Birkbeck’s London Landscapes

Richard Clark, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, writes about how Birkbeck is woven into the very framework of the capital city. This blog is a part of a series that celebrates Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary in 2023. 

Unlike paper maps, smartphone navigation will tell you how to get there but not what’s around you. But search through the index of an old ‘A to Z’ map of London and if your destination starts with ‘B’, you’ll probably be surprised to notice quite a few ‘Birkbeck’ place-names.

Birkbeck roads survive today in Hornsey N8, in Finchley N12, in Tottenham N17 and in Mill Hill NW7.  There are more in Ealing W5, and in Wimbledon SW7and Acton W3.  Acton also has a Birkbeck Mews, and there is a Birkbeck Grove in leafy Acton Park.  Dulwich SE21 has a Birkbeck Hill and a Birkbeck Place and the pub-like building where they join was once precisely that – the Birkbeck Tavern.  In east London, Bethnal Green E2 has a Birkbeck Street, Dalston E8 has a Birkbeck Road (as well as another Birkbeck Mews) and Leyton E11 has two Birkbeck Roads, North and South, as well as another Birkbeck Tavern – still a lively pub protected by its patrons who saved it from redevelopment by a campaigning ‘Birkfest’.

Outside the London postcode area, there are yet more Birkbeck roads — in Beckenham, in Brentwood, in Enfield, in Ilford, in Romford and in Sidcup.  There’s a Birkbeck Gardens in Woodford and a Birkbeck Avenue and a Birkbeck Way in Greenford.  Beckenham has its Birkbeck Station (established as Birkbeck Halt in 1858).

More Birkbeck place names can be found on old maps and census records of the London area.  For example Birkbeck Road, Birkbeck Place and Birkbeck Terrace in Streatham, Wandsworth, are recorded in the 1881 and 1891 census but have subsequently been lost as have Birkbeck Road and Birkbeck Place, Camberwell which appear also in the censuses of 1871.  Elthorne Road in Archway N19 started life as Birkbeck Road as did Holmesdale Road in Highgate N6.  Both had Birkbeck Taverns – the former is now converted into ‘Birkbeck Flats’ (but still, like the Dulwich Tavern, recognisably an old pub).  The Boogaloo at the top of Holmesdale Road is still a pub — a lively music and comedy venue, well worth a visit, with a ‘Birkbeck’ mosaic (desperately in need of protection) testifying to its past still on the threshold as you enter.

All the above have a close connection with Birkbeck, University of London, and reveal something of the College’s past.  Greenford’s Birkbeck Avenue and Way are the most recent.  Both are named after what used to be the Birkbeck College Sports Ground, leased to the College by the City Parochial Foundation from the 1920s until 1998 when governors felt they could no longer justify the rent.  Today’s lessee is the London Marathon Charitable Trust and the ground’s football, rugby and cricket pitches serve clubs across West London.

Several of the Birkbeck toponyms – for example those in Bethnal Green, in Dalston and in Camberwell — are associated with the Birkbeck Schools, established by William Ellis between 1848 and the early 1860s.  Ellis was one of the founders and benefactors of Birkbeck College’s predecessor, the London Mechanic’s Institute —his name appears on a foundation stone in the lobby of the Malet Street entrance.  One Birkbeck School building — today Colvestone Primary School in Dalston — still stands, its structure (including well-lit classrooms in place of dull monitorial halls) reflecting what for the time were Ellis’s progressive educational theories.  The schools were set up to teach children ‘social economy’ as an antidote to the radical socialist ‘political economy’ then gaining ground in Europe and they prefigured the civics curricula taught in English schools today.

Most of the other toponyms mark the locations of ‘Birkbeck Estates’ – land purchased and developed by the Birkbeck Land and Building Societies established in the premises of the London Mechanics Institute by Francis Ravenscroft in 1851.  Ravenscroft had joined the LMI as a student a couple of years previously, became a Governor, and set up the Building Society as a ‘penny savings bank’ to encourage thrift and diligence amongst its students, offering them the prospect of a house – and (for the men) a vote.  Initially based in a cupboard in the LMI’s office, the Societies grew to become a major bank, taking over the LMI’s premises and financing its move —as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution — to new premises nearby.  Without Ravenscroft (his bust sits on a windowsill in the Council Room) Birkbeck College would probably not exist today.  The estates played a significant role in the suburbanisation of London and are interesting for many reasons – not least because, unlike the temperance building societies of the period, they featured pubs.

For more on the story of the Birkbeck Bank and Building Society, watch out for a subsequent blog or have a look here. And there’s some information on the Birkbeck Boozers here.  I’m about to submit a paper on the Birkbeck Schools, and perhaps I’ll blog a little later about these too.

