Author Archives: Rebekah

Mentoring on the Compass Project

Luke Williams is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing, member of the Compass Project Steering Committee and mentor. In this blog, he speaks to Natasha Soobramanien about his involvement in the project.

A laptop with a sign that says 'we rise by helping others'

I’ve been involved in the Compass Project since it began in 2016. Right from the start we realised that if we wanted to offer scholarships to people from forced migrant backgrounds, we also needed to make sure those students received the support they might need to thrive at Birkbeck. Each student on the Compass Project has a mentor, an academic at Birkbeck who elects to support them through their studies.

Compass Project students face particular challenges in relation to British institutions: government policy is designed to create a hostile institutional environment for migrants, and educational institutions are no exception to this. But the university is also a place to gain and share knowledge, and to form friendships with others. Our job as mentors is to give Compass Project students practical and moral support so that they remain able to focus on the positive and rewarding aspects of student life, and the opportunities Birkbeck offers.

The mentoring role is a little like a personal tutor, but involves a lot more contact and communication, and flexibility. On average I speak to my mentee around three to four times a month. It could be a simple check-in, or a response to a request, like support with an essay, or help liaising with other departments or services. I’ve helped out with finding a laptop and looking for a place to live. In the current pandemic, this kind of contact is particularly necessary for students who might already feel quite isolated. I’d say this role has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my involvement in the Compass Project.

Before the Compass Project, I’d volunteered for several years at Akwaaba, a Hackney-based social centre for migrants, so I had some awareness of the stressful logistical, bureaucratic and emotional complexities faced by migrants. Getting involved with the Compass Project allowed me to find a way to align the advocacy, creative work, and activism I was involved in at Akwaaba, with my day job at Birkbeck.

Through my role as a mentor I have met some amazing people. I’ve enjoyed our conversations, and learned a lot. Everyone at Birkbeck knows that universities are in a precarious position right now, and that our roles as academics are increasingly co-opted by the marketisation of education. Getting involved in the Compass Project feels like a gesture of resistance against this deliberate erosion of what is truly valuable in the university, which is to say study – and the freedom to do this with others.

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Amplifying the voices they don’t want you to hear

Heidi McCafferty (she/her) is a postgraduate student at Birkbeck, University of London, studying for an MSc in Criminology. She is a mother, intersectional feminist, anti-racism activist and founder of Affinity Research and Development. She lives near Oxford with her family and plans to begin her PhD next year.

I first visited Warm Springs Correctional Center in 2019. It was beside the jarring, razor-sharp fences that stretch on for eternity, that I fell into conversation with other women waiting to visit. One had been up since 3am and had driven from the Bay Area through the stunning but treacherous mountains of Nevada to reach her son.

“He has been down for 20 years,” she told me as her eyes filled with tears. “He made a bad decision as a teenager”. Another, a primary school teacher, told me with a weary smile, how she visits her nephew there every weekend.

I initially started visiting a pen pal I had who was part of the Pups on Parole Programme. Led by the Nevada Humane Society, it trains incarcerated men to rehabilitate stray and last-chance dogs, so they can find homes. I was interested in the programme’s impressive low recidivism rates and the hope it gave to both the dogs and their trainers. I gradually learned more stories about those who are serving prison sentences. I heard examples of degrading and inhumane treatment inflicted by certain Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) staff members in various facilities, from unwarranted stints in solitary confinement, to extreme physical and emotional violence, compared with stories of NDOC staff who genuinely care, who act with professionalism and compassion and shine like beacons within these bleak, dark spaces. It is easy to feel initially overwhelmed when you explore the realities of the US ‘justice’ system. What can you do when you live 5000 miles away? That was the question I asked myself…

I would like to introduce you to Michael Wadsworth, another friend I met through the programme. He has kindly granted me permission to share his story. He has been in prison since 18. He was sentenced to up to 100 years by an all-white jury for his role in a tragic accident as a teenager. Michael had a promising football career, but just before he was due to begin a program at Feather River College in California, he was attacked outside a store by a group of men. While being chased, Michael took out the gun he kept on him for self-defence, as millions of Americans do, and shot at the ground to slow them down. In a tragic twist of fate, a bullet hit the leg of one of the attackers and caused him to lose his life. An all-white jury decided Michael was guilty of first-degree murder. This means a premeditated, planned act, the most serious of all prosecutions. That was the day the State of Nevada stole Michael’s life.

