Changing times: the future of UncoverED
As the first phase of the UncoverED project comes to an end, we reflect on its successes and look forward to what the future holds.
The UncoverED project aimed to re-discover the University’s global alumni community from the 1800s to the 1980s.
Many notable alumni have not received the recognition that they deserved and the project has helped to bring to light many who had slipped through the cracks of history.
The project, led by PhD student Henry Dee and supported by student researchers, found a number of alumni who have made incredible contributions to society, yet were sadly forgotten.
The research into finding Edinburgh’s forgotten global community started in September 2019, aiming to look at BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) alumni who had studied at the University and went on to achieve incredible things.
A website was created by Edinburgh Global’s Communications team to display the alumni who had been rediscovered, along with two exhibitions focusing on different times and themes.
The exhibition, which is currently running in the Chrystal Macmillan building, will also be part of the European Conference on African Studies. The conference, which is being held at the University in June, will be attended by 1,500 leading researchers, policy makers and leaders from around the world.
Reflecting on the significance of the project, Professor James Smith, Vice Principal – International said:
UncoverED is a vital project. All institutions have a responsibility to examine their histories and universities are no exception. Universities don’t sit apart from society, they are intrinsic to society. That this project has been led and undertaken in such a nuanced and critical way is a testament to our students and I’m excited to see the next phase unfold and listen to the broader conversations and responses it will spark
Henry Dee, PhD student and Project Lead said: “The project so far has started important conversations about how embedded in imperial networks the University of Edinburgh was. There are numerous references to Edinburgh being an (if not the) "imperial university", with considerable numbers of students coming from across the British empire to study here, but also numerous graduates going on to play an important role in different parts of the British empire, as medics, mercenaries and missionaries.”
The UncoverED team have also held a successful thematic workshop focusing on the question, “Why did Asian students come to Edinburgh?”. Student researchers, Dingjian Xie, Devika and Ara Kim talked about the lives of Wong Fun, Yuan Changying, Lim Boon Keng, Dhanjibai Naoroji, Meher Nauroji, Yun Posun and Chang Taek-Sang.
We talked about the importance of missionary networks - often based on Scottish/Edinburgh-based missionaries. Dhanjibai Naoroji was the first Parsi convert in India, Wong Fun travelled to Britain through missionary networks and later worked for the Edinburgh Medical Mission, while Yun Posun and Chang Taek-Sang both grew up in Christian households in South Korea. We also discussed the class position of early graduates - often they were either from well-connected, often pro-imperial families. Lim Boon Keng was from a successful business family, Meher Naoroji was supported by the royal family of Kutch, and the grand-daughter of Dhanjibai Naoriji, the first Indian MP in Britain or families to ties with these same missionary networks - but at the same time, they often still faced huge barriers both in Edinburgh, and after graduation, based on their race and gender.
The research and promotion of the prominent alumni featured in the project has led to a greater awareness around the University. Staff and students voted to name the School of Social and Political Science PhD research space after Dr Kasaveloo Goonam, a Indian-South African medic and freedom fighter who graduated from the University in 1936.
The project has helped to bring to light that more has to be done to recognise these graduates who went onto do miraculous things with their lives. It’s hoped that as the project continues and awareness grows more can be done to help recognise the uncovered alumni.
Over the course of the year, the student researchers trawled through the archives of the Student newspaper, which highlighted the racism and discrimination that was faced by many international students during their time at the University. The students often found it difficult to read about the level of discrimination that was prevalent throughout society during these times. Family members of the alumni who were discovered, were also contacted sharing information, stories and photographs with the project.
It was discovered that many pioneering students from around the globe chose to study at the University. One of the earliest Chinese students and the first western educated doctor in China, Dr Wong Fun was educated here, graduating in 1955.
Sadly, many of the female graduates throughout the years didn’t gain as much recognition as their male counterparts. The first Chinese female Master’s student in British history, Yuan Changying chose to study at the University, going on to become a renowned novelist and helping to influence the feminist movement in China. The University also educated West Africa’s first female doctor, Agnes Yewande Savage, who studied at the University of Edinburgh from 1923.
The project found that a considerable number of doctors on Caribbean slave plantations and on slave ships were Edinburgh trained – with many owning slaves themselves. However, the project also found that Edinburgh graduates from the Caribbean Africa and Asia were the first to contest racial discrimination, including Jean-Baptiste Phillipe who contested the fact that black doctors could not get jobs in the Caribbean. In 1927, students and graduates from the University successfully contested “colour bars” when they were introduced in bars and restaurants.
The work by Edinburgh Global
All of Edinburgh Global Communications team are involved with this project and will continue to support it through its extension. Kirsty Gillies, Head of Communications and IT, provided support with all aspects of the project, from student recruitment to helping to organise the exhibitions and ensuring the copyright of photographs.
Working with the research team on the website, exhibition and promoting the project to highlight these previously unseen biographies has felt like an important task, to do justice for the alumni featured and for the work of the researchers to have real impact. The diverse stories that have been brought to light are fascinating; showcasing them, digitally and physically, is the first step in recognising the significant contributions these alumni made and the struggles they faced.
As many of the images were old and the resolution sadly too low, Yaz Serrano, Design Assistant, provided illustrations which are displayed online and at the exhibition. Sophie Craik, Digital Communications Officer, and Samantha Allan, Digital Communications Assistant, designed the UncoverED website, text graphics and created features to help promote the project. Claudia Baldacchino, Communications Assistant, designed images which were used on the Edinburgh Global website to help promote the event. Nic Cameron, Communications Assistant, created video and photography content for the project, and designed the brochure that will be distributed at the European Conference of African Studies.
The second phase of the project will be funded by the College of Science and Engineering as part of their centenary celebrations. The project will focus on global alumni from CSE over the past 100 years as part of the College’s centenary celebrations.
When I looked at the exhibition online, and at Chrystal Macmillan, I was struck by the way in which it highlighted an aspect of the University that's been conspicuously under-reported over the years. The characters and stories were fascinating, and in many ways inspiring. Given that KB100 is intended not only to celebrate our history over the last century, but also to look forward to the coming decades, the existing exhibition struck a chord with us, and made us want to do something similar for the College.
Focusing on similar themes to the first phase of the project, the research will look at student and staff diversity within CSE between 1920-2020.
Peter Reid said: “We hope that the stories uncovered by the student team will open people's eyes as to the diverse nature of those people who have helped shape our College, and in turn were shaped by their life and work in Edinburgh.”
The UncoverED researchers plan to commence their research in September this year, with their findings cumulating in an exhibition. The team will also create web content for the CSE’s centenary website with new blogs also being added to the UncoverED website, which will continue to be maintained by Edinburgh Global’s Communications team.
View the UncoverEd website