Further information: 

 

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Dr George Birkbeck’s descendant visits the College

One of Dr George Birkbeck’s descendants dropped into Birkbeck prior to Christmas 2019 to put a name to a place!

Lyndsee Baumann-Birkbeck is an academic and school teacher from Queensland, Australia and had long wanted to see the institution that bore her descendant’s name. Lyndsee was undertaking the visit, as part of a wider trip to Europe in honour of her late father who died suddenly in 2015. He never made it to visit Birkbeck and as the Birkbeck family line was through the paternal side Lyndsee felt it was the right time to visit.

Lyndsee visited Birkbeck with her husband and was greeted by Jessica Jeske, Events Manager who gave the pair a tour of Birkbeck’s Malet St building. Later on, they were greeted by Jonathan Woodhead, Birkbeck’s Policy Adviser and Jessica Goulson from the Development and Alumni team who talked through the background to the Mechanics’ Institutes which our founder was instrumental in developing. Birkbeck’s more recent history and planning of the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the founding of Birkbeck was also discussed with the pair. It is hoped that Birkbeck will be able to involve Lyndsee in any future events connected with the 200th anniversary.

Further information:

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The London Mechanics’ Institute: Its Foundation

Helen Hudson Flexner discusses the inception and impetus behind the creation of The London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823.      

London Mechanics’ Institute, Southampton Buildings, Holborn: the interior of the laboratory, in a cellar. Wood engraving by W. C. Walker after Mr. Davy [1828].
1828 By: Davyafter: William Chester Walker
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

‘Knowledge is Power’ was the rallying cry that launched Birkbeck College in 1823, in its first manifestation as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI). These words, designed to appeal to uneducated men, headed the Mechanics’ Magazine proposal for a new technical institution and it couldn’t be missed, as the huge-selling magazine was a favourite among artisans interested in the latest inventions. Today large companies control major manufacturing sectors. Back then, a man could make his fortune with a new process or speedier production. So the LMI was set up to empower men with the latest science in this ‘steam intellect’ society.

George Birkbeck, radical teacher and London physician, was immediately on board.      Such was his standing that he chaired the inaugural meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 11 November 1823.  Many who flooded into the tavern were proudly working class: carpenters, jewellers, iron mongers, weavers, precision instrument makers, engineers, and printers. They were necessarily autodidacts, simply because there was no state funded education at the time. The metropolis, with its well-paid artisanal base, provided a ready audience for the new institute.

Although others who came to the launch and joined the LMI were not working class, the Institute was designed for the ‘lower orders’. Indeed, Birkbeck, president of the Institute from 1823-1842, reported in 1837 that two thirds of the membership had always been working class. The Institute even legislated to ensure that two thirds of the management committee was working class, and on nomination a man’s class had to be identified. Thus, the workers’ interests were always represented. Soon, some of the working-class members were running classes themselves, while their inventions were showcased in lectures. The Institute’s egalitarian ethos even extended to women who could attend lectures from 1825 and were able to become members in 1830.

Fees weren’t extravagant: five shillings a quarter, probably a day’s wage for an artisan, or £17 in today’s money. For this, the men gained access to workshops, a chemistry lab, an apparatus room containing geological specimens, drawing equipment and mechanical instruments, a good library, classes and lectures. In these decades before professionalisation, the lecturers encouraged their audiences to challenge what they heard. William Frend, a unitarian radical who had been expelled from Cambridge University for campaigning against the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglian faith, told the LMI audience to ignore any ‘appeal to the wisdom of our ancestors’. Their new world was in the making.

Working Londoners made the most of this liberating environment. Some used it to change their vocation, which itself could bring higher status.  George Francis was a shoe-maker, but made his name in optics at the LMI. Called to the LMI stage to explain his improved eye glasses, he was described as ‘a plain and unassuming workman’ who ‘addressed the assembly … in very clear and intelligible language, though evidently unpolished by the refinements of education.’ By 1828 Francis had become ‘an optician of some celebrity’. The early history is replete with such examples.

So in its founding incarnation, Birkbeck College was a revolutionary educational institution encouraging and enabling social mobility. Within a year mechanics’ institutes sprouted up across England and Scotland. But none of them was so progressive. None had the two thirds rule. None appealed so consistently to working men. Our London institution remained the radical leader.

Helen Hudson Flexner is the author of The London Mechanics Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830‘, PhD thesis, UCL 2014. 

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Black History Month 2019: Marcus Garvey at Birkbeck

Ahead of Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary, Professor Joanna Bourke explores the history of the College in this blog series, starting with a look at Jamaican political activist, Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s time at Birkbeck. 

Birkbeck has always been a diverse community. In the 1910s, one of our students was the Jamaican revolutionary Marcus Garvey, who later co-founded (with Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood) the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League.