Michael has been in prison for 16 years. All his appeals failed. His family does not have the $50,000 needed for an attorney. Just one 15-minute local phone call from the facility costs the equivalent of £1.50. After spending time getting to know Michael and his inspiring Nana, who demonstrates psychological strength and Christian faith I can only dream of, we set up the #FreeMichael campaign. We built a website, recorded a short film, scripted and voiced by Michael, set up social media, a crowd-funding campaign and even launch a Free Michael podcast series on 12 March. We have already raised over $5500, but need $45,000 more to secure the representation of Kristina Wildeveld, one of the top attorneys in Nevada. She has already had a consultation with Michael and will help us get Michael’s case presented to the Nevada Pardons Board. If successful, he could be eligible for parole as soon as 2025. It would mean Michael still has a chance of living his life, of following his dream of becoming a youth mentor and having a family.

I am a mother, run a business and am a committed activist, so I was reluctant to throw a Master’s in. But Birkbeck makes studying this way possible. My studies here are allowing me to gain the academic foundation I need to progress. It is teaching me how to conduct my own research and gather my own evidence. I chose the MSc Criminology  in the Law School because the modules were engaging and relevant to my activism. It is helping to expand my knowledge and understanding, so I am better able to amplify the voices of those trapped in a system designed to silence them.

I plan to begin my PhD next year and will focus on exposing the culture of racism within NDOC through digital storytelling, allowing former inmates to anonymously share their experiences and allow their collective voices to help implement change.

To close, I would like to reflect on how the media and government assure us that without incarceration, the world would fall into apocalyptic-style chaos. But what the media and government misses, is how many men and women remain caged, often for decades, for poor decisions they made as teenagers, for addictions, trauma or because they were failed by the system designed to protect them. They neglect to highlight the numerous stages of missed-interventions, due to a lack of resources and state funding that could have changed the courses of so many lives. They fail to respond to questions around why members of Black and Minority ethnic communities continue to receive disproportionate, harsher sentences than white individuals. The evidence shows US prisons aren’t effective, they don’t rehabilitate, they make private companies billions of dollars each year, strip families of resources, separate parents from their children, nurture violence and exacerbate mental ill-health and trauma.

We all have a duty to challenge systemic racism and transform structures like the US ‘justice’ system. Especially the most privileged of us in society.

Black Lives Matter, they always have, and they always will.

Find out how you can support the #FreeMichael campaign at www.free-michael.com.

 

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Taking on the challenges of the pandemic to embrace a world of opportunities in London

Flexibility and daytime freedom are what led Oghenemine Djebah to choose Birkbeck to study an MA/LLM Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. In this blog, the Nigerian student shares his journey so far with us.    

Oghenemine Djebah

Oghenemine Djebah

After obtaining an LLB from the Delta State University, Oghenemine Djebah enrolled at the Nigerian Law School, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws and was subsequently called to the Nigerian bar. Since then, he has been in active legal practice in Nigeria.

He worked for two notable law firms (Rotimi Jacobs & Co. and Zatts Law Chambers) and volunteered to give free legal services through a registered NGO (Fundamental Rights Enforcement Enlightenment and Defense).

During a 2019 visit to London, Oghenemine fell for the culture and diversity of the city. So, when his desire to gain more in-depth knowledge of the workings of the law inspired him to pursue an LLM he naturally focused his search on universities in the capital. “I started searching for an institution that would be flexible enough to let me work or volunteer while I studied. I found out about Birkbeck on the internet and the evening lectures tallied with the type of institution I was looking for, so I applied and was given admission into the School of Law.”

As the pandemic took hold around the world, Oghenemine considered deferring his admission by a year. “Because of the financial challenges caused by COVID-19 it was quite a challenge getting the initial deposit in time. The management of Birkbeck recognised this and made the concession of reducing the initial deposit by 90% for all international students, which gave me the opportunity to meet all of the requirements and enroll for the 2020 session.” In recognition of his potential Oghenemine was subsequently awarded a Birkbeck International scholarship and a School of Law Postgraduate Award.

The pandemic’s impact was not only financial as, first the Autumn, then the Spring terms were moved online. Oghenemine embraced the challenges and attended online orientation, public lectures as well as the international student’s virtual event at the beginning of the academic year. He reflected: “The international student event was really helpful for me in understanding my role as an international student, including the benefits and how to tap into them.”

Oghenemine has also been making good use of the online services available to students: “The Birkbeck Careers platform is great and enables students not only to see available jobs and apply but also to help teach them how to prepare for interviews and tailor their CVs and cover letters to meet professional standards.”

