RARE  RISINGSTARS - The UK’s Top 10 Black Students
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No. 6

 

Melissa Owusu

MA Social and Political Thought
University of Leeds
Student Politics and Academics

JUSTIN MAROY
Try to imagine an ‘academic’. Did you think of a man? Someone white, old and in an ivory tower? Think again. Melissa defies every aspect of this stereotype. She is a young, black and energetic intellectual who communicates her ideas through the power of both the written and spoken word.

Born and raised in south east London, Melissa learnt about the value of hard work from her mother who worked three jobs to support Melissa and her two siblings. Hard work took Melissa from her failing school to a Russell Group university. In doing so, she left the diversity of her classroom behind and became one of few black women on her Politics and Philosophy course at Leeds.

“I see a lot of inequality around me…people value different forms of knowledge, art and creativity.”

For Melissa, being the exception in academic environments has always been part of her broader mission. From campaigning for better student work experience as Croydon North’s Youth Member of Parliament to her large scale projects at Leeds, Melissa is driven by critically improving the quality and variety of education for her peers. When Melissa was appointed as a School Representative for the Politics and International Studies (POLIS) department, she set up the first POLIS Ball, an initiative that connected students and academics. She also worked to change the controversial teaching of the ‘Freedom, Power and Resistance’ module, which was staffed solely by white academics. Melissa’s campaigning led to the representation of theorists of colour and she won a university award in recognition of her work.

This taste of educational change spurred Melissa to run as Education Officer on the Leeds Students’ Union in her second year. Though she was unsuccessful, Melissa decided to run again in her third year, winning with a huge margin. If becoming Education Officer was not achievement enough, Melissa was elected in style. Her campaign video, which parodied Stormzy’s hit ‘Shut Up,’ went viral, gaining nearly 45,000 views on Youtube and over half a million via Facebook.

“I hope for a different world. I want to conceive new philosophies on how we live and interact with each other.”

Melissa’s campaign is wholly reflective of her tenure as Education Officer. Driven by redressing the colonial bias that underpins both art and education, Melissa has worked tirelessly to improve the educational experience of students in Leeds and at universities across the country. Among her many achievements, Melissa successfully submitted a paper to the Leeds Taught Student Education Board. Her proposals on how to decolonise the curriculum were passed by senior members of the university, including the Vice-Chancellor, and her recommendations are now being implemented. Melissa was also instrumental in persuading the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the University to fund a BME Coordinator in the Students’ Union who would investigate issues such as the BME attainment gap. Melissa has managed to achieve all of this while completing a master’s degree, presenting papers at academic conferences, publishing her work in journals and delivering a TED talk on Decolonising the Curriculum.

Melissa has been able to bridge her academic interests with another one of her passions: grime. The viral success of her campaign video formed the basis for her budding music career. Questioning whether “is this actually real?” Melissa soon found herself opening shows for top UK artists including Section Boyz and Maverick Sabre as well as performing at the Victoria and Albert Museum and university campuses across the country. The Huffington Post UK recently followed ‘Melz’ around on her personal campaign trail to engage young people in politics ahead of the General Election.

Melz, the grime artist, will soon become Dr Melz once she completes her PhD in Social Theory which is due to start this September. These two strands reflect Melissa’s hope for a world in which different forms of knowledge and creativity are equally valued. Through her musical and academic talents, Melissa will continue to make strides towards this future.

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