Alumni Profile: Regan Leahy, MSc Development Studies 2018

Regan Leahy chose to come to Birkbeck in 2015 after being recommended the course in MSc Development Studies. Originally, she had intended to pursue a law career, having undertaken a position at international law firm Hogan Lovells in 2013 and established a career path in the firm. In understanding the growing overlap in corporate social responsibility and development, Regan decided to combine her skills and interests, both personal and professional, to undertake further study.

In July 2019, Regan was selected as the first ever UK SDG Pioneer winner and then went on become the global winner for advocacy and sustainable solutions, both awarded by the UN Global Compact Network.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by the United Nations Development Programme in 2015 as a global call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and to ensure peace and prosperity for the year 2030.

Regan took the time to talk more to us about coming to Birkbeck, her recent achievement and some advice for those considering a similar path.

What did you enjoy most about Birkbeck and what it offered you as a student?

I really enjoyed the diverse groups of people in my classes. It made the classroom discussions and debates more interesting to have a wider variety of people with backgrounds in industry, academia, and the third sector. I also enjoyed the methodology of the classes I took where we started at the beginning to get back into the academic mind-set. I had only been out of academic study for a few years so remembered how to read and analyse, but I thought it was so clever the way our assignments were structured to help us get back into the swing of things.  

How did the volunteer programme contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN?

Barefoot Futures is Hogan Lovells’ global skills-based volunteering programme that inspires young people to take SDG-related action in their local community. The workshop is delivered by volunteers from Hogan Lovells to students in schools all over the world and seeks to raise awareness about the SDGs and innovative solutions by introducing students to the Barefoot solar mamas of Barefoot College and how young people can use STEM solutions to achieve the goals. Over 195 volunteers have taught 1,400 students in 31 schools in 12 countries and 87% of students agreed they would like to develop new solutions to global problems in the future.

What are the challenges that you face and what advice can you give to students considering similar career paths?

The intersection of development and business is only growing and business and NGOs will require experts with knowledge on both topics. As with the SDGs, collaboration is key and different industries, sectors, and organisations need to use their skills, people, and influence to create sustainable change. The challenge is showing different stakeholders that this is what the world needs and showing them how they can help. Businesses need to widen their measures of success and NGOs need to create engagement opportunities for businesses that are more than just financial. For students considering similar career paths, I’d recommend getting out into the world and networking! The best collaborations and uses of my degree have come from meeting different people and figuring out how to bring them all together under a shared vision and project.

It’s fantastic that you have inspired so many students. To round it off, did you want to say whether you are optimistic about the future and that these kinds of partnerships and business can broadly be a key solution to the world’s problems?

I’m happy to say that I am optimistic about the future. Young people in the world today are not shying away from tackling complex, global issues that are affecting their local communities. From plastic use to gun violence, young people want to live in a world that reflects their values and I’m delighted that the private and third sectors are collaborating to give young people and the adults who works for them the opportunity to use their voices, talents, and influence to build the world we want.

Hogan Lovells partner with Birkbeck to ensure prospective students are not deterred from studying law on account of their financial situation. Their generous scholarship programme supports two talented students in Birkbeck’s School of Law

Alumni Profile: Dr Simon Smith (PhD English, 2014)

Dr Simon Smith completed his PhD from Birkbeck in 2014. An appointed lecturer in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Birmingham, Smith recently received acclaim for his recent publication Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse 1603-1625‘ receiving both the University English Book Prize alongside the 2018 Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award. In the book, Smith argues the case of music as a dramatic tool in plays often as a cue for audience response, whether participation or to shape meaning and serve as a reminder of critical moments. This award could be considered a significant feat given that Smith admits no prior expertise in musical knowledge.

What drew you to complete your PhD at Birkbeck and how did you fit your studies into your working life?

I chose Birkbeck for my PhD because of the vibrant postgraduate community, because of the educational, scholarly and social principles that Birkbeck embodies, and because of its proximity to the British Library! I was also aware of Birkbeck as a place with a longstanding reputation for early modern studies.  My fondest memories at Birkbeck may be of the early modern reading group meetings – sociable, student-led evening gatherings in which we read texts I would never otherwise have come across. I studied full-time with AHRC funding, so I was highly privileged in that sense and was able to work part-time in order to make ends meet whilst renting in London! I taught quite a bit as a Globe Education Lecturer at Shakespeare’s Globe, and for Birkbeck as an Associate Tutor once I was a couple of years into the PhD – I’m proud to say that my most brilliant undergraduate student has stayed on at Birkbeck and is now completing a fully-funded PhD on early modern drama.

How does your recent publication contribute towards the field of early modern drama?

Musical Response in the Early Modern Playhouse asks why music matters in the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, examining Jacobean dramatic texts and cultural expectations.

The book offers insights into the dramatic craft of Shakespeare and other playwright. It suggests new interpretive angles on play-texts and illuminates the culture of play-going and the significance of music in early modern England.

The study reveals many previously unrecognised ways in which music contributes to early modern dramaturgy.

Musical Response re-reads the playhouse as a space intended above all for serious ‘play’, reconceptualising the ways in which Jacobean performance sought to engage playgoers with fictional narratives, and revealing the inherent playfulness of early modern drama itself.

And, if you could choose, what’s your favourite Shakespeare play and why?