With a few months of studies under his belt, the Nigerian student assesses his time learning online. “This is actually my first time doing any course via virtual learning. It is quite challenging because I do not get to meet with other students and make good connections which is also part of the university life. However, the lectures have been going great, better than I expected because we are provided with pre-recorded videos for each lecture. The COVID-19 pandemic has made everything different, from living, to studying. Not being able to meet physically and always being indoors has made this period a bit difficult. I look forward to having the opportunity to meet physically with my fellow students and lecturers before graduating from Birkbeck.”

More than anything the Law student sees and embraces the positives studying in London and at Birkbeck can bring: “London is well known for welcoming international students globally, including from Nigeria. Being a student in London enables you to be a part of a well-integrated international and diverse community. London is a city with a lot of opportunities for everyone beyond academic programs. I advise all Nigerians who wish to study internationally to study in London and join a diverse community and tap into the available opportunities.”

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Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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“In such times (…) one has to renew their minds and spirit to focus on the goal”

Nozipho Nomzana Mziyako from Eswatini, a Chevening scholar and MSc Corporate Responsibility & Sustainability student, shares her thoughts about studying in the UK in these extraordinary times.

Nozipho at the London Eye

 

There have been many things I had planned and hoped for by applying to study in the UK: like, making new friends and forming networks on campus and beyond, exploring the UK and Europe, alas it is definitely an extraordinary time and the ongoing pandemic cannot be ignored.   In such times these things seem far-fetched and each day one has to renew their minds and spirit to focus on the goal: to do one’s best and make the most of this experience. Studying at Birkbeck has helped with this renewal of mind not only through its easy learning experience but also by being helpful in certain areas that could have, if not handled well, hindered my first term experience.

With only less than a month left to depart my home country, I still had no idea where I would be accommodated and did not know any other students to share accommodation with. In an unexpected turn, the Birkbeck International office reached out just to check up on me and I relayed my frustration. Through them, I found International Students House, which has been homely and provides various activities to ensure student wellbeing, such as; physical health activities, study rooms, security and a restaurant among many other facilities. I feel at home. The office has also been helpful in facilitating a number of issues on my Biometric Residence Permit and Bank account requirements.

Online classes experience

Although no one expected to be learning online, I think Birkbeck has ensured that theNozipho London street Chrsitmas process has worked to the benefit of students and this I got to really appreciate when preparing for my exams. With the pre-recorded Panopto lecture sessions, one can pace themselves, pause and rewind to get a better understanding of each week’s lessons. This way, you have focused questions for your lecturers which can be asked and addressed during the live sessions on the Moodle platform, if not, lecturers are available via email and tend to be very responsive. Moodle live sessions are recorded and saved, so even if the pre-recorded session and live lecture make no sense (yes, it happens), you can still go back to the platform and access material for revision and understanding.  While you cannot see everyone during the live sessions, you do get to engage with the lecturer and the class with audio and video on and there are group break-away sessions for one-hour or so discussions where group representatives then provide feedback back to the whole class.

Preparing for class: Discipline and Managing priorities

Live sessions are usually 90 minutes – two hours or more if there is group work. Preparing for a lecture requires a lot of discipline and priority management. There are a number of reading materials and pre-session activities one has to go through to fully grasp the weekly sessions. What Birkbeck has done is provide these on Moodle and there’s a box to tick upon completion, which I have found helpful in tracking my progress. Furthermore, all (if not most) recommended readings are available on the university’s library platforms.

There’s really no formula that can be applied in covering so much material and activitiesNozipho at her working station before and post-lecture sessions. However, through the Birkbeck Futures platform, which provides weekly learning content on how to, for instance, manage your time, I have created my own way of managing priorities and not necessary time, in this I have included time for myself and engaging with others, as a task. Even if it is two hours or even a day off to myself, to explore the Royal Parks, renowned Landmarks and the city using the tube or London double-decker bus; putting myself in the equation has assisted me in clearing my mind and creating a road map to tackling my module works. Sitting at your desk, overthinking and having little movement can have a negative impact on your productivity.

Gaining mentorship

While each student is given a personal tutor to assist with choosing modules and discussing the course, applying for the mentorship program has been one of my highlights in the first term. I am currently undergoing a career transition and my thoughts are everywhere. Through Birkbeck’s mentorship program, I have gained unexpected guidance and support from my mentor. I am now beginning to focus my goals and clarify my interests which keeps me grounded and reminds me why I set out to do my chosen course. The Birkbeck Futures team has numerous programmes that can assist in aligning career aspirations and I plan on completing them soon.

