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Man Who Learned To Speak At 11 & Read At 18 Becomes A Cambridge University Professor At 37

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Jason Arday

Jason Arday, born and raised in south London, was diagnosed with autism and global developmental delay at three years old, according to the BBC. Mencap defines global developmental delay as when children reach milestones, such as learning to read, at an older age than average. Though, inside Arday’s mind were questions that most children did not ponder.

“Why are some people homeless?” he wondered before he could speak. “Why is there war?” Despite his challenges, he became the youngest Black professor ever at Cambridge.

Jason Arday became a Cambridge professor at 37 despite learning how to speak at 11 & read at 18.

His ability to read and write was thanks to his mentor and college tutor, Sandro Sandri. He decided to pursue a Physical Education and Education Studies degree from the University of Surrey. According to CBS, he paid for his education by working at grocery stores and drug stores.

He started working as a PE lecturer at universities after attaining his degree, but at 22 years old, he already had a dream of completing postgraduate study.

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“Sandro told me, ‘I think you can do this - I think we can take on the world and win,’” he said. Arday spent his evenings writing academic papers and studying sociology. But it didn’t come easily to him at first.

“When I started writing academic papers, I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I did not have a mentor, and no one ever showed me how to write. Everything I submitted got violently rejected. The peer review process was so cruel, it was almost funny, but I treated it as a learning experience and, perversely, began to enjoy it.”

Against all odds, he earned two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in educational studies.

Arday brings a unique perspective to higher education since he grew up in a relatively disadvantaged area and taught there as a school teacher. So, he has a first-hand perspective of systemic racism in education.

In addition, pop culture influences a significant amount of his work, which he owes to his mother, who showed him a wide variety of music growing up to help him learn English.

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In 2018, he finally published his first academic paper and secured a lectureship at Roehampton University. Then he became an associate professor of sociology at Durham University. 

In 2021, he became one of the youngest professors in the UK when the University of Glasgow hired him as a professor of sociology of education. Now at 37, the youngest Black professor ever at the prestigious Cambridge University, he’s thinking about what his position can mean for others who faced similar adversities.

“Hopefully, being in a place like Cambridge will provide me with the leverage to lead that agenda nationally and globally,” he said.

Currently, he’s working on research on neurodiversity and Black students with Dr. Chantelle Lewis from the University of Oxford. Despite acknowledging the progress made, he believes his work is unfinished.

“Cambridge is already making significant changes and has achieved some notable gains in attempting to diversify the landscape,” he said. “But there is so much more to be done — here and across the sector.”

He admits that progress is not easy and will require skillful action. “Doing this right is an art — it requires real diplomacy, and everyone has to feel inspired to work together,” he said.

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Ethan Cotler is a writer living in Boston. He writes on entertainment and news.