Joy Seddon, selected for the MBE, offers Cambridge’s overseas students a sense of belonging.
On two occasions every year — the New Year, and the Queen’s official birthday in June — lists appear of the names of people who have been awarded honours.
Many of those in the lists are the “expected” names — senior civil servants, senior military people, some academics, business people and politicians. For that reason, the lists are not usually of much interest to most “ordinary” people.
And then, on occasion, something different happens. An honour is awarded to someone who is not nationally famous, but someone who very clearly deserves the honour, someone who has made a great contribution, often behind the scenes, to the way society works.
In the latest New Year honours list, which has just been published, there is an excellent example of such a person. She is Joy Seddon, who has been awarded an MBE, for the services she provides to Cambridge overseas students, without fuss or search for publicity.
She reaches out to students from overseas countries and offers them a sense of belonging. She works through a university society she founded — Welcome International Students of Cambridge (WISC) —which she operates without any funds.
Its main aim, to quote from its very simple constitution, “is to give students an experience of British culture and way of life, free of charge, make their time in Cambridge as enjoyable and productive as possible, and to promote relationships/interaction between international students in Cambridge and local families”.
This sounds simple, but it involves Joy in a great deal of work. Not least is the provision of Christmas lunch each year to a group of students who are staying in Cambridge. Given the fact that during the Christmas holiday period the colleges effectively shut down social activities, this is something of major importance; being a solitary student during the Christmas period can be a very lonely experience.
There are many other things that WISC does, notably arranging for overseas students to meet local families, and get some sense of what life is like outside their immediate university background.
Of course WISC has a student committee. It also has a website — run by one of the students.
One fascinating fact about Joy is that she does not use a computer, and therefore does not, for example, communicate by email.
The immediate reaction to that fact is quite likely to be: “Then how on earth does she communicate with her student friends?” It is an unsurprising reaction, but one of the many surprising things about Joy and what she does is that what she offers is far deeper than technical communication. She offers friendship, and it is greatly appreciated. Her “alumni”, living and working in many different countries around the world, look back on their time at Cambridge with many positive memories. Among the most positive is the warm friendship that was provided to them by Joy.
It is easy to become cynical about the annual honours lists. It is easy to see them as simply a means of giving official recognition to people who are already well known, and well rewarded for what they do. Why, one is sometimes tempted to ask, do we go through all the performance of giving them titles, or letters to put after their names?
Then sometimes, we find in the list of recipients of honours, someone who is not a national figure, who does not hold an important public office, but whose contribution to society is enormous.
Joy Seddon is such a person. The things she does, the help and hospitality she offers to students (and which she has offered over many years) are done not because of a wish to be publicly noticed, but because she sees a need, and has a strong wish to meet it.
Well, this year she has been publicly noticed, and I hope that will have given her some, albeit unexpected, satisfaction. It has certainly given satisfaction to the many who have benefited from what she does, and to those of us who have been privileged to be aware of it.