Leeds is the UK’s fourth largest city and second largest civic authority serving a population of over 800,000 people. It is a major study destination with four universities and several colleges within the city limits.
A graduate of the University of Leeds, Abigail Marshall-Katung came to the UK to study politics in the year 2000.
Her appointment has sparked huge celebrations amongst the Nigerian diaspora community and is a shining example of the enormous contribution international students make to UK society.
She spoke to The PIE about her journey to becoming lord mayor.
“My father always said, ‘you educate to serve’,”explained Marshall-Katung. “His dream was that I should ‘go to the West’ and build on the education I already had from Nigeria.”
A lecturer himself who had studied in the US as an agricultural engineer, her father sadly passed away in 1999 and Marshall-Katung felt compelled to fulfil his wishes of studying abroad.
“I was such a daddy’s girl,” she said. “At that point in time, I knew going for further education in the UK was just something I needed to do.”
However, like many students arriving in the UK for the first time, there was an immediate sense of culture shock.
“You can imagine coming from 40 degree heat to just three degrees, that was the shock of my life. I called my mom and said ‘nobody can live in this!’” she recalled.
“I went to the student cafeteria at the time and the food was so bland. I thought ‘this is all wrong, you need some spicy food to warm yourselves up’.”
A sense of resilience soon prevailed and Leeds quickly became her second home.
“I just loved the city. When you go somewhere new you need to make sure you go through it [by embracing the culture] not the other way round. You learn how to make a difference wherever you are planted.”
After graduation, Marshall-Katung dedicated herself to working life including forming her own business. She became the mother of twin sons and engaged in frontline politics, first serving as a councillor in 2019.
Her mother came to join her and her siblings were inspired to study in the UK as well.
Leeds was named Capital of Culture in 2023 and prides itself on its diversity.
Nigerian diaspora celebrating Marshall Katung’s appointment to mayor.
Marshall-Katung follows in the footsteps of Councillor Eileen Taylor who was elected as the first black woman to hold the lord mayor title in 2019.
“I find Leeds very cosmopolitan, multicultural, accessible in terms of anything you’re looking for. Diversity is welcome and it is celebrated. In the city centre constituency that I represent, there is a primary school that has got 82 different languages being spoken there.”
This view of Britain stands in stark contrast to much of the anti-immigration rhetoric that is being communicated by the current government, so how does she feel about that?
“When I speak to people around the country and in my constituency, I always say ‘diversity is a fact, inclusion is a choice’. There are 200,000 people from ethnic minorities from around the world [in this city] so you can see why multiculturalism is important to us.
“It’s about what the city is doing to make sure everyone feels welcome. The more people come into the city and invest, the better the economy.
“The current tone of immigration, for me, is very painful having come here to this country as a student.
“The current tone of immigration, for me, is very painful having come here to this country as a student”
“I understand that you cannot give what you do not have [if there is a strain on public services] but at the same time I made an immediate impact to the country because I was paying three times the amount of fees of a home student.
“I’m speaking specifically as a student, which is the route that I came through. I came with my shoulders held high. I was contributing to the UK economy in terms of how high my fees were and helping a world class university thrive.”
Marshall-Katung’s success story will undoubtedly inspire others and she intends to use that platform to amplify a welcoming message and representation for all.
“I’ve been overwhelmed reading the comments, blessings, the prayers, the joy, the dance, [about my appointment].
“The fact that a non-English person from my kind of background can come to this country and get this opportunity can inspire others. Rest assured that I will be standing for social justice, that Leeds continues to be a compassionate city, a city that anyone can come in here, feel welcome and that our economy thrives.”
Are you inspired by Abigail Marshall-Katung’s story? Have your say in the comments below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org