In 1912, 25-year-old Garvey stepped off the boat at Southampton docks. He had just arrived from Jamaica. According to the census of 1911, there were only 4,540 “Africans” (which included West Indians) living in the United Kingdom at the time. Garvey, who had just begun thinking seriously about issues of identity and race, spent the next two years travelling about the UK. His base, however, was London where, between 1912 and 1914, he attended classes in law and philosophy at Birkbeck.

He always looked back at his time in the College with fondness. His time in London had been enriched by meeting Dusé Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian, who worked as a journalist and stage actor but also wrote In the Land of the Pharaohs. It was Ali who vouched for Garvey’s honesty when he applied for a readers’ ticket admitting him into the rotunda of the British Library. This was where Garvey first read Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. As he later recalled, this book made him realise his “doom – if I may so call it”: the possibility “of being a race leader dawned on me”.

Garvey was a keen and vocal Birkbeck student; he could occasionally also be heard haranguing crowds at Hyde Park’s “Speakers’ Corner” and supporters could read his articles in the African Times and Orient Review. In the Review’s October 1913 edition, Garvey contended that the British West Indies was “the Mirror of Civilization” and he saluted “History Making by Colonial Negroes” as an achievement that should be celebrated. His time at Birkbeck was revelatory. He asked himself:

“where is the black man’s Government? Where is his King and his kingdom? where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?”

When he realised that he “could not find them”, he contended that he had a duty to “help to make them”. On 17 June 1914, he boarded the SS Trent as one of only three third-class passengers and made his way back to Jamaica. During the month-long voyage, he had time to reflect on what he had learnt at Birkbeck and in the UK. Five days after arriving back in Jamaica, the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League was born.

Throughout his life, Garvey spoke warmly about his time at Birkbeck. His affection was not dented even after he discovered that, in the early 1930s, the College had (briefly) employed Sir Fiennes Barrett-Lennard as a lecturer. In 1929, when Sir Fiennes had been Chief Justice of Jamaica, he had not only imprisoned Garvey for contempt of court but had also confiscated the property of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey was later to sardonically observe that there seemed to be:

“a kind of inseparable relationship between us and the ex-Chief [that is, Sir Fiennes as Chief Justice of Jamaica]. By goodness, he is to be connected to our Alma Mater. Little did we believe twenty years ago that Sir Fiennes would have become a member of the faculty of the College where we spent a little time.”

Garvey admitted that he would “feel very much embarrassed on a visit to England” if, while attending a graduation at Birkbeck, he discovered that the former Chief Justice was “the guest of the evening”. Garvey need not have worried: Sir Fiennes was marginal in the College and was certainly never invited to speak at any official ceremony.  Despite his disappointment in Birkbeck’s choice of lecturer, Garvey insisted that the “tradition of Birkbeck College is one that every student can be proud of”.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, is writing a history of Birkbeck for publication during the College’s 200th anniversary in 2023. Joanna is also the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric (London) and you can find out more about her Gresham College public lecture series at https://www.gresham.ac.uk/series/exploring-the-body/

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What is intrapreneurship and how can it help your career?

The life of an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone, but you can still reap the career benefits by embracing an enterprising spirit in the workplace.

Brainstorming, Business, Cheerful, Clap Hands

I don’t know about you, but a pretty clear picture springs to mind when I hear the word entrepreneur: suited and booted, firm handshake, these are the people who can talk to anyone, are interested in everything and have a remarkably persuasive knack of bringing people on board with their ideas.

While the risk-averse among us may want to steer clear of the career path of an entrepreneur, you might be surprised at how much there is to gain from embracing an entrepreneurial spirit from within an organisation.

That’s where intrapreneurs come in.

What is intrapreneurship?

Intrapreneurship involves developing the skills and mindset of an entrepreneur, but using these to benefit the company you currently work in, rather than starting up your own business.

Intrapreneurs are recognisable in organisations as the people who are confident, question how things are done and are willing to try new approaches in search of better outcomes.

What’s in it for you?

Adopting an enterprising attitude in the workplace might sound like a lot of hard work, but it’s a smart career move. Putting forward suggestions and championing new ideas allows you to put more of your own personality and interest into your role, making it ultimately more satisfying. We also know that increased autonomy at work is one of the keys to staying motivated.

Entrepreneurship develops skills that are transferable in any workplace, such as emotional intelligence, innovative thinking and leadership. Plus, any suggestions that you make and work on can be used as concrete examples of your achievements when you’re looking for your next opportunity.

What’s in it for your employer?

Although the concept of intrapreneurship has been around since the 70s, it’s becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world. Creative thinking, emotional intelligence and the ability to embrace and adapt to change, all key skills of an entrepreneur, are becoming essential in the modern workplace and are where humans differentiate themselves from artificial intelligence.

