Diagnosed with autism and global development delay in his early years, Jason Arday was unable to speak until he was 11 years old and could not read or write until he was 18. Now aged 37, he is about to become the youngest black person ever appointed to a professorship at the University of Cambridge.
Although he could not speak, the young Jason fervently questioned the world around him.
“Why are some people homeless?” he remembers wondering. “Why is there war?”
Born and raised in Clapham, south-west London, Prof Arday, a sociologist, says formative moments included watching Nelson Mandela’s release from prison on television and South Africa’s symbolic triumph in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
He remembers being deeply moved by the suffering of others and a strong compulsion to act.
“I remember thinking if I don’t make it as a football player or a professional snooker player, then I want to save the world,” he says.
His mother played a critical role in developing his self-confidence and skills.
She introduced him to a wide range of music in the hope this would aid his conceptualisation of language.
But it also kick-started a lifelong interest in popular culture that has characterised some of his research.
Supported by his mentor, college tutor and friend Sandro Sandri, Prof Arday finally began to read and write in his late teens.
He went on to get a degree in Physical Education and Education Studies from the University of Surrey before training as a PE teacher.
Growing up in a relatively disadvantaged area and then working as a school teacher, he says, gave him first-hand insight into the systemic inequalities that youngsters belonging to ethnic minorities faced in education.
At the age of 22, Prof Arday became interested in the idea of carrying out postgraduate study and spoke about it with his mentor.
“Sandro told me, ‘I think you can do this – I think we can take on the world and win’,” he says.
“Looking back, that was when I first really believed in myself. A lot of academics say they stumbled into this line of work, but from that moment I was determined and focused – I knew that this would be my goal.”
Learning to become an academic, however, was very difficult, particularly because he had little practical training or guidance about how to do it.
During the day, Prof Arday worked as a PE lecturer in higher education.
In the evening and night, his hours were filled drafting academic papers and studying sociology.
“When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing,” he says.
“I did not have a mentor and no-one ever showed me how to write.
“Everything I submitted got violently rejected.
“The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience and, perversely, began to enjoy it.”
Prof Arday went on to acquire two masters qualifications and a PhD in educational studies.
Asked when he realised he was a sociologist, he says it was probably in about 2015.
“On reflection this is what I meant to do.”
Eight years on, he is poised to become professor of sociology of education at Cambridge.
There are currently five black people who are professors at the university.
Official figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show how, in 2021, just 155 of more than 23,000 university professors in the UK were black.
Due to take up his new role on 6 March, Prof Arday has a particular interest in improving the representation of ethnic minorities in higher education.
“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratise higher education,” he says.
In 2018, Prof Arday had his first paper published and secured a senior lectureship at Roehampton University before moving on to Durham University, where he was an associate professor of sociology.
In 2021, he became a professor of sociology of education at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, making him, at the time, one of the youngest professors in the UK.
“Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally,” he says.
“Talking about it is one thing; doing it is what matters.”
In his current work on neurodivergence and black students, he is collaborating with Dr Chantelle Lewis from the University of Oxford.
“Cambridge is already making significant changes and has achieved some notable gains in attempting to diversify the landscape,” says Prof Arday. “But there is so much more to be done – here and across the sector.
“The university has some amazing people and resources; the challenge is how we use that capital to improve things for everyone and not just a few.
“Doing this right is an art – it requires real diplomacy and everyone has to feel inspired to work together.
“If we want to make education more inclusive, the best tools we have are solidarity, understanding and love.”