certain set of people at the university. But I think it’s important to keep the engagement going because you can think about it once and, you know, it can just disappear. [...] You might think about it for a moment, but I think what’s important is to start thinking about these things all the time. So it shouldn't be an add-on or, ‘When will I think about diversity?’ shouldn’t be an add-on, but it should just be part of the way we live and think. It should just be part of our systems. And that's hard because obviously that has a lot to do with conditioning and how we grow up,” Ms Jain said.
One place these conversations happen is in diversity training. The University requires a module focusing on diversity and inclusion be completed as a part of matriculation. Ms. Jain expressed there is still more that can be done to make diversity training more engaging and impactful.
“I would like to believe that a lot of the current diversity training that was implemented this year gets the legalities right. Like it tells you what you should do, what your rights are, what you shouldn't do. There's a lot of scope for development of what you take away from a training.”
She continued, “I think with things like training, they do take time to develop and I would like to see more people get involved in the process of developing these things. I'm hoping we can run something like Got Consent. I don't know how fast it will happen, but I think that will be valuable because I do see that there is value in formal training, but I just feel like we have to change the way we carry out this formal training. It doesn't have to be like a bombardment of facts on people, it doesn’t have to even really test them, but they have to have something they should be able to take away from it that makes them think. I think that should be the goal of training and hopefully that's something we can work on in collaboration with the University [and] with other students reps.”
The BAME Students’ Network’s mission extends beyond the student population of the University of St Andrews. There is also an interest in improving outreach for BAME alumni and prospective BAME students.
“Whenever we do introduce ourselves, we say we’re a network for prospective, current, and alumni students because we believe that all of us have certain shared experiences that could help each other,” Ms Jain said.
“We’re in a time where right now there’s a lot of awareness about the fact that this university is very white, or the problems that BAME students go through, but there was probably a time very recently where this awareness just didn’t exist, and so many students would have to have graduated and gone through this uni with certain experiences which they could never share.”
When discussing prospective BAME students, keeping outreach engaging and honest would go a long way according to Ms Jain.
She said, “I think first and foremost, we don’t have to be performative and claim we’re really, really diverse. I think that’s important. I think yes, there’s a smaller BAME community here than in other places even than, for example, in England, and there needs to be an acknowledgement of that. But at the same time I think what could be super valuable is connecting existing students with prospective students so prospective students can actually get in touch with someone and ask them about their experiences. I think there needs to be a lot more outreach done specifically for BAME identifying students and I'm a huge advocate of things like that.”
Even with all the work they’ve done so far, the BAME Students’ Network’s work is far from finished. There is still much to do, and more people to get involved.
“A lot of last was spent setting things up and establishing our space at the university or writing actual descriptions for what committee members should be doing and things like that,” Ms Jain said.
“I think for the future of the Network, I would like to see it grow and expand. While we have a large committee right now I think because of just the amount of areas we work on, we work on things like wellbeing, we work on education, we work on access and outreach, we work on student experience, so it’s already a lot of things we work on. But I would like to see more students be involved.”
She continued, “When you’re on a committee you’re almost in an echo chamber so you think everyone knows what you're doing and everyone knows what's going on. But I want it to be beyond that, so I want to reach people we haven't already reached because currently our engagement is quite specific.”
“I also want to increase connections between the BAME Staff Network and the BAME Students’ Network,” she added, “because I think there’s a lot of scope for sharing of experiences and just working together.
“And I think most of all, I'm going to graduate this year. I'm in my fourth year. I just hope that in the future the Network could provide other people and incoming students the same kind of comfort that it’s provided me, and I just hope it keeps going. Because it's a very dynamic set of people as a concept, and I know the goals and the aims of the Network may keep changing, but what I want it to retain maybe five years down the road or ten years down the road is the sense of community it gives to people.
“Just because I don't think inclusivity equality diversity are the kinds of goals that have an endpoint. You can’t reach one place and say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re an equal society right now. We don’t have to get any more inclusive,’ I think there's always going to be scope for improvement and change. But I just want the network to keep working on that and working with as many different groups. Students, staff, university, Union, alumni.”