Othello is probably my favourite to teach, because of the sheer range of possibilities it offers in the classroom –I’m yet to find an approach students aren’t prepared to run with. If I had to choose just one though, it would probably be Twelfth Night, for Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s ‘challenge’ letter alone…

International Alumni Profile: Rebecca Rellstab (MSc Occupational Psychology)

Rebecca studied for an MSc Occupational Psychology at Birkbeck.  She was born in Toronto, Canada, but grew up in Switzerland. She was living in Italy at the time of applying to Birkbeck. She spoke to us about her time at Birkbeck and what she’s up to now…

Rebecca studied the course via network learning, which allowed her to continue to work and live in Rome. “It was a really fantastic way to study. I found it just as engaging, if not more engaging than a face-to-face class or seminar as lessons were open for two weeks and allowed the seminar group to read each other’s contributions and reflect upon them before replying. This resulted in a deeply engaging and reflective learning process and which to this day, is one of the most personally and professionally enriching experiences I have had.”

Studying and working at the same time was hard work, Rebecca acknowledges, but she made as efficient use of her time as possible. “I remember my commute on a busy bus through Rome, passing the Colosseum, along the Tiber, all with a pile of reading materials on my lap!”

Rebecca looks back at her Birkbeck degree with fond memories. “The staff were very accessible and worked hard to make our experience a good one.” She would come to London every so often as part of her course to participate in weekend seminars and study with fellow students in person; they developed a tight-knit study group, and even to this day she is still in touch with several of them.

Rebecca is now working for the United Nations in Geneva, where she leads the Diplomatic and Client Services Team. She says that her degree most certainly helped her with her career progression. “It developed my curiosity and strengthened my ability to withstand and work under pressure.”

Her advice to prospective students thinking of studying at Birkbeck: “Develop a strategy which will allow you to work alongside studying for a degree. Be creative and tap into your support networks when needed.”

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Alumni Profile: Amer Anwar (MA, Creative Writing)

Amer Anwar graduated with an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck in 2010. His recent novel Brothers in Blood was featured in The Times Books of the Year 2018, Guardian Best Books of the Year 2018, Crime Time Best of the Year and was the winner of The CWA Debut Dagger award. We spoke to Amer about his time at Birkbeck and what he’s been up to since graduating…

Photo by Steven Joyce

Your time at Birkbeck…

I had a great experience at Birkbeck. I started out doing an Introduction to Writing Fiction course through Hammersmith & Fulham Adult Education. It was my first attempt at writing fiction since the beginning of high school and I really enjoyed it. The course was Birkbeck affiliated and the tutor said, if anyone wanted to pursue it further, to apply to Birkbeck, which offered a range of further Creative Writing courses. That’s exactly what I did, enrolling on a 2 year, Certificate in Creative Writing (which is now the BA Creative Writing, I believe) and then onto the MA Creative Writing too. It was in the second year of the Certificate Course, when I’d chosen to continue with Fiction, rather than the Poetry or Drama options that were also available, that I wrote and workshopped the first chapter of my novel – the chapter that would go on to win the CWA Debut Dagger and secure me a literary agent.

Throughout my time at Birkbeck, I was working full-time, so there was no way I would’ve been able to do a normal full-time course or even a part-time one that required a full day or two at university, so the fact that Birkbeck offers such excellent courses that are available in the evenings, was essential for me to be able to fulfil my ambitions. And I really loved everything about it. The standard of teaching was second to none and the breadth of age and experience in the classes meant that there was a much more diverse range of fellow students to learn from and with. The whole atmosphere was informal and comfortable but everyone was there to learn and work, which was a very enriching experience. It was also fun and enlightening to socialise after class and talk about writing and books with everyone. All in all, it was a fantastic experience.

Your experience since leaving…

Life since graduating from Birkbeck with an MA in Creative Writing has been a bit of a rollercoaster. All through the MA, I was working full-time, studying part-time and also working on finishing a novel. As I was already working on the novel when I started on the MA, everything I learned was geared towards helping me write and complete it, so I was very focused on what I wanted from the course. Even after I graduated, I took everything I’d learned and applied it directly to my work. I continued to learn and tried to improve as a writer.

After I left Birkbeck, I was very focused on finishing the novel. It took 8 years, all told, to finally finish it, and then a further 2 years to land a publishing deal. My debut novel, Brothers in Blood, was published in September 2018 and I am currently working on a follow-up, which is due out at the end of 2019.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar was published in September 2018 and is available to buy on Amazon.

Alumni wisdom…

General advice would be, if you’re thinking about undertaking a further course of study around a full-time job, seriously consider applying to Birkbeck. That’s exactly what it’s set up for and it will be such a rewarding experience – academically, personally and socially.

For Creative Writing students especially, I’d say, have an idea of what you want to get from the course when you go into it. That way you can gear your learning towards helping you realise your end goal. For myself, it was to write a crime thriller. I knew that from the outset and so I was able to use everything I learned on the course to further my progress with that novel. In the longer term, finish your first draft. It’ll be hard and a long slog at times, but once you finish it, whatever shape it’s in, you’ll have a complete draft of a novel. That’s a real accomplishment. Once you have that, you can edit and improve it. And, perhaps most importantly, if writing is what you really want to do, never give up. Keep working at it and you’ll get there. If I did, so can you.

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