Sam Gyimah was born in Beaconsfield in 1976. After his family returned to Ghana he was educated at Achimota Secondary School, before coming back to England for the last two years of his school education. Gyimah came to Somerville in 1995 to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and during his studies was elected President of the Oxford Union. After graduating, he worked at Goldman Sachs, and in 2005 was voted CBI Entrepreneur of the Future.
In 2010, Gyimah was elected Member of Parliament for Surrey East and in 2012 he was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Prime Minister, David Cameron. In 2013 he was appointed a Government Whip, and in 2014 he became Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education. He was also appointed to a second ministerial post at the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for Constitutional Affairs. In 2018 he became Minister for Universities, Technology, Science and Innovation.
Gyimah rebelled against the government in 2019 when it moved to block a no-deal Brexit. He had the Conservative whip removed and subsequently joined the Liberal Democrats. He is currently a board member of Oxford University Innovation, a technology transfer and consultancy company which manages the research and development of University spin-offs. He has also re-joined Goldman Sachs as a non-executive director of Goldman Sachs International and Goldman Sachs International Bank.
Sam Gyimah on Somerville During his studies, Gyimah began to struggle financially and found that he could not afford to pay his rent. He was approached by Somerville’s Bursar and offered help: ‘So they converted my entire rent for while I was there into a loan which I subsequently paid when I graduated. Since then I’ve been involved with the college helping raise bursary funds for disadvantaged students.’
(1930-2021) – Politician and academicLearn More
Shirley Williams (Catlin) grew up in London. Her mother was the writer and Somervillian Vera Brittain. Williams came to Somerville in 1948 to read PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and was the first woman Chair of the Oxford Labour Club. After graduation, she won a Fulbright scholarship to Columbia University in New York, later returning to the UK to work as a journalist, and then as General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Williams’ political career took off when she was elected Labour MP for the constituency of Hitchin in 1964, and she rose to become shadow Home Secretary in 1971. When Labour returned to power in 1974, she was promoted to Cabinet, becoming Secretary of State for Education and Science in 1976. She lost her seat in 1979. With the Labour party becoming increasingly left wing, she joined with fellow senior labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. In the same year following a by-election, she became the country’s first SDP MP. Following a split in the SDP in 1987, the majority of its members voted in favour of a merger with the Liberals which become the foundation of the Liberal Democrat party. In 1993 she took her seat in the House of Lords as Baroness Williams of Crosby and was leader of the Liberal Democrats in that House from 2001 to 2004. Williams was the only British member of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) and was advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown on nuclear proliferation from 2007-2010.
Alongside her political career, Williams also worked as an academic. In 1987, she became Professor of Elective Politics at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. She also served on the Senior Advisory Committee of Harvard’s Institute of Politics and was involved in the development of emerging democracies in Eastern Europe.
Shirley Williams on Somerville ‘An Oxford education is, at its best, a fine training for the mind, but a Somerville education brings something else over and above that: a tenacity and persistence that gets things done… For me, the lessons of a childhood shared with a great Somervillian, and of a life lived and shaped by Somerville, are these: think, write and read, always; live and work vividly, and bring your mind to bear on everything, from the tiniest practical problem to the widest social issue; respect the views of others, and of the past, but don’t let that stop you being awkward when you need to be. Argue for what you believe, and do it well.’
Businesswoman and Chair of the Royal Shakespeare CompanyLearn More
Shriti Vadera grew up in Uganda before her family fled to India and later to the UK. She came to Somerville in in 1981 to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics).
After graduation, Vadera worked for investment bank UBS Warburg for over 14 years. Her work included advising governments of developing countries. From 1999 to 2006, she was on the Council of Economic Advisers at the UK Treasury. In 2007, Vadera was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for International Development in Gordon Brown’s government. She was created a life peer in 2007 as Baroness Vadera of Holland Park. She moved from International Development to the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) and in 2008 she also beame a Permanent Secretary in the Cabinet Office. From 2015 to 2020, Vadera was chairwoman of Santander, becoming the first woman to head a major British bank. In 2021, she was appointed Chair of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is the first woman and the first person of colour to chair the RSC. Vadera is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville.
Did you know? In 2018, in a conversation at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, Shriti Vadera said ‘I’m not a great fan of leaning in. You’ve got to own the talent you have… The single most important thing is to be comfortable with who you are and not have to be somebody else.’
(Born 1935) – Writer, studied English at Somerville 1953-55Learn More
Susan Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire and studied English at Somerville from 1953-1955, during which time she was the first woman to edit the undergraduate newspaper the Cherwell.
Following her time at Somerville, Cooper went on to work as an reporter for the Sunday times, whilst writing in her spare time. During this period, she began work on Under Sea Under Stone, the first story in her five-part series The Dark is Rising. She also published Mandrake in 1964, her second novel. In 1963, she moved to the United States to live with her husband Nicholas J. Grant, a professor of Metallurgy. Whilst living in America, she experienced very strong homesickness, which influenced her writing.
Cooper was influenced by her headmistress at high school to go to Oxford. Although Cooper failed her Latin entrance exam, her headmistress convinced her to take another year to study Latin, and then retake the exam. After being tutored by the local vicar’s wife, she succeeded, and spent three years reading English at Somerville. When studying at Somerville, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were teaching in Oxford, and although she never met them, she attended lectures given by them.
