“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.

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The Students’ “Joy-Night”

Professor Joanna Bourke, Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology, recalls a period in history when student expression was far more rambunctious and gave way to the ritual of ‘ragging’

Ragging

‘Ragging’

Once a year between the 1880s and the 1930s, Birkbeck students went wild. In what was called the “Joy Night”, they threw their energies into a boisterous ritual that saw hundreds of fancifully dressed (often in gender-bending ways) students waylaying the Foundation Day speaker prior to his lecture. They would then ceremoniously cart him to the College’s theatre, just off Fetter Lane. The noise was deafening: bells were rung, whistles blown, clappers thwacked, and rattles vigorously shaken. This was a very public ritual: in Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, crowds of people stepped out of their offices and shops to watch this “students’ rag”. Most witnesses to the “ragging” cheered the high-spirits of Birkbeck’s students; a few “tutted” disapprovingly about “childish” antics. Once at the theatre, Birkbeck students sang silly songs, beat drums, released balloons or streamers, and mocked the authorities. They refused to let speakers start their lecture until they had loudly sung the “Birkbeck Anthem”.

College song

College song pt 1

College song pt 2

College song pt 2

In 1934, it was the turn of Walter Elliott (the Minister of Agriculture) to be “ragged”. The students forced him out of his taxi and made him ride up Fetter Lane on pantomime-cow. He was photographed “clinging with one hand” to the “cow” and waving his hat with the other hand “in the manner of a Wild West rider (but looking less sure of his seat)”. The Minister was then led up the steps to the platform of the lecture theatre by two young men: one dressed as a yokel and the other as a fairy. Once on the platform, the “fairy” curtsied before presenting the Minister of Agriculture with “a basket containing a pig’s head and some kippers”. The Minister was then required to sign this declaration:

“I, Walter Elliott, alias Bo-Bo the Gadarene, whose father was Hi-To, begat of Circe, do hereby present all my estate in piggery to the students of Birkbeck College.”

Under Elliott’s signature were the words “Chief of the Pig Board, Chief of the Milk Board, Chief of the Hops Board, Chief of the Herring Board”. The fairy then reappeared, giving everyone on the platform a bottle of milk, each with a straw stuck through the tab, to suck. Only then was the Minister of Agriculture allowed to give his lecture.

Ridiculous? Well, yes, but that was the point. Foundation ceremonies could be very dreary occasions: “ragging” certainly livened things up. They were also an effective way for graduating students to “let off steam”. More importantly, they were a negotiated inversion of staff-student relations in an institution that was markedly hierarchical. “Ragging” was a classic example of “authorised transgression”. They were carnivalesque, temporarily inverting the rules and power structures while simultaneously blunting social criticism.

From 1939, however, a more serious mood crept over university culture as well as British life more generally. Austerity was not conducive to the wild pelting of eggs and flour, let alone men wearing lipstick in lecture theatres. Birkbeck students were also increasingly part-time and older: they had less time for the “high jinxs” of their predecessors. Alas, the carnivalesque misconduct of the “Joy Night” faded away.

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COVID-19 in prisons – a major public health risk

Catherine Heard, Director of the World Prison Research Programme at the Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on prison populations.

Prison

The coronavirus pandemic presents formidable challenges for prisons worldwide – challenges they will struggle to meet, with potentially grave consequences for the health of prisoners, prison staff, their families, and all of us.

This is a fast-moving situation: since the outbreak was declared a pandemic on 12 March, prisoners and prison staff have tested positive in several European countries, and prisoners have died in England and France. These cases will only be the tip of the iceberg globally. With prison health systems in so many parts of the world struggling to provide even basic healthcare, many sick prisoners and prison staff will not have been tested. Overcrowded and under-resourced prisons offer the perfect conditions for the rapid spread of any contagious disease, including COVID-19, within and beyond their confines.