The journey continues…

In October, Birkbeck hosted a socially distanced meet and greet for Chevening 2020-Nozipho in the Park 2021 Scholars. This gesture helped us get to know each other and through this, support systems have been formed. I really look forward to face-to-face sessions, meeting my lecturers, and to having conversations and chilling at Birkbeck facilities.  We hope that this term and year gets better, that there are fewer cases and deaths and that we get to fully engage with our colleagues, lecturers, and the UK. Until then, we keep safe and do our best in our studies.

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5 podcasts to listen to on Holocaust Memorial Day

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day 2021, a day that encourages remembrance in a world scarred by genocides. The 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps in Europe. During the Holocaust six million Jewish men, women and children lost their lives, so on Holocaust Memorial Day we honour and remember the memory of those who were lost and those who survived.

Over the years the Birkbeck Pears Institute for the Study for Antisemitism has produced podcasts that touch on different aspects of this history, through the lens of academics from a range of institutions. They are all free to listen to. There will be a live event on 2 February. 

Letters EdithNewYear

A letter from a child called Edith. Letters will be discussed as part of ‘ Holding on Through Letters: Jewish Families During the Holocaust’ a live online event on that will be held on 2 February.

1. A Bystander Society? Passivity and Complicity in Nazi Germany

Professor Mary Fulbrook, University College London, 18 February 2020

Exploring experiences of Nazi persecution, Professor Fulbrook analyses the conditions under which people were more or less likely to show sympathy with victims of persecution, or to become complicit with racist policies and practices. In seeking to combat collective violence, understanding the conditions for widespread passivity, Professor Fulbrook suggests, may be as crucial as encouraging individuals to stand up for others in the face of prejudice and oppression. Listen on the Pears Institute website.

2. ‘Warrant for Genocide’? Hitler, the Holocaust and the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’

Professor Richard Evans, Birkbeck, University of London, 4 February 2019

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious antisemitic forgery dating from the beginning of the 20th century, have been called ‘the supreme expression and vehicle of the myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy’. In his talk, Professor Evans takes a fresh look at the Protocols. He asks whether either the contents of the document or the evidence of Hitler’s speeches and writings justify these claims and examines the light they throw on the origins and nature of Nazi antisemitism. Listen on the Pears Institute website.

3. Antisemitism, ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ and Violence: Inclusion and Exclusion in Nazi Germany

Professor Michael Wildt, Humboldt University, Berlin, 27 January 2016

Professor Wildt explores antisemitism and violence in Nazi Germany. By definition, the Nazi Volkgemeinschaft – the national community, barred all Jewish Germans. National Socialist politics included the exercise of violence, and violence against Jews was a visible expression of the Volksgemeinschaft – it was antisemitism in action.  Listen on the Pears Institute’s website.

4. Remapping Survival: Jewish Refugees and Rescue in Soviet Central Asia, Iran and India

Professor Atina Grossmann, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, New York, 28 January 2015

Professor Grossmann addresses a transnational Holocaust story that remarkably – despite several decades of intensive scholarly and public attention to the history and memory of the Shoah – has remained essentially untold, marginalized in both historiography and commemoration. Listen on the Pears Institute’s website.

On the 2 February, the Pears Institute in collaboration with the Institute of Historical Research will host a live event, that is free to attend.

5. Holding on Through Letters: Jewish Families During the Holocaust

Professor Debórah Dwork, The City University of New York

2 February 2021

Jewish families in Nazi Europe tried to hold onto each other through letters – but what to say, and about what to remain silent? In her presentation, Professor Dwork will trace how letters became threads stitching loved ones into each other’s constantly changing daily lives.  Book your free place.

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Supporting and co-producing with communities during COVID-19

Our ‘Community Leadership for Newham Residents’ course funded by The National Lottery Community Fund,  provides a space for local people with an interest in volunteering and community projects to come together, network and learn about community development. Since it began in September 2019, we’ve had over 100 residents join us at both online and face to face workshops. Read our recent blogs on reaching this milestone and delivering the programme online during COVID-19.

Sign with together written on it

A key part of the programme is co-production and ensuring that our sessions meet the needs and interests of people in Newham. Throughout 2020, we’ve worked with participants of the programme to develop a series of videos sharing their experiences and expertise on subjects such as parenting and resilience, digital inclusion and successful fundraising. This has been an important part of moving towards a course which is co-produced and breaking down perceptions of barriers or divides between academic teaching and practical, everyday lived experiences.