Did you know? When writing for the Sunday times, Cooper wrote for a column put together by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond books, who was just starting work on them.
Lexicologist and etymologistLearn More
Susie Dent came to Somerville in 1983 to study Modern Languages. She went on to take a Master’s degree in German at Princeton. She began working for Oxford University Press, and shortly after that, she appeared for the first time on Channel 4’s Countdown. Since 1992, Dent has made over 2500 appearances in the show’s ‘Dictionary Corner’. She is the Honorary Vice-President of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP: formerly the Society for Editors and Proofreaders), and the author of How to Talk Like a Local (Arrow Books 2010).
Did you know? In her talk for Somerville’s 2020 series The Upside, Dent selected some of her personal ‘words of the year’, including ‘Mumpsimus’ (someone who insists that they are right, despite clear evidence that they are wrong), ‘Stiffrump’ (an obstinate individual) and ‘Empleomaniac’ (a person whose thirst for public power and office know no bounds).
(1893-1970) – Writer and campaignerLearn More
Vera Brittain was born in Staffordshire. She won an exhibition to read English at Somerville. In 1915, after just one year, she left the college to work as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD). Brittain’s fiancé, her brother and two close friends all died during the War. When she returned to Somerville, she changed her degree course to Modern History, hoping to understand the causes of the conflict.
Brittain became a committed pacifist and in a 1930 Armistice Day article in the Manchester Guardian she framed the challenge for her generation: ‘How to preserve the memory of our suffering in such a way that our successors may understand it and refrain from the temptations offered by glamour and glory – that is the problem which we, the war generation, still have to solve before the darkness covers it.’ Her elegiac memoir Testament of Youth is one of the greatest portraits of life in the First World War. When it was published in 1933 its first print-run sold out within a day.
Although Brittain’s pacifism fell out of favour with the onset of the Second World War, her reputation was restored when Testament of Youth was reprinted by Virago in 1978. In 2013, the Guardian described it ‘one of the most powerful and widely read war memoirs of all time’. Brittain’s daughter (and fellow Somervillian), the politician Shirley Williams, said her mother ‘had no idea that she was going to be a permanent figure in the literary canon’.
Did you know? Virginia Woolf stayed up all night so that she could finish reading Testament of Youth. She wrote to a friend saying that it was ‘A very good book of its sort. The new sort, the hard anguished sort, that the young write; that I could never write. Nor has anyone written that kind of book before.’
(1898-1935) – WriterLearn More
Born in the East Riding of Yorkshire, Winifred Holtby was educated at home and then at school in Scarborough. She came to Somerville in 1917 to read Modern History, having spent a year working in a private nursing home in London. Holtby was one of three students to suspend her studies the following academic year so that she could enlist with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). She returned to the college in 1919 and was a contemporary of Vera Brittain, who became her closest friend (Brittain called Holtby her ‘second self’).
After graduation, the two women moved to London to begin their writing careers, renting a flat together in Bloomsbury (82 Doughty Street, where there is now a blue plaque bearing both their names). Holtby’s early novels were fairly successful, although she was better known for her journalism, writing for Time and Tide and the Manchester Guardian. An ardent feminist, socialist and pacifist, she lectured for the League of Nations and was active in the Independent Labour Party.
Holtby continued to share a home with Vera Brittain after Brittain’s marriage to George Catlin, and she become an adoptive aunt to their two children. One of those children was Somervillian Shirley Williams, who described Holtby as being ‘incandescent with the radiance of her short and concentrated life’. Holtby died from kidney disease at the age of 37. Her best-known novel, South Riding, was published posthumously in 1936, and has never been out of print.
Did you know? The royalties from the publication of South Riding were bequeathed to Somerville in Winifred Holtby’s will and are still used to help fund teaching in History.
Xand van Tulleken
Doctor and television presenterLearn More
Xand van Tulleken
Xand (Alexander) van Tulleken grew up in London and came to Somerville in 1996 to study Physiological Sciences. After qualifying as a doctor, he specialised in tropical medicine and as a junior doctor worked in Darfur during the genocide, sparking an interest in the interaction between politics and medicine. He has a diploma in Tropical Medicine, a diploma in International Humanitarian Assistance and a Master’s in Public Health from Harvard, where he was a Fulbright Scholar
Van Tulleken has worked most often with his twin brother Chris (who studied Medicine at St Peter’s College, Oxford), exploring human biology and putting theories about health and medicine to the test on shows including Operation Ouch!, Trust me, I’m a Doctor and The Twinstitute. Alongside his media appearances, he continues with medical research and teaching, holding an honorary fellowship at the Fordham Institute in New York. He is a contributing editor to the first edition of the Oxford Handbook of Humanitarian Medicine. Van Tulleken continues to practise medicine in conflict zones, and has worked as a patron of international medical charities including Doctors of the World UK and Doctors Medical Emergency Relief International.
Xand van Tulleken on Somerville ‘Oxford can be an intimidating place but Somerville – a former women’s college – is welcoming to absolutely everyone. If you’re thinking of applying, check it out. Amazing tutors and students.’ ‘Also: they produced TWO prime ministers, a Nobel prize winner, some of the most amazing women the world has seen in science and the humanities (and a Bafta nominated CBBC presenter!).’