Last year, we published a report examining the effects of failed penal policies through the lens of health. We showed that well over 60% of countries have overcrowded prison systems (based on information held on our World Prison Brief database). Our research included evidence from ten diverse jurisdictions across five continents. Prisoners spoke of extreme overcrowding (for example, 60 men sharing cells built for 20 in Brazil); inadequate medical treatment, with too few doctors to deal even with routine health issues let alone serious disease outbreaks; constant hunger; lack of fresh air and exercise; shared buckets instead of toilets; not enough fresh water or soap; having to eat while seated on the toilet due to lack of space in a shared cell.

These are the realities of prisons across the world. They provide important context for the World Health Organisation’s warning that global efforts to tackle the spread of the disease may fail without proper attention to infection control inside prisons.

How have prison systems around the world responded to the pandemic? Many prison authorities – including in England & Wales – have suspended visits to prisoners, and cancelled temporary release schemes. In Columbia, Brazil, India, Italy, Romania and Lebanon, prisoners have rioted at these measures and in protest at the life-threatening conditions in which they are being held. Prisoner deaths, escapes and widespread violence have been reported.

More recently, some governments have responded by releasing prisoners: in Turkey, legislation was passed to release 100,000 of the country’s roughly 286,000 prisoners; similar steps have been taken in Iran and are under consideration in the United States, Canada and Ireland. In England and Wales, the government has so far declined to do this, despite the severe challenges already facing our overcrowded prison estate.

Now, detailed guidance from WHO, running to 32 pages, should leave no government in doubt about the serious risks presented by the virus, and how to tackle them. It states: ‘The risk of rapidly increasing transmission of the disease within prisons or other places of detention is likely to have an amplifying effect on the epidemic, swiftly multiplying the number of people affected.’ It calls for ‘strong infection prevention and control measures, adequate testing, treatment and care’ and provides detail on what this means in practice.

The parlous state in which prisons find themselves throughout the world today will make it difficult for them to follow the guidance, as they lack the resources – human, material, and financial – with which to do so. Even before the pandemic they were struggling to provide basic sanitation and healthcare for those in their care, as our research has shown.

COVID-19 provides the clearest illustration yet that prison health is public health. It is more important than ever for our governments and prison administrations to abide by the principle, enshrined in international law, that prisoners have an equal right to health and healthcare. Realistically, the only way that most countries could afford to meet this obligation is by first reducing their use of incarceration. This means ruling out custody for less serious, non-violent offending; and reversing the recent growth in the length of prison sentences.

It also means cutting substantially the use of pre-trial detention.  In America, thousands of the country’s nearly half a million pre-trial detainees are in jail for no better reason than that they cannot afford bail – although senator Kamala Harris has called for this to end.

No one should be remanded in custody unless absolutely necessary. But, of the more than three million people in pre-trial detention across the world, a large proportion are there purely because they cannot afford bail, or their country’s courts are hopelessly backlogged (a situation that will only worsen as courts around the world are forced to stop hearing all but the most urgent matters because of the current health emergency). On 2 April, we will release the latest global data on pre-trial prisoner numbers. It will reveal a significant upward trend, and should provide a wake-up call for governments the world over.

All news items and other sources referred to in this piece can be accessed via a dedicated COVID-19 page on ICPR’s World Prison Brief database: https://www.prisonstudies.org/news/news-covid-19-and-prisons

Further information:

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Working remotely: top tips on how to work or study from home productively

The last few months has forced many of us to change the way we work. To help with this transition, Jessica Brooke, Birkbeck’s Social Media Officer, shares her tips for staying motivated and healthy while working or studying from home.

Get dressed

First thing’s first, get dressed. Chilling in your PJ’s may seem appealing to begin with, but getting into normal work gear can get you in the right mindset and help to feel like the day has really started. Freelancer and working-from-home veteran Annie Ridout has commented on the benefits of getting dressed for the day:

“Psychologically, what you see when you look in the mirror matters. If you see someone dressed for success, in a considered outfit, this will inspire productivity. Conversely, if you see pyjamas or sweatpants, this might instil the notion that you aren’t ready to start work.”

