Birkbeck student overcomes dyslexia and the ghosts of her early education to celebrate graduation success

On Tuesday 6 November, Paola Torrani, who grew up being told she was too ‘stupid’ to go to university, graduated with a BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck. She explains why this is only the beginning.

When Paola Torrani first visited London aged eighteen, it was as a student who felt let down by the education system and shut out from the career in Science she had always wanted. Her teachers, seeing that she was struggling to keep up with her peers, had branded her ‘lazy’ and ‘stupid’, even telling her mum that she would struggle to find work. With characteristic determination, though, Paola took a photo of the iconic Senate House building in Bloomsbury and sent it to her mum, saying “one day I will study here.”

Twenty years on, Paola is preparing to receive her award for BSc Social Sciences with Social Anthropology from Birkbeck, University of London, in the very place she first set eyes on all those years ago. “I couldn’t even speak English on that first visit,” she remembers, “so it’s surreal to finally graduate here.”

Fighting for an education

Growing up, Paola’s education was punctuated by failure. Having been repeatedly told that she was stupid by her teachers, she fought to continue her education in Italy and then France, but struggled to finish what she started. “I experienced failure, after failure, after failure,” she remembers, “but I didn’t want to give up.”

While she may have struggled in formal education, Paola has always had an aptitude for languages, which led her to move to work in London. She secured a role in marketing, but was left dissatisfied, saying “I felt bad using my skills to get people to buy more stuff!”

It wasn’t long before Paola began to suffer acutely with stress in that role, however it was on being referred to a therapist that she had her first real revelation. She explains, “My confidence was at a real low and I told my therapist that I was too stupid to follow a career that would really interest me. He was surprised and said that I seemed very intelligent to him, and suggested I take a look at Birkbeck, where he had studied Psychology.” Although the idea of returning to education was daunting, Paola was reassured to hear of Birkbeck’s diverse and inclusive student body, knowing that she wouldn’t be the only person returning to study after a gap. Still, it took her a year to pluck up the courage to apply. “I attended a Birkbeck open evening and was really inspired by how the lecturers talked about their subject,” she explains, “I knew that I’d enjoy being a student there.”

Seeing things differently

As a child, Paola was fascinated by people who were different from herself and their rituals and dynamics, well before she had heard of anthropology. Having previously tried to teach herself about the topic, she realised she’d gain so much more from going to university. It was nerve-wracking returning to study, but she soon felt comfortable among her fellow students, many of whom have become lifelong friends.

Despite enjoying her course, Paola soon began to experience the familiar struggle to keep up. This time, though, things didn’t end in failure. A turning point came when a friend on her course suggested that Paola might have dyslexia and encouraged her to arrange a test. “The support from the disability team was amazing,” says Paola, “they arranged for me to see an educational psychologist and I discovered that I was dyslexic.”

Although relieved to understand why she struggled with reading, Paola still found the demands of study alongside work very tough. The usual concerns that might face a part-time student, such as time management and returning to study after a gap, were compounded by the fact that English was Paola’s fourth language and she needed additional time to work through the course materials. “It felt like I was working forty-eight hours a day at times,” she remembers.

With the support of her lecturers and a very understanding tutor, Paola received the help she needed to complete her degree. She explains “for me, studying at Birkbeck taught me to see the world differently. Partly because I was studying anthropology, but also because I developed critical thinking skills that I’d never had to use before. Birkbeck taught me the academic skills I needed so well that I wrote my 11,000 word thesis in five days – previously I struggled to complete a 2,000 word essay over three weeks! I ended up getting a first for my research, which really proved to me what I was capable of.”

A lifelong learner

Studying at Birkbeck may have changed Paola’s life, but she didn’t have to wait to collect her degree for those changes to start to take shape. Two years into her course, she left her job and took up a position as a project manager at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She now uses her marketing skills to promote the research taking place at the School, and volunteers on equalities and ethics committees to use her skills for social good. She explains “I don’t have a job now, I have a career. I love the team, I love what I do and I feel like we’re contributing to society.” But Paola’s passion for education doesn’t stop here: she still sees a tutor and is now teaching project management skills to doctoral students, as well as co-writing a book on project management for health research. When her mum texted her the picture of Senate House that she had sent all those years ago, it felt like she had come full circle.

Paola took a photo of Senate House when she first visited London, saying “One day I will study here.”

She says: “Birkbeck helped me to discover a side to me that’s always been there, but that I’ve never been allowed to show before. I’m not going to stop here – sometimes it’s just about having the courage to achieve, with the right people behind you.”

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