Rita Monson – The First Female Senior Tutor of Churchill College

This article was published in the Churchill Review, Vol 59. Although Dr Sally Boss and Dr Lisa Jardine Wright have been Acting Senior Tutors, Dr Rita Monson is Churchill College’s first permanent woman Senior Tutor.

It is with incredible excitement that I embarked as Churchill’s first woman Senior Tutor from October 1, 2021. Taking up this position has been made significantly easier given my familiarity with the Fellowship, as a Teaching By-Fellow from 2007-2011 and a Title A Fellow from 2011 till the present. Despite my longevity with the College, it was not until I was informed by Professor Mark Goldie, in his capacity as unofficial College Historian, that I realised that I was the College’s first permanent woman Senior Tutor. While this is now obvious to me, I should say that I do not think that my being the first Female Senior Tutor has changed anything about the way that I do the job or that anyone within the College interacts with me! 

My Canadian accent sets me apart  

Perhaps one of the reasons that it does not feel like such a large advancement in the College to have a woman Senior Tutor is because it is at a time when both our Master and Bursar are women. While I am sure that being a woman changes the way that I am regarded, I tend to hope that, in many ways, it makes it easier for me to do the job. Perhaps strangely, I often feel that my obvious North American accent is the thing that really sets me apart. As many of you will appreciate, being the Senior Tutor often requires very delicate conversations with students, who rarely arrive in your office on their best days. Instead, these conversations are often marked by sadness, ill health and distress. In such cases, a caring and more informal approach helps to engage students and also to put them at ease. In these situations, I have found that my pragmatic Canadian approach, where I am constantly solution focused has served me well.  

My priorities  

Members will likely want to know what I plan to change or about my priorities moving forward. I remain firmly committed to the College’s focus on widening participation and outreach in our target areas. I would note that the College’s intake in October 2021 was one of gender parity. This is a notable change since I arrived as a Fellow. I remember distinctly an Open day where the Directors of Studies in the Natural Sciences – myself (Biology), Lisa Jardine-Wright (Physics) and Katherine Stott (Chemistry) were asked by a student if there were any men in the College. I cannot remember if the question was facetious or not, but I am struck by how my answer to this question today would be very different. The incoming cohort of students this year (2022) will again be one that has rough gender parity.  

Changes in our Fellowship community  

It has also been a pleasure this year to be a part of some large changes in our Fellowship Community that we hope will change the appreciation of Churchill College. In particular, I am excited to share news of a change in our Engineering fellowship. This year we appointed our first Community, Outreach and Recruitment in Engineering (CORE) Fellow, Dr Rachel Thorley who arrives with us from Sheffield University on August 1st. This position has been made possible through the generous donation of Greg and Rosie Lock and we are excited to welcome Rachel.  

Strong academic performance  

I remain focused on academic achievement within our student body. A particular area of interest to our community may be the extremely strong performance of our home female students. They have been extremely solid and last academic year had the highest % of awarded 1st class degrees in history – at 66.7% against a backdrop of 41% 1st class degrees to women across the whole University. However, I know and understand that achievement in examinations is often not enough for employers and for many students, practical experience has been difficult to procure during the pandemic. 

Practical experience – a must  

Experience, such as summer lab placements, work in archives or internships remain extremely important. To help facilitate more opportunities within our student body, the Development Office were extremely helpful in establishing a Summer Opportunities Bursary Fund through the College’s Giving Day. It will remain my focus to continue striving to make sure that all of our students have these types of opportunities moving forward and are able to launch themselves into their lives beyond Churchill in the strongest possible position.  

And finally  

I have been reflecting a lot on the past year. I am indebted to the support and encouragement I had in application and in post from Liz DeMarrais (who is sadly leaving us as Postgraduate Senior Tutor), Alex Webb (without whose encouragement I might never have considered this as an option), Adrian Barbrook (my co-Director of Studies in Biology and soon to be Vice-Master) and Barry Phipps (curator of Art and fellow food truck connoisseur) to pick out a few. Along with an incredible set of Tutorial Staff, Tutors and Directors of Studies, they have been an incredible support structure throughout the year. I am indebted to their encouragement through this transition. Though I might be the first woman Senior Tutor Churchill has appointed permanently, it goes without saying that both Sally, and later Lisa, paved the way for me and, it is a testament to both of their tenures, that my status as ‘first woman’ ST has almost never been noted! It has been a wonderful and challenging year and I look forward to the challenges ahead.