Set up your workspace

Once you’re dressed and ready for the working day, make sure your workspace is up to scratch too! In Buffer’s 2019 ‘State of Remote Working’ study, they found that the biggest obstacle participants working from home struggled with was ‘unplugging after work’. Having a regular workspace can help to create boundaries between your home life and your work life.

Think about somewhere in your house where you are least likely to be distracted or interrupted, as well as somewhere you can move away from when you’re finished working for the day. Keep it green with flowers and plants. A study by Dr Craig Knight found that productivity was boosted across the board when mother nature was introduced to the workspace, so get those leafy greens involved! Check out our #Deskies awards over on Twitter for some workspace inspiration.

Recreate your usual schedule

Keeping your workday habits similar is another way to successfully adjust to working remotely. If you’re used to grabbing a coffee first thing, make your own from home at around the same time. This can help to maintain some sense of normalcy, as well as installing some structure in your day. Write to-do lists in the morning to make sure you stay focussed and cross them off when they’re done.

Of course, your overall schedule will be slightly different at home and you might find yourself working harder for longer without the distraction of other people, so it’s important to take regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time management that involves breaking up your day into 25-minute working slots, followed by five-minute breaks. This can help you stay productive and alert to your task, as well as making sure you get those all-important breaks in. Use this fun Tomato Timer to stick to the schedule!

Ask for support when you need it

This can mean from your supervisor, colleagues or classmates. Reaching out to others for support with your work or your studies is important and will help you to stay on task. This could even just mean scheduling in catchups or working on tasks together. Maintaining these relationships and seeing how others are doing will also help you to boost your mood and avoid feelings of isolation. Articulate Marketing have put together this great web page linking to a huge list of resources that can help you work effectively and collaborate with others from home.

Be grateful for the flexibility

Buffer’s 2019 survey also found that participants believed the biggest benefit to working from home was the flexible schedule. Embrace the time you’ve gained from the usual commute by taking walks, cooking wholesome lunches and keeping in touch with friends and family.

 

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Professor Anthony Bale shares his passion for Chaucer & Medieval English

Professor Bale recently elected President of New Chaucer Society and discusses a career-long interest in Chaucer and his intentions to broaden the appeal of the subject.

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Some of us read Chaucer in school. What’s your earliest memory of the author’s work and what’s the relevance for our current times?

I didn’t actually read Chaucer at school – at my state school, the earliest literature I’d encountered before university was Shakespeare. However, I had long been interested in the Middle Ages and I immediately fell in love with medieval literature at university, whilst studying for my degree in English Language & Literature. I had some inspiring teachers at university and did special options on Chaucer and on Medieval & Renaissance Romance. Medieval literature remains relevant for our times – it helps us understand the language we speak, the changing idea of the nation we live in, and many of the institutions that continue to exist in contemporary Britain (for example, in the royal family, the legal system, universities, and local government). And London was Chaucer’s city – he lived for a time at Aldgate – and we can see traces of him and his era all across the city, from a bridge he had built at Eltham to his grave at Westminster.  Chaucer’s poetry is incredibly rich, and even after studying Chaucer for more than 25 years, every time I go back to his writing I find something new and exciting.

Tell us a bit more about the New Chaucer Society?

The New Chaucer Society was founded in 1979 and is the leading, global learned society for the teaching and study of the age of Chaucer – basically, the later Middle Ages, broadly from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. The ‘New’ reflects the connection to the original Chaucer Society, founded in 1868. But I’d like to think that the ‘New’ in the Society’s name shows how each generation keeps Chaucer and his era new and fresh, bringing new critical perspectives to bear on his life, work, and historical era. The Society is based at the University of Miami in Florida, and has a biennial Congress – which I co-organised in London in 2016. We’ll be meeting in Durham later this year. The Society also publishes a leading journal, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and has members all over the world working on medieval studies in different languages, national traditions and critical perspectives.

In your new position as President of the Society, what will you be focusing on and hoping to achieve?

