Man Who Didn’t Read or Write Until His Late Teens Becomes Cambridge University’s Youngest Black Professor
A boy with autism who could not read or write until his late teens is now the youngest-ever Black professor at Cambridge University 20 years later.
As a child, Jason Arday was diagnosed with global developmental delay, which affecting his ability to learn how to talk and read.
Speechless until age 11, therapists even predicted he would spend his adult life in assisted living, requiring lifelong support.
The 37-year-old has now taken up one of the most prestigious professorships in one of the world’s top universities—and is the youngest Black person to do it.
Despite growing up with a learning disability in a disadvantaged area of Clapham, London, he had huge questions to ask the world.
Arday, who now teaches sociology, remembers thinking: “Why are some people homeless? Why is there war?”
“I remember thinking if I don’t make it as a football player, then I want to save the world.”
He finally learned to read and write in his teens and became a PE teacher after studying at the University of Surrey.
He knew he wanted to study and learn more, but had little training or guidance to do so.
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“When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing. I did not have a mentor and no one ever showed me how to write.”
“The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience.”
At age 27 he wrote on his bedroom wall at his parents’ house: “One day I will work at Oxford or Cambridge.”
He remembers his college friend Sandro Sandi telling him, ‘I think you can do this – I think we can take on the world and win.’
“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.”
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He wrote papers and studied by night, while working as a PE teacher by day—eventually becoming an acclaimed professor with two master’s degrees and a PhD in educational studies from Liverpool John Moores University.
While studying for his PhD in 2015 he co-edited a groundbreaking report for the Runnymede Trust, ‘Aiming Higher’, about racial and ethnic inequalities in British Universities.
He eventually published his first solo paper in 2018.
The same year, he successfully secured a Senior Lectureship at Roehampton University before moving on to Durham University, where he was an Associate Professor of Sociology.
He went on to another prestigious professorship at the University of Glasgow’s School of Education, making him, at the time, one of the youngest professors in the UK.
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He has since written books, and will now start at Cambridge on Mar 6th as Professor of Sociology of Education, hoping to inspire people from under-represented backgrounds to pursue higher education. Arday now joins five other Black professors at the institution.
“My work focuses primarily on how we can open doors to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds and truly democratize higher education.
“Hopefully being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally.”
And he might just save the world—or his own little corner of it.
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