Behind the scenes of the University's new videos with Courtney Daniella
Alumna and YouTube influencer Courtney Daniella is the face of a new social media campaign to encourage more students from under-represented groups to consider Cambridge.
Cambridge announced earlier this month that it was making progress on widening access to the university with the proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic students at a record high of 23.5%. However, 2.4% of the undergraduate population in this year’s intake were Black compared with 3.4% of the UK population.
YouTube vlogger and Robinson College alumna Courtney Daniella, 22, presents five films addressing popular misconceptions about Cambridge, offering tips on how to make a successful application and finding out what sixth formers really think about the institution.
We spoke to her about her journey to the University, and how she got into YouTube and widening participation.
Q&A with Courtney
What was it that made you decide to come to Cambridge?
"I think it was realising 'you actually got good grades, you're actually smart'. I've always been very self-conscious, and very conscious of my surroundings. Realising that being from a working class background - my parents are immigrants and, you know, living on this council estate - it doesn't mean that you won't be able to achieve anything, despite the fact that the statistics tell you something different. Your school may tell you something different because everyone's trying to keep your expectations kind of manageable and realistic, right? But the reality of my situation was, actually, I could go to Cambridge. That's something I could actually achieve.
"[I was] very scared in the beginning, didn't want to apply, ended up applying simply because of the premise 'this could open doors for me, this could open doors for my family, and why not give myself the best opportunity, and the best education, and let my mind reach its potential?' So that was why I came."
How did you become involved in access and widening participation to higher education?
"I was a huge fan of the ACS [Cambridge University African Caribbean Society] before I came. To hear that there's a black community here - when I came, they were all I was looking for. Forget any other society! So I went there, I became an ACS rep, and then decided that I wanted to run for President, ended up getting Vice-President, and then later becoming the President. A huge part of the ACS, all of us in the committee mentioned, was 'we want to start doing a lot more with access'. We were looking a lot to Oxford ACS at the time and it happened that my best friend was their President. I was like 'anything you do, we're going to do it as well' because their ACS was notorious. And we just started to put stuff out - especially because at the time I had started my YouTube channel. I knew the power of the media, and how far it reached.
"And that's when things started going, making headway. We had an amazing committee, who raised a lot of money, got the society out of debt, and allowed us to put on some amazing events - [including an] access conference, the first ever access conference. And it was just phenomenal. That's how I got involved. It was mainly through the ACS and then my own channel.
"For me, I wanted people to understand I'm not the model student, I'm not here to give you a billion tips - I don't know, I don't have a clue! But what I can do is show you that someone like you can be here, you know? In whatever capacity, whatever struggle you go through, someone like you can actually be here. And that was always the message that I wanted to send - a very hopeful, uplifting, also transparent, story. You may think Cambridge is one way, but it's actually not because I was in your exact shoes, you know, a year ago.
"I wanted people to have accessible resources because I used to do a lot of school visits, physically having to go to these schools. Sometimes it was a bit lonely, sometimes the students just didn't really care, or you had to go through these gatekeepers. But when it's on the internet, your curiosity will lead you to it, so that's why I did it on my YouTube channel."
What do you enjoy most about your YouTube work?
"Meeting people! Because it's hard work, right? Coming up with ideas, setting up the camera, setting up the lights, like you're already out of breath and it's like I've got to sit in front of it, you know, go through all of this and then finally edit the video and you're not even sure if it's going to get a good reception... But then you meet someone walking down the street, somebody comes up to me like 'oh my days, are you Courtney Daniella?' and I'm like 'yeah'. And they're like 'this is how you helped me'.
"What more could you want in this life, to hear that you're doing something you love and it's helping someone? That's my favourite part. And it's sad because that's the bit right at the end but it makes everything else worth it."
What has been your favourite moment so far?
"Good question! Ultimately, I think it has to go right back to the beginning with the first video I made with my best friend, literally talking about how we got into Oxford and Cambridge. That video was done with such pure heart. I did one previously about how my first year went, which was great because it was just me being open and honest. And I was scared. I felt like 'what if the University sees this? I could be in trouble'. I literally got a call from my mum right after like 'put the video down...' I was like 'no, it's going to help people' and she said 'no, they're going to send you home'. And then me and my friend were talking and we thought 'we wish we had been able to meet people like us and talk to us about the reality of being at Oxford and Cambridge' and I was like 'let's make a video'. And at the time, I had like 600 subscribers. So I was like 'let's just [do it]... it'll be there forever and anyone can [find it]', and we filmed it.
"We were showing people that we are the same two North London girls, same banter, same slang, same way of speaking. And we're here, we're sitting in my university. It was just the most authentic and free-flowing thing... there is nobody I would have wanted to do it with but her. And especially because of our journey, having been with each other at school and then sixth form and now at these universities. That would have to be mine, that is still my favourite thing, because that's what everyone refers to, 'I remember when I saw that video of you and Renee' and I can refer people back to it now. As much as being informative, it was representation. Yeah, that's my favourite, the genesis of it all."
What are you looking forward to next?
"I'm doing a lot of stuff around giving people the education and finance to start their businesses. It's going to start in my field, which is the hair and beauty industry, which is what I have a business in now, but branching into events and courses, and resources that young people can use to really get their creative side going, but also just achieve some sort of freedom with starting their own project and finishing it. I think there's so much need for the creativity and the purpose inside of people to just come out. And a lot of times people can't do that, because they lack certain opportunities, they haven't got certain doors open to them.
"For someone like me who has come here, that is a privilege that I've earned. Now I can use it to help other people who may not get admission into this University but they can leverage off that. Those are the projects I'm looking forward to, really branching out and helping them because I believe in the social responsibility of every individual. So there's that. We're starting a natural haircare company and also a hosiery company, which will empower tall women, because as you know I'm very tall. So I'm really looking forward to that. Everything just comes back to how do we empower, encourage and inspire other people?"
The social media campaign
The social media campaign Get In Cambridge launched on 10 June with Courtney taking a wry look at Cambridge ‘Myths Versus Reality’, which address untrue assumptions about the University that put students off applying.
The series features 26 films encouraging students from under-represented backgrounds to apply. These range from students at schools with low numbers of pupils going on to university, to the UK’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.
Each of the 26 films features current undergraduates – who all attended state schools - telling the stories of their journeys to Cambridge as they invite cameras into their rooms, libraries, supervision sessions and nights out.
Vloggers are increasingly working with universities to boost such access efforts. Director of the Cambridge Admissions Office Jon Beard said: “While filming the series, at least half a dozen students stopped Courtney on the street to thank her and tell her she was the reason that they were here. It shows what a huge influence they have.
“Admissions statistics released on Thursday [6 June] show a rise in the number of students who are from state schools, disadvantaged backgrounds, and ethnic minorities. But there is still work to be done in reaching those with the talent and drive to study here who may think Cambridge is not for them."