The New Chaucer Society is flourishing but there are many challenges to be faced. I anticipate that priorities for the Society over the next few years include rethinking our biennial Congress and its purposes. The Congress has to be more ethical, sustainable, and inclusive, and we must protect and extend funding to ensure that those who wish to participate are able to do so. I also plan to advocate for the teaching of late medieval literature on school curricula and internationally, particularly in non-elite schools, and help to develop the Society’s profile as a resource for teachers of medieval literature at all levels. Without medieval literature on syllabi, we will not foster the next generation of medievalists.

How do those priorities fit into the general landscape for late Medieval English literature and culture?

Fewer and fewer schools and universities teach medieval literature, and it’s imperative that we don’t let this field of study dwindle away and become a ‘specialist’, niche field. Medieval studies has often had the reputation, as a field, of being conservative and exclusive. This cannot be the case, and I want to ensure that the Society remains an inclusive place for fresh critical debates in medieval studies.

It’s a great achievement to be elected President. Can you share what the process was; who was part of the nomination and election process?

The Society’s Trustees developed a slate of three names and an election took place across the Society’s entire membership, based on candidates’ statements.

What is the tenure and how large is your team at the Society?

The position commences in July 2020 and will run for two years. I’ll be working closely with the Society’s brilliant Executive Director, Tom Goodmann, at the University of Miami, and the Society’s Trustees. Four new Trustees were elected at the same time, and they are from Iceland and from across the USA.

How will this align with the role you hold at Birkbeck?

As Dean of Arts much of my energy has been focused on protecting the arts, addressing educational inequality, and leading change. This has included developing funding for diversity scholarships and co-founding the Out@Birkbeck LGBT+ staff network. My own research has been at the forefront of challenging understandings of the cultural history of medieval antisemitism and global encounters through travel in the Middle Ages. I have published on Chaucer throughout my career, and continue to do so.

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Lillian Penson: the first PhD in the University of London

Lillian Margery Penson was the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD. In this blog, Joanna Bourke discusses the life and achievements of Penson. This blog is part of a series that celebrate 200 years since Birkbeck was established and International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

Lillian Margery Penson

Lillian Margery Penson_© Royal Holloway College, RHC-BC.PH, 1.1, Archives-Royal Holloway University of London

Lillian Margery Penson (1896-1963) was an outstanding scholar and university administrator. She was the first person (of any sex) in the University of London to be awarded a PhD; she was the first woman to become a Professor of History at any British university; and she was the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to become a vice-chancellor of a university, at the age of only 52. She owed her undergraduate and doctoral education to the History Department at Birkbeck.

Opinions about her were divided. Was she the “foremost woman in the academic life of our day” (The Scotsman), a “remarkable woman” (The Times), and someone who exuded “charm, tolerance, and a sense of humour”? Or was she an “imperious grande dame”, “très autoritaire”, and “too trenchant”? The answer is probably “a mixture”. Although Penson “could on occasion be brusque and even intimidating”, she “had a happy knack of getting to know people quickly”, was “an excellent judge of wine and loved good company”, and projected “a wealth of genuine kindness”. In other words, Penson was probably trapped in that familiar double-bind experienced by powerful women in male-dominated fields: she was admired for her intellect and determination, yet disparaged as a woman for possessing those same traits. One newspaper report on the achievements of “the professor” even referred to Penson using the masculine pronoun: “he”.

Who was Penson? She was born in Islington on 18 July 1896. Her father worked as a wholesale dairy manager and her family were of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion. Indeed, one colleague observed that the “marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced” and her “belief in work and duty” meant that she was always made uncomfortable by “flippant talk”. She never married.

From her youth, Penson was intrigued by diplomatic history, colonial policy, and foreign affairs. Her intellectual talents were obvious. In 1917, at the age of 21 years, she graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History (first class). The war was at its height, so she joined the Ministry of National Service as a junior administrative officer (1917-18) before moving to the war trade intelligence department (1918-19). At the end of the war, Penson returned to her studies of history at Birkbeck and became, in 1921, the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD.

