I thought I’d made it when I got to Cambridge University. How wrong I was | Daniella Adeluwoye

I was sold a dream of upward mobility. But from cash to culture, it’s clear my working-class background still counts against me

I’ve always been a diligent worker. Having had a part-time job in a fish and chip shop throughout my A-levels, I know what hard work means. When I received my offer to study at Cambridge University I was congratulated by my colleagues for finally “making it”. In the warm heat of June, a few days before my last exam, I thought this would be the last time I would smell the fish in batter as it hit the sizzling oil. I reflected on the idea that Cambridge meant I was finally competing on a level playing field with socially and economically privileged students.

Within my first four days at university, by which time tickets had already sold out for the winter ball, I realised this was not the case. Around me, students effortlessly parted with well over £100 for that one night out. I could only struggle to do the same, so I applied to work for half of the ball in order to enjoy the other half for free. It soon dawned on me that, for a working-class student, a Cambridge education did not give me equal status.

Instead, my first year has exposed the significant wealth disparities between me and other students. While they are comforted by their parents’ financial cushions, I have to think about the risks I take career-wise. I had hoped to pursue journalism. But in the work is often inconsistent and poorly paid. My privileged counterparts will be able to explore opportunities in the form of unpaid internships; I need a career path that provides monetary stability.

Research shows that Oxbridge graduates from more privileged backgrounds earn about £5,000 a year more than those that are less well off. When I discovered this, I was shocked. I’d been told by teachers that a Cambridge degree would be the “great equaliser”. After all, I had been chosen through meritocracy, selected on the basis of my ability. It didn’t matter where I had come from. I could achieve anything.

Now, as I enter my second year and feel closer to the jungle of graduate job-hunting, I have come to realise the power of financial patronage. These worries about money are shared by many of my working-class friends at Cambridge. One told me how she dreamed of pursuing a career in acting, but soon realised that the financial insecurity of that industry means that it won’t be an option.

I worry, too, that I do not display the “polish” that many recruiters seek. At one of the first talks I attended at university, the speaker made several references to 17th-century French politicians and compared them with contemporary British MPs. Each of the examples were greeted with bursts of laughter. Did I keep missing the punchline? How was I expected to know the biography of Louis XIV? This episode made me realise how strongly people’s very sense of humour was tied to class background.

Middle-class parents instil cultural wherewithal in their children, such as knowledge of the arts. I began to wonder: if I was unable to understand a highbrow reference during an interview, would the recruiter think I might not “fit in”? Would they be less likely to hire me? As I navigate Cambridge, I often feel alienated as student colleagues confidently charm their way through conversations – referencing their favourite poetry by the likes of Keats, Browning and Hardy. I could not name a single title.

Many working-class friends tell me they often feel isolated like this, too. I worry that, in job interviews, this lack of knowledge will be unfairly confused with my ability to do the job. At Eton they learn the art of “oiling”: how to charm your way to success. Maybe that’s how Boris Johnson got into Downing Street: not by merit or hard work but because of his lessons in charm and persuasion.

During freshers’ week, I overheard a conversation between students discussing their social networks. Their family friends ranged from various CEOs to big names in the City. These often help to “pull strings” for privileged students once they graduate. My parents cannot provide valuable connections.

I would urge schools and teachers to not raise expectations: not to paint an Oxbridge degree as a working-class escape route. It’s an empty promise. I was sold a dream of upward mobility, but my one year has already exposed this as being far from the truth. I’ve learned that our class shapes our economic, cultural and social capital, and much of our potential, from birth. This is something a Cambridge degree cannot erase.

• Daniella Adeluwoye is an undergraduate at Cambridge University


Daniella Adeluwoye

The GuardianTramp

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