Confessions of a first generation scholar: Reverend Professor David Wilkinson’s last talk as Principal of St John’s College

In a slightly chilly Leech Hall, we sat and waited to hear Reverend Professor David Wilkinson give his final talk as Principal of St John’s College. Friendly and outgoing, he apologised for the lack of hot Bovril and blankets to fortify us against the frigid air of the hall.  

Rev’d Professor Wilkinson grew up locally in County Durham, in the village of Annfield Plain, close to the town of Consett. The theme of his speech was his experience as a first-generation student, one of only three people from his year group who went on to higher education, coming to Durham University. From there he has led an inspiring life, from undertaking a PhD in astrophysics, to taking on a church posting as a Methodist minister in inner-city Liverpool that thirteen others had turned down over fears about living in the area. We were lucky enough to hear some of his insights and thoughts on how to live a happy and fulfilled life.

The Rev’d Professor Wilkinson explained the dire circumstances that hit the North East due to deindustrialization in the 1970s and 80s, as the steelworks that were the major employer in the area closed down when he was seventeen and he watched some friends remain unemployed for years. However, he also shared fond memories of growing up in a community where there were no locks on the doors, and recalled his own strong views at the age of ten, as he refused to attend the private school his parents chose for him on political grounds.

He was not sure if university would be the right place for him, but his plan was to do enough work to get him through the course and to focus mainly on playing cricket. Attending Durham came with its own culture shocks, from the private-school lad culture to the smell that permeated all-male Grey College, but the Rev’d Professor found that both his Christian faith and his cricket skills helped him to cross some of those divides. In a later response to a question about whether it has become easier to be a first-generation student, he emphasised that there is still progress to be made and it is important for everyone to remember that diversity is what enriches our community. 

He also entertained us with stories of memorable moments from his time at Grey College, including dipping his gown into the gravy at his first formal, and the stress that ensued from the college selling ball tickets in pairs, so that members of Grey would be obliged to brave Trevelyan College, at the time all-female, in order to find a partner to bring along.

Though he described his own career path as ‘chaotic’, what resonated with me was his idea that a vocation goes beyond a career, and that seeking to do good throughout whatever you accomplish in your life is in itself a vocation. These are comforting words to hear for students who are unsure where their next steps will take them and what they want to do with their lives. 

The Rev’d Professor moves on from the post of Principal to focus on his project of ‘Equipping Christian Leadership in the Age of Science’.  

Featured image by: Frank Samet

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