Penson’s achievement was even more remarkable because of her gender. After all, throughout the period from 1921 to 1990, only one-fifth of PhD students in history were female. Penson was also young. The average age for history students to complete their doctorates was their mid-30s; Penson was only 25 years old. Birkbeck immediately offered her a job as a part-time lecturer, during which time she also taught part-time at the East London Technical College, now Queen Mary University of London. In 1925, she was given a full-time lecturing post at Birkbeck.

More notably, she was the first female Vice-Chancellor of a university in the UK and the Commonwealth. Indeed, the second female vice-chancellor would not be appointed for another 27 years (this was Dr Alice Rosemary Murray who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1975). Then, in 1948, the University of Cambridge agreed to award degrees to women. The last time they had tried this (in 1897), there had been a riot. In 1948, however, the Queen, Myra Hess, and Penson became the first women to be awarded honorary Cambridge degrees (in Penson’s case, a LL.D or Doctor of Laws). The Scotsman decreed Penson’s academic and administrative talents to be “unsurpassed even in the annals of that great institution”.

Many of the values that Penson promoted were those at the heart of the Birkbeck mission. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers”, with no restriction based on religion, race, or sex. She was keen to insist that the job of the university teacher was to “do something more than impose upon the memories of our students masses of detailed information”.

As with many powerful women, she has largely been forgot. After her death, a University of London Dame Lillian Penson fund was established to provide travel money between scholars engaged in research in one of the universities of the Commonwealth, especially Khartoum, Malta, the West Indies, and new universities in African countries. This seems to have disappeared. All that remains is a bricks-and-mortar legacy in the shape of the Lillian Penson Hall, which still exists next to Paddington Station in Talbot Square, providing accommodation for over 300 students.

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Studying in London: Lydet Pidor

Lydet Pidor a full-time student in MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship shares their experience of studying in London. 

Lydet Pidor at Birkbeck's Malet Street campus

Lydet Pidor at Birkbeck’s Malet Street campus.

As an international student, there are three reasons why I chose to pursue my master’s degree in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship at Birkbeck. Firstly, the availability and the nature of the course that I wanted to study, secondly, the location of the university itself (I wanted it to be in a capital city where I’d have access to class activities), and lastly, the credibility of the College. 

Although it is my first time living in London, I found the city is quite unique in terms of its history and its well-preserved historical buildings.  To me, London is one of the most dynamic capital cities in the world, especially compared to big cities in other developed countries. By the way, I am also fortunate enough to have secured student accommodation with the assistance of the International Office at the university. I’m sure that finding accommodation is quite a time-consuming task, especially for new international students with little experience of travelling abroad.  

I found Birkbeck’s orientation week at the beginning of the year extremely usefulThe various events helped me to familiarise myself with my course timetable, professors, and the campus, and most importantly, networking with my new classmates. I found that many of them have an interesting background and experiences that I can learn from.  

The first few weeks here were a bit overwhelming because of the differences between the education system here and where I am from, particularly as Birkbeck is among the top one hundred universities around the world. Nevertheless, with the wealth of online resources such as the study skills workshop and readings, I managed to keep up with the speed and standard of the learning here.  

What’s more, I think I chose the right place to live. I was in a place where there were a lot of transportation links and facilities including the underground, and museums could be reached within minutes. Furthermore, the city is full of events besides what has been provided at the university, so I have no regrets about my choice.

Lydet and other students on trip to Bletchley Park.

An Excursion with international students into Bletchley Park, the famous sight of the Allied codebreakers during the Second World War, and it is also where Alan Turing created the British bombe machine capable of breaking the German Enigma code.

Making friends is one of my interests and something I am good at. People here are friendly and helpful; I can collaborate and have discussions that optimise my knowledge of a specific subject that I have in common. Moreover, I had a good experience with extracurricular activities that have been arranged by the university recently to enrich student knowledge and understanding of some historical sites in London. 