One of the key worries for many of the community groups we work with this year has been funding existing or new projects. In many ways and for many people, 2020 was an exceedingly difficult year and lots of groups have faced challenges keeping their services going.

On the 14 December 2020, following participants requests for more information about funds, grants and raising money we bought together a panel of experts from a variety of community organisations to run a special event for our Community Leadership participants on Fundraising and Funding Applications.

David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography opened the workshop by giving an overview of the current funding landscape and highlighting the many COVID-19 recovery funds available for community, charitable and faith organisations. It was great to also be joined by Emma Edgell from the Heritage Lottery Foundation, Caroline Rouse from Compost Community Interest Company and Darragh Gray from Bonny Downs Community Association and CHIPS.

The conversation was wide-ranging, from digital fundraising to writing a good funding application, and expanding your network of donors. Participants really appreciated having a space to ask direct questions to funders and experienced fundraisers, especially those who had recently set up new organisations or initiaves to meet local needs during the pandemic, such as the Newham Solidarity Fund.

We’re looking forward to more Community Leadership events this year. The value that creating spaces for conversations, networking and sharing knowledge, especially at this time can’t be underestimated. As one of our participants emailed me saying following the event, ‘Birkbeck rocks’ and we hope to keep rocking it by offering support and spaces for learning in Newham throughout 2021.

 

 

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Life of an international student during a pandemic

Embarking on studies in the UK has been made even more challenging due to the pandemic. In this blog, Presley Gitari tells us what motivated him to study at Birkbeck, and his life as an international student.

Presley Gitari

My name is Presley Gitari. I am 27 years old and my nationality is Kenyan. I am a conservation biologist currently pursuing an MSc in Climate Change at Birkbeck, University of London on a Chevening Scholarship.

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated by the natural world. It has fuelled my curiosity to learn about how the environment works and how we can conserve it for future generations. I attained a BSc in Environmental Conservation and Natural Resource Management from the University of Nairobi. My previous role was with Kenya’s Interior Ministry where I was working on a programme which focused on helping underserved communities in utilising environmental conservation as a socio-economic empowerment tool. I was both humbled and honoured to contribute to our country’s goal of achieving 10% tree cover by 2022.

Why Birkbeck?

Presley with Chevening scholar sign I was drawn to Birkbeck’s diverse and talented faculty and student base. While searching online for a graduate course focusing on Climate Change, I stumbled upon the College which had an impressive course overview and also had an opportunity to listen to an introductory lecture by Dr. Becky Briant on ‘Climate Change and the River Thames’ I was impressed by the factual analysis in the lecture. It was also an incentive that being an evening university, I could interact with students who bring perspectives from their daytime jobs into the classroom, which has been an enriching experience.

Being awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office was an exhilarating prospect. In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel arrangements were thrown into disarray which created a lot of uncertainty about whether we would travel to the UK or continue our autumn lectures virtually. Eventually, Kenya lifted the ban on international flights which was a huge relief.

Moving to London

I have been to London before to attend an international meeting and as always have been fascinated how diverse London really is. A real melting-pot of cultures! Getting used to the tube was made easier by technology which makes getting between points a seamless experience. Coming from a coastal city with a laid-back demeanour it is quite a cultural turn-up for the books having to experience the hustle and bustle of an international hub that London is. I have taken a huge liking for the amazing parks where I regularly go out for a jog or just to admire the scenic beauty on afternoon walks (the squirrels are an interesting lot!).

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t got to visit many attractions as I would have loved to, but I keep an ever-growing list of places to visit when many of the affected places open up.

Studying during pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Birkbeck’s shift towards virtual learning has been possible by asynchronous as well as synchronous learning activities. The asynchronous component takes the form of pre-session activities. We get to interact with pre-recorded lectures, activities and reading material on our university Moodle platform. I usually set aside 1-2 hours in the evening in preparation for our live session where we go over the provided material with our lecturers and ask questions. This forms the synchronous component. We then join a seminar session where we are divided into groups to carry out joint activities which in many ways provides an opportunity for us to put into practice the knowledge acquired from the pre-session as well as the live session.

In a particular module, we had the opportunity to work on a group presentation highlighting a key environmental report which beyond building my in-depth understanding of the content of the material also helped me develop my communication skills. We use Blackboard Collaborate for our live sessions, as well Microsoft Teams for one-to-one interactions with our tutors and dissertation supervisors. The platforms allow for students to efficiently interact and present material, as well as take polls. We also make use of Google Jam Boards which allow all students to put in their contributions without feeling left out. The broad array of options provided by these platforms are suitable for both extroverted and introverted personalities. The live sessions and group work/presentations take about an hour and a half.

