Helping working-class students to feel seen 

Nadine Cavigioli, Deputy Programme Manager for Learning and Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Centre and Research Fellow in the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE), University of Leeds reveals how expressing diverse identities can build a sense of belonging at education institutions. 

Race, class and me: Exploring student authentic self and belonging is a two-year research project I’m involved with in collaboration with Dr Kendi Guantai from Leeds University Business School, and Dr Salma Al Arefi from the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering. 

The project deals with lived experiences – in the first year those of Black and/or working-class students at the University of Leeds, in the second specifically women studying Electronic and Electrical Engineering. 

We don’t talk about class 

My motivation for focusing on working-class students comes from my own lived experience. 

I first joined the University in 2007 as a mature part-time student completing a teacher training qualification. I’m from a working-class, low-income background, and was the first in my family to go to university. I found the ornate campus architecture – combined with meeting Doctors and Professors – hugely overwhelming at first. In my mind it felt like everyone at Leeds was middle class and came from academic families. 

Spoiler alert: I was wrong. 

Fast forward to 2012, by which point I was both a part-time doctoral student at Leeds and employed as a Teaching Fellow in the Lifelong Learning Centre. Both my doctorate and my teaching practice were focused on students who were often from backgrounds similar to mine. Social class isn’t a protected characteristic like age, disability and race, so in the UK it’s normally referred to in other ways – statistical labels like ‘POLAR4 quintile 1’, for example. But this isn’t how I or many of the students I teach describe ourselves. 

Why is this a problem? 

We’re working class and most of us want to be understood on the basis of this as our core identity. 

We want our experiences to be told, because when we’re in middle-class spaces – such as research-intensive universities – we can feel overwhelmingly different and can have issues fitting in (eg ways of speaking, middle-class lived experiences that we don’t share, etc.) 

Working-class students at Leeds often assume that staff and students in our community are privileged, coming from middle or upper-class backgrounds. I know I did. It can sometimes bring up feelings of shame and embarrassment – “What’s a seminar?” – and we can feel excluded from extracurricular activities due to having to work and/or having caring commitments. 

These differences in social class can be critical to whether a student feels a sense of belonging and the ability to express their authentic self. 

International students can experience financial hardship too 

We’ve spoken to 11 students as part of our project for LITE, two of whom I’ll discuss here – Maya, an international student from Southeast Asia, and Kate, who’s from the UK. 

Kate identified as being working class straightaway, but Maya initially referred to themselves as being middle class before admitting that they came from a financially disadvantaged background. 

I have to admit, up until a few years ago, I used to assume that international students at Leeds were financially privileged. It was a genuine shock for me to hear that we have international students who come from very low-income backgrounds, and due to this they typically have additional worries such as being reliant on Government scholarships. 

As someone who describes herself as a “poor immigrant”, Maya is perhaps not who universities have in mind when thinking about international students. Maya described their “starkly different” life compared to richer international students as “mind-blowing”. 

Low-income childhoods 

Both Kate and Maya faced financial hardship growing up. Maya was raised for most of her childhood by her grandparents, as her mother went to work as a care worker in the UK to provide for her daughter. Kate was raised in a large family with several siblings; their mother did not work so the only source of income was their father working a part-time, low-paid job. 

Both students referred to feeling so “poor” (Maya) and “embarrassed” (Kate) that they only brought a couple of friends back to their childhood homes. These experiences resonated with me greatly – as a grammar school kid I felt this way about my family home too. 

Imposter syndrome 

Both Maya and Kate highlighted issues with their student accommodation, including the need to limit heating due to the cost of bills. They talked about “masking” and feeling like an imposter – evidence that they still don’t feel comfortable just being themselves. 

As a working-class student at Leeds, I also hid my background in an attempt to fit in with what I perceived to be my privileged peers. Even now, as an academic with a doctorate, I can still experience a sense of being an imposter. 

We don’t leave our past experiences behind – these memories sit very much with us today, shaping who we are and how we behave with those around us. For students, and even for academic staff from working-class backgrounds, the thought that “I’m not meant to be here” can be hard to shake. 

What can be done? 

I want to stress that we absolutely do have staff throughout our institution who identify as working class or have working-class heritage – something I really wish I’d known back in 2007! 

However, knowing that our working-class identity is not always easy for students to recognise, I feel strongly that we should consider revealing this part of our identity. 

Knowing that there are others “like us” in the University community can help build a sense of belonging, and enable students and staff to bring their authentic, working-class selves to Leeds. 

Get involved

If you’re a member of staff or a postgraduate researcher, and identify as coming from a working-class background, please consider joining our new Working Class Network. We have regular meet-ups, with working-class guest speakers sharing their experiences and discussions of how to better support working-class students.