For instance, a trip to Bletchley Park, the house of the World War II Codebreakers and workplace of Alan Turing – a world-renowned pioneer in the development of theoretical computer science – and hundreds of intellectuals from across different disciplines. I learned a lot from the trip both about the historical site and through the conversations I had with other students. I usually keep my eyes on Birkbeck’s Facebook page to keep up with new activities and make friends. 

A group photo with international students during a walking tour of Greenwich as a part of Birkbeck One World Festival 2019/20

A group photo with international students during a walking tour of Greenwich as a part of Birkbeck One World Festival 2019/20

I must admit, the tourist traps and historical sites in London attract me a lot. I really like how some of the city’s historic architecture stands alongside the newly built skyscrapers.

Presently, I am at a stage of considering my dissertation topic and really thinking about how I can make the most of it in a way that is practical and beneficial to either the business or education sector under the rapid evolution of technological innovation in this 21st century.  

Although I have only studied here for a year, I am keen to meet like-minded people that I could potentially work with to generate a solution that can address a problem here. I am keen to utilize and leverage the skills I gained from College as well as resources I had to build an impactful business, particularly in areas of education, finance, and health by using tech and business model innovation. 

Lydet Pidor is a full-time student studying MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship. He is one of the Chevening Scholarship awardees, class of 2019, funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and partner organizations. 

 

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How Birkbeck has helped me achieve three of my biggest dreams

Faranak Pourzamanie attended the recent Certificate Holder Celebration, after completing a Certificate of Higher Education in Management. Faranak is now studying BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance at Birkbeck, and explains how Birkbeck has changed her life.

Faranak Pourzamanie

As a completely new student to the UK’s education system, Birkbeck has given me the great opportunity of achieving not one, but in fact three, of my biggest dreams.

Firstly, I was able to enter university through Birkbeck’s Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I came to the UK with my family and had no qualifications, and I was reluctant to spend extra years at college to get into university. After two frustrating years of applying to different universities, my friend introduced me to Birkbeck and told me to apply for their Certificate of Higher Education in Management. I was hopeless, but I didn’t give up and applied. I was elated when Birkbeck accepted my application and gave me the opportunity to “jump” to higher education. Even though academic study wasn’t that easy, I had great support from the College which helped me achieve my Certificate of Higher Education.

Secondly, another dream of mine was to open my own business. Studying at Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to partake in the Pioneer programme, which introduced me to resources and people who have started their entrepreneurial journey. Listening to a number of guest speakers at Birkbeck events also really inspired me to set up my business. The Pioneer programme really helped me shape my business idea and make it happen. I have now started my online business selling saffron, and I’m applying the knowledge I have from the programme as well as getting help and advice from people I met through the programme.

Lastly, the final dream was getting a job while studying at university. Networking with one of the guest speakers after a lecture allowed me to know more about working in the corporate world. This individual has trusted me by putting me in front of the right people, which has opened the doors to the beginning of my career.

In conclusion, one small step to Birkbeck has given me so much in such a short time. I’m so happy that I had the College’s help in my life journey so far. Soon I will be graduating from my undergraduate degree at Birkbeck, BSc Management with Accountancy and Finance, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Certificate Holder Celebration

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Tackling climate change head on

Professor Gabriel Waksman, Professor of Structural Molecular Biology, shares how he has set up a charity dedicated to funding carbon mitigation projects that aim to restore native forest habitats.

Since becoming a scientist, I have had the great joy of globe-trotting all over the world from conferences to review panels, from seminars abroad to lecturing at foreign institutions. Such extensive travelling was useful to promote my research, tell people about our latest discoveries, and exchange ideas with fellow scientists in my field. It also provided me the opportunity to publicise the achievements of the research institute I founded in 2003 and directed until October last year, the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.

However, I came to realise how dreadful my carbon footprint had become. Like many of us, my awareness of human-made global warming caused by CO2 emissions has increased over the years and recently it passed a threshold where I felt I needed to proactively address this issue. There is no doubt that government intervention is going to be crucial in solving the climate crisis, but I wondered how we, academics, could take individual responsibility for our carbon emissions. We must obviously reduce our travelling: we do travel far too much. But attending conferences and sharing our results prior to publication is an essential lubricant of science: it makes it work more smoothly and more rapidly. I suspect that, in the foreseeable future, academics will continue to travel to conferences.

