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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 November 2007, 00:14 GMT
Oxford pitches for black students
Jesse Jackson
Rev Jesse Jackson is in Oxford to be made an honorary fellow
A campaign to encourage more black students to apply to Oxford University is being supported by US human rights leader Rev Jesse Jackson.

Only 151 Oxford applicants last year were black, with 26 of them going on to win a place there, figures show.

The Aspire programme aims to discover why so few apply in the first place.

Mr Jackson will launch the programme and it is hoped the findings will help build the aspirations of black children to consider a university education.

The success rate for the 31 Caribbean black applicants was 16% - compared with an average of 28% among the total 13,000 undergraduate applications.

We are tapping into what is a nationwide issue but looking at it from the Oxford perspective
Myra Blyth, chaplain, Regent's Park College, Oxford

These figures were behind the launch of the Aspire research initiative by Regent's Park College Oxford, Canterbury Christ Church University and the Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) racial justice team.

Aspire has a team carrying out research with black teenagers.

The chaplain of Regent's Park College, Myra Blyth, said: "We are tapping into what is a nationwide issue but looking at it from the Oxford perspective.

"It is a major problem, not only in this country, but as Jesse Jackson is highlighting, in the States too."

The project will focus on contributing to mentoring schemes already in place and carrying out research to identify the stumbling blocks preventing youngsters from applying to university.

Learning curve

One student who beat the odds and made it to Oxford is 19-year-old Michael Isola, who grew up on a south-east London council estate and went through the state education system.

Michael Isola
Work hard, it always pays off
Michael Isola, Oxford undergraduate
He got straight As in A-level maths, economics, politics and general studies.

He is now in his second year at Regent's Park College reading philosophy, politics and economics and aspires to work in investment banking.

His first few weeks at Oxford were a huge learning curve, not just academically.

He said: "From my experience there weren't a lot of white people at my school, so coming to Oxford was a bit of a shock.

"My first term was difficult but I helped myself by getting involved in college life straight away - with football and rowing and the junior common room.

"The biggest challenge has been the academic leap and I have felt short-changed by the state system, but there has been so much support from the college and when I have struggled and needed extra help, my tutors have been available."

Oxford summer schools

"Mr Oxford" - as he is known by his London friends - has his own ideas about why so few black youngsters aspire to an Oxford education.

"People don't prioritise academic achievement from what I have experienced," he said.

"I think people follow the crowd and want to go somewhere they feel comfortable," he added.

How does he think you can motivate black youngsters to apply to university and aim for Oxford?

He said: "Work hard, it always pays off.

"You have got to believe in yourself and you might have to keep away from people who distract you.

"Just choose the right group of friends - of my two best friends one is an athlete and one wants to go into theatre.

"They both have ambition."

Michael is a perfect role model for the Aspire programme and he may well be held up as an example of someone who "made it".

The programme's researchers are completing a study of black London teenagers over the course of the next year and beyond if they can secure funding.

As part of the programme, these youngsters will be invited to summer schools at Oxford colleges to get a taste of university life.

Rev Jesse Jackson will help launch the Aspire programme when he is made an honorary fellow of Regent's Park College on 14 November.

He will use the occasion to give a public lecture to mark the 200th anniversary of Britain's act to abolish the slave trade, entitled Freedom and Education.

Rev Jesse Jackson on equality in education

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