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‘Believe in yourself and your ability to succeed’

Oxford Saïd’s first generation students reflect on their paths through higher education.

MBA students at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford enrol from all over the world, with over 60 nationalities represented in 2018’s class. However, nationality is far from the only variant in the MBA cohort. Our candidates come from a great variety of social backgrounds, including many first generation university students.

RJ Kelford enrolled at Oxford Saïd for its entrepreneurial focus and the diversity of its cohort. This stood in contrast to his undergraduate degree in Canada, which he described as alienating at times. ‘I felt like an outsider there,’ he said. ‘There’s issues I faced due to poverty that many of my classmates simply couldn’t comprehend. To them, it would sound like something off a TV show. One of the beauties of Oxford Saïd is, there is such variety here that everyone has a unique background. First generation students are just one of the many different facets.’

For first generation students, breaking the news to your family can often lead to mixed reactions, and Impact Investor Natalie Wong recalled how her parents found it hard to understand what was expected of her at University. ‘My Mom told me it was good enough just to pass, which of course I soon found out was not the case,’ she said.

Napala Pratini also felt disadvantaged during the application process: ‘I had no idea which universities were better than others or how to evaluate the offers. My parents were of course supportive, but they couldn’t offer the same insights that parents who had been through the process could.’

Other first generation MBAs described the negativity and disbelief they faced for choosing what many perceive as an unnecessary path, especially when they embarked upon a Masters. ‘My parents didn’t understand why I would give up a good corporate job with salary and benefits to pursue an MBA,’ recalled Mustapha El Akkari, who intends to return to his successful career at beauty care company Nu Skin upon graduation. ‘Once they understood that my past and future successes were due in part to my education, and the prestige that Oxford represented, they got it, and have since been very supportive.’

For RJ, the experience of being a first-generation university student from a disadvantaged background was the catalyst for his entrepreneurial career. ‘To be an entrepreneur, you’ve got to get used to not having money in your account, and that was something I had a lot of familiarity with. My aversion to risk was probably a lot lower than my classmates.’

RJ admits this adventurous streak could have landed him in trouble. Instead, he finished his undergraduate degree with a web design and strategy company that employed ten people. He and his business partner then transitioned to a mobile office and toured the world before taking up MBAs at Oxford and Stanford. 

One conclusion all the first generation students at Oxford Saïd draw from their experiences in higher education is that it had a profound impact on their lives. ‘Education has fundamentally changed my view of the world,’ stated Patrick Kolla, a Canadian MBA candidate who grew up in a small rural farming community. ‘It helped me realise the world is made up of people, and there’s no need to be intimidated. If you don’t have the knowledge you need, simply go out and get it.’

For Jared Retka, higher education provided the freedom to explore his passions. ‘It has empowered me with the confidence and capacity to contribute to making my community, whether local or global, a better place,’ he said.

Our MBAs share their advice for first generation university students:

‘Don't be intimated because you come from a different background - be bold, work hard and find a mentor if you can. Also, be kind to your parents as you take flight with the opportunities afforded by your education.’ – Natalie Wong

‘Don't doubt yourself just because you're a first generation student. People actually really respect first-generation students, so use it to your advantage – it's a hurdle that most don't have to get over, so you should wear it as a badge of honour.’ – Napala Pratini

‘The more you refine the skills that set you apart, the more powerful your impact will be – in the boardroom and your community, your education is what opens those doors to grow, serve, and lead.’ –  Mustapha El Akkari

‘If you have an idea of what you want to do start researching and see what it takes to get there. Then apply and you just might surprise yourself by getting in.’ – Patrick Kolla

‘Be bold and take chances during your education and when following your passions. Make sure to set specific goals along the way, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Most importantly, believe in yourself and your ability to succeed in your endeavours.’ – Jared Retka

‘Engage with the communities in your University and share the insights that you have gained from your own life. Lean into the help that’s available and be your authentic self.’ – RJ Kelford