If conference travel is here to stay (albeit at a reduced rate), what can we do to offset our carbon emissions? There are many ways to do so but I was attracted to the approach of native tree-planting. Trees are excellent carbon fixers and, in my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a native woodland. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded ecosystems. Also, it was important to me to plant trees in the UK, and not necessarily abroad as many afforestation projects do. Tree-planting sites in the UK are easily verifiable because they are easily accessible. They are also subjected to the Woodland Carbon Code, a set of stringent governmental rules.

I therefore set up a charity called ‘All Things Small and Green’ and a website where academics can compute their carbon emissions, convert them into trees (2-4 trees per metric tonnes of carbon), and add these trees to groves we have set up with Trees For Life, our tree-planting partner. We created a Scientists’ Grove, and Academics’ Grove, even a Friends’ Grove, and finally our first Conference Grove.

I find the idea of a ‘grove’ extremely attractive. Any institutions can create their own grove and ask their members to contribute trees to it to offset their carbon emissions. I hope we can create a ‘Birkbeck Grove’ where everyone at Birkbeck will be able to contribute trees. Birkbeck has made tremendous efforts in reducing its carbon footprint and last week organised its own ‘climate learning week’, that included a vegetarian day and an opportunity for students and staff to bring in their bikes for an appointment with Cycle Republic. But the effort must continue and address the issue of carbon emissions caused by academic travel. In that respect, the latest initiative by Wellcome is important and will spur all institutions on to tackle the issue effectively.

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Out@BBK film screening for LGBT+ History Month

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean of the School of Arts discusses the feminist classic, Orlando, and why it was such an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies. The film adaptation of Orlando will be screened in the College cinema to mark LGBT History Month.

Orlando (Tilda Swinton) in the film ‘Orlando’, Photo by Liam Longman © Adventure Pictures Ltd

As part of our campus, Birkbeck is fortunate to have 46 Gordon Square, now the School of Arts but formerly, from 1904 to 1907, the home of the young Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). Woolf was 22 when she moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury. Her time at Gordon Square was the beginning of her adult life as a professional writer and heralded the start of the weekly meetings of artists and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group. As well as being an innovative author and thinker, Woolf was a feminist and lived what was then an unconventional life, including long relationships with women. Woolf’s affair in the 1920s with the writer Vita Sackville-West inspired her short novel Orlando, a ground-breaking queer text about identity, bodies, history, and love.

Orlando was presented by Woolf to Sackville-West in 1928 after the pair had been travelling in France together. The novel is the fantastical fictional biography of the hero of its title, a poet who changes sex and lives for centuries. Orlando meets key figures in English history including Elizabeth I, Charles II, and Alexander Pope, but Woolf creates a magical version of history in which the queer hero/heroine survives and succeeds. The novel culminates in 1928, the year of its publication. Orlando is at once a light-hearted historical satire and a feminist classic, and an important landmark in the history of gender and transgender studies.

As part of LGBT+ History Month, Out@BBK, Birkbeck’s LGBT+ staff group, is hosting a screening of Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) in the Gordon Square cinema. The screening will be introduced by Dr Jo Winning and myself (we have previously taught Orlando on our undergraduate course Critically Queer).

Potter’s film is a creative and dazzling interpretation of Woolf’s novel. Tilda Swinton, in one of her signature roles as the titular, androgynous lead, heads an eccentric cast encompassing such diverse figures as Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Heathcote Williams and Lothaire Bluteau. It is also the film which saw British director Sally Potter emerge from an avant-garde notoriety into mainstream recognition, with a lavishly designed spectacle that earned numerous awards and two Oscar nominations.

Join us at Birkbeck’s Gordon Square cinema on Friday 28 February at 6pm to watch and discuss Orlando, a unique chance to see this fascinating film in Woolf’s Bloomsbury home. You can book your place in advance to save your seat.

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