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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‘As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck’ – an MSc student shares her experience

Nadia Raharinirina, whose passion for education led her to apply for Birkbeck’s MSc Education, Power and Social Changereflects on her reasons for choosing the College and the support she has received as an international student.

Before coming to Birkbeck, I ran the international exchange program at a local business school in Madagascar. My work gave me a global outlook by allowing me to build connections with overseas universities and meet students from all over the world, sparking in me a desire to learn more about education.

I chose Birkbeck because of its excellent academic and research reputation: the opportunity to study alongside other professionals at a research-intensive university was one that I couldn’t miss. Evening study was very convenient because it allowed me more time for other activities during the day, for which Birkbeck, with its easy access to restaurants, parks and historic locations, is perfect. The College and surroundings are a busy, cosmopolitan place with plenty of history to uncover too.

It takes a good deal of perseverance to apply for a Chevening scholarship, as the process takes a year. It’s exciting to prepare for such a life-changing opportunity, but it’s scary as well as you might not be successful. I’m so pleased that my efforts in applying paid off.

Being a Chevening scholar is one of the most prestigious opportunities I’ve ever had in my life. It has not only given me access to a renowned university in the UK, but allowed me to connect with future leaders from all over the world. Before Chevening, I didn’t know much about the UK, but my experience here has been priceless, not only because of the education I’ve received, but because of the people I’ve met who’ll be friends for life.

Birkbeck offers a range of accommodation for international students. I was attracted to the International Lutheran Student Centre for its vibrant, inclusive feel. For me, it was the perfect place because I could call it home. Students connect with each other through different events and activities, which is exactly what international students need: a local community.

I’ve had a really enjoyable year at Birkbeck. Evening classes allowed me to study alongside a part-time job and other activities during the day. The different workshops were extremely helpful for me as an international student to integrate into the College and reintegrate into the academic world. Birkbeck Talent allowed me to access a range of professional advice and opportunities, through which I found my part-time job. Their advice was so helpful in understanding and preparing for the professional world in the UK. I am especially grateful I can still benefit from their services even after my studies at Birkbeck. The library is a great space to study; it’s very calm with generous opening hours. As an international student, there was a lot of support from Birkbeck which allowed me to smoothly integrate into the academic world and the local culture.

During my studies in MSc Education, Power and Social Change, I learned about the dynamics of education in a globalized system, the different powers around it and its transformative potential. I was so inspired by how education can transform something, someone, and alongside my studies, I’ve been looking for ways to implement that. As education is my passion, strengthened by the inspiration of the support and opportunities Birkbeck and the UK gives to its students, I decided to create a platform, Madagrads.com, to encourage students in Madagascar to grow personally and professionally through the different opportunities around them. The goal is to help improve the lives of students in Madagascar and to create a better future for them. In the long term, my plan for the future would be a role as an advocate for education in one of the International Organisations such as the United Nations, to impact more lives, not only in my country, but also globally.

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