A typical day for me would start with a jog in the park or a visit to the gym. I then work from home through the afternoon. I usually take my live sessions from home but sometimes use the Library if I happen to have a book that I need to collect or drop off. The Library has set aside safe spaces to study and participate in lectures which one may access by reserving online, especially for students who may not have a conducive learning environment from home.

Challenges and highlights

Being far away from home in the midst of a pandemic has been quite a challenge. The situation diminishes any opportunities for human connections which form an important role in our mental and physical well-being as a social species. The pressure is thus more on international students who are far away from their loved ones and seek to form crucial connections with their new environment.

My highlight in the UK is when on a whim, I hired a Santander bike and decided to ride from Buckingham Palace, taking in the sights of London’s architecture, finally ending up at Canary Wharf! It was a healthy and environmentally friendly way of introducing myself to London.

I look forward to fully interacting with my fellow students as well as having the full Birkbeck experience when we will be able to. My 2020 has been an opportunity to reflect and develop gratitude for many of life’s pleasures which we take for granted.

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What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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“Birkbeck was fantastic…I have been looking for opportunities to give something back”

In September, a 2017 recipient of the Compass Project Sanctuary Scholarship, Michael led a wellbeing workshop for mentors of the Compass Project. These mentors are academics at Birkbeck who volunteer to mentor a Compass scholar during their course.

Drawing on his past experiences as a mentee, Counselling student and person seeking asylum, here is what Michael had to say about the session.

Michael

Michael Darko

Why did you want to offer a wellbeing training workshop to Compass mentors?

My experience of being at Birkbeck was fantastic, I always felt valued there and since completing my course, I have been looking for opportunities to give something back. Drawing on my expertise as a student and in a caring role for many years, I chose to offer this workshop to mentors. Having had a superb mentor-mentee relationship, I wanted to offer this in support and appreciation of mentors’ commitment and sacrifice and importantly, share a mentee’s perspective through the workshop.

What did the workshop involve?

As the focus of the workshop was on wellbeing and self-care, I encouraged the use of a self-care ‘toolbox’ for academic mentors to support not only their mentees but themselves too. I started by giving a presentation on the complexities and challenges often faced by forced migrant students. This included the potential changes to their precarious statuses and how this might affect their university performance and health.

The second part of the workshop consisted of raising awareness of possible secondary stress responses that can affect mentors. I reflected on methods of self-care already in use by the mentors, offered practical breathing and stretching exercises and emphasised the importance of signposting to external support when necessary.

What did it feel like to be presenting to Birkbeck academics?

I felt proud presenting to Birkbeck academics. I expected to be nervous, and although I had not slept the previous night, I was surprisingly relaxed and confident about the workshop. I had a lot of support from the lovely Isabelle (Compass co-ordinator), who is always available, supportive and encouraging which helped a great deal with my confidence.

Leading the workshop was a personal goal that I accomplished. It reaffirmed that I am proud of who I am becoming and showed me that I should never be afraid of making mistakes and getting things done. Just do it and learn from the mistakes.

What are you up to now?

I am currently in my second year at Goldsmiths, University of London where I am studying BA Psychosocial Studies. Despite the volume of reading materials and the frequency of assignments, I am thoroughly enjoying the course and gaining some unimagined practical skills from my Research Methods module, a delightful surprise for someone who has a dislike for maths! Being aware of my individual learning style, which I identified during my time at Birkbeck, means that my engagement with the course contents is managed in a way that supports my development.

What is your favourite memory from your time at Birkbeck?

I genuinely had many pleasant moments, but my best memory is the help I received when I hit rock bottom. I became homeless in the winter and came close to leaving my course. I felt like everything was stacking up against me, then I made a phone call to Naureen, the Compass Project Officer at the time, who worked her magic to help me find a place to stay. Because of that help, I completed my course, without which I would not be where I am today.

Another favourite memory is of the support and safe space provided by my mentor, Ben. When Bail 201 came into effect, I was threatened with losing my freedom to study. I remember going to visit Ben, who calmly created a safe space where I could start taking apart the problem at hand and focusing on what I could do. I remember this moment fondly because I received so much support from him, my lecturer Anne and the Compass team. I tackled the Home Office in court about their ‘no study’ decision with no legal representation and won. This was an astounding moment and because of the level of support I had from Birkbeck, I was able to face the Home Office, not feeling alone or scared.

 

 

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