Ashley John-Baptiste: B3, Fitzwilliam
Journalist and presenter Ashley John-Baptiste and first-year Geography student Stephanie Owen compare notes on their different journeys to Cambridge.
When it was time for him to come up to Cambridge, 18-year-old Ashley John-Baptiste (Fitzwilliam 2008) left behind the London council flat where he had lived after leaving the care system. “I remember feeling out of place,” he says, now sitting in the room where he spent that first year, B3 at Fitzwilliam. “I remember that feeling of disadvantage: am I going to be able to hack Cambridge? But, looking back, I flourished here. I was meant to be here.”
And walking into B3 – formerly known as B6 and, in John-Baptiste’s day, Bottom B – feels “weirdly normal,” he says. “Walking round College feels the same! It has the same textures, tones and smells – it’s a sort of wood-polish, soft smell that you get when you walk past the Buttery and the bar.”
The room is quite narrow, but does that clever Cambridge trick of packing a lot in, says current inhabitant Stephanie Owen (Geography, First Year). “I like the set-up, and the fact that we have spacious kitchens – with cookers! – and some shared living space. My room looks over the court, so you can see everything that’s going on. And if I keep my window open I can hear people’s conversations. That’s not as creepy as it sounds! It’s more that you feel like you’re always in College; you don’t feel siloed.”
Owen has surrounded herself with jewellery, clothes and posters, including a menu for beloved takeaway Gardies. “You’ve got a Gardies menu!” crows John-Baptiste. “That’s proper commitment to the Cambridge experience.” Neither of them, sadly, has hit the dizzy heights of having their photo on the Gardies wall, but Owen has hopes. “At least you’ve got the next two and a half years,” says John-Baptiste.
He didn’t bring much to B3, but what he did bring had a big impact. “All-purpose chicken seasoning!” he announces gleefully. “I was very sceptical about the seasoning game in Cambridge shops. I brought seasoning so if I cooked chicken, it would taste like the chicken I knew growing up.” It turned out to be a talking point. “In Freshers’ Week, we had a party and loads of people came back here and just scrutinised the chicken seasoning. But I brought lots of tunes as well. That’s what I was known for: tunes and all-purpose chicken seasoning.”
There were tough times in Bottom B as well, he says: coping with academic pressure and navigating a new community wasn’t easy. But Fitz dispelled a lot of Cambridge myths for John-Baptiste. “I was well-supported, and Fitz has a great culture for state school kids. You really do build a wicked, tight-knit community that for me was really important to get through the first year and this big, grand space of Cambridge.”
Owen’s background is very different. Cambridge is a familiar place in her family: her parents met here while her mother was at Girton and her father at Sidney. But she has found the same sense of community at Fitz as John-Baptiste did. “Meeting so many people is really important to me. I can see myself staying friends for a long time with the friends I’ve made here, even after only four months. Sometimes I feel that I don’t go to Cambridge, I go to Fitz which happens to be in Cambridge. Because it’s just so… normal. I won’t get to do this twice. I want to make the most of that. I want to grow up a bit in this environment with so many opportunities.”
John-Baptiste nods. “You don’t need my advice, but those opportunities are so important,” he says. “I was the access officer, and the stuff I learned from that was just as important as my degree – how to use your voice, advocate, speak to the powers that be. Looking back, I am grateful for two things: first, my start in life, as a person in care who was shunted between homes – that informs my work as a journalist and filmmaker; but also, my time here. I learned to navigate privilege, spaces and opportunities that I just didn’t have before I came to Cambridge.”
Ashley John-Baptiste is a BBC broadcast journalist. Stephanie Owen hasn’t made the Gardies wall at time of going to press.