Employers value team members who are proactive, resilient and who can offer creative solutions to the challenges their business is facing.

Enterprise at Birkbeck

At Birkbeck, there are many ways to get involved with enterprise to suit any level of ability and time commitment.

  • Pioneer

Pioneer is a fantastic way to launch your enterprise journey, and applications for this year’s programme are now open. Birkbeck’s flagship enterprise course is open to Birkbeck students and recent graduates from any discipline who are looking to develop their entrepreneurial skills.

  • Workshops and Events

Birkbeck Futures host events throughout the year focusing on a different aspect of enterprise.

  • Courses in Enterprise

Birkbeck’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics has a strong reputation for research excellence and innovation and offers a range of programmes where students can prepare themselves for the modern workplace.

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Community Leadership workshops in Newham

Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer from the Access and Engagement department discusses why her team have established a course of workshops aimed at Newham residents.

What is Community Leadership? How can we build strong and successful community projects? What does Newham’s health, wellbeing and resilience look like compared to other areas in London and the UK? These were some of the questions that we were asking at our series of free Community Leadership workshops for Newham residents this September.

The work of Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department addresses the discrepancies in the take-up and outcome of higher education opportunities between different social groups and our work takes us out and about to local communities, education providers and workplaces across London.

After a year of working in Newham to deliver advice and support to local residents around higher education, attending community events and building partnerships with local groups it became clear to me that there was an appetite and a need for local learning opportunities which would support people to make change in their community.

This seemed like a perfect fit, as our Certificate Higher Education and BSc in Community Development and Social Policy was already being delivered at our Stratford campus.

Working with David Tross, who teaches on both programmes, we developed a series of free evening workshops for Newham residents delivered by David at East Ham library. These workshops were fantastically well attended with at least 24 local residents attending each week many of whom hadn’t accessed formal learning in a number of years.

The workshops covered a range of areas, from health and wellbeing to how to develop and deliver a community project. While academic research was shared through the workshops, David also ensured that there was space for residents to share their own knowledge and experiences, and network with each other. One of our sessions event led to someone finding the much searched for green sofa that they needed for their Mental Health Awareness day event!

We’re looking forward to seeing what’s next with our Community Leadership cohort. The group have expressed interest in continuing to come together around learning topics and we’re also looking to deliver another series of workshops for those who couldn’t make it the first time round!

Are you interested in getting involved with some of Access and Engagement’s work? Last week we ran our first academic open house, inviting PhD candidates, early career researchers and academics to meet with us and talk about ways we can work together.

Watch this video to find out more about the Community Leadership workshop and hear from some of the participants.

If you couldn’t make, or are a Professional Services Colleague who would like to know more about our work, join us on the evening of Tuesday 15th October to celebrate Black History Month at our Stratford campus or email us on getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

 

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The Ultimate Guide to Networking

Love it or hate it, when 85% of jobs are filled via networking, you can’t afford not to get involved. Lucy Robinson from Birkbeck’s Careers Service explains how to make networking work for you.

Play Stone, Network, Networked, Interactive, Together

If the idea of networking has you running for the door faster than you can say “So what do you do?”, you’re not alone. Many people with career ambition shy away from networking for fear of appearing manipulative, exploiting friendships for personal gain, or because they don’t know the rules of this odd social game.

The truth is, we unwittingly network all the time in our day to day lives. If you enjoy meeting with and learning from people in your university, workplace or industry, you’re already an experienced networker. Here’s how to make the most out of networking to help you achieve your career goals.

Do your homework

While networking is a far cry from a formal job interview, doing a little prep beforehand will make it worth your time. If you’re attending a formal networking event, research the people or organisations that will be there and plan who you want to speak to. Think of a few questions you might like to ask, so you can get the most out of your time when you’re there.

Plan your entry

Often, the hardest part of networking is finding a way into discussions. Prepare a few low-risk conversation starters that you’ll feel comfortable using on the night. Something as simple as “What brings you to this event?” or even “May I join your conversation?” is a great way into a discussion. People come to networking events to get to know others, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be rebuffed.

Understand networking etiquette

There’s no single correct way to network, but there are a few ways it can go very badly wrong. Fortunately, once you know the pitfalls, they’re easy to avoid.

While it’s important to be open and friendly, don’t disclose or expect personal information from contacts you’ve just met. Similarly, avoid controversial topics that might cause disagreements.

Networking won’t change your career prospects overnight, so avoid handing out CVs or expecting immediate results – you never know when a contact you make will come in handy later down the line.

Practise your story

“So, tell me about yourself?” It’s a simple question, but one that can throw you completely if you’re caught off guard. Take some time to think about what makes you unique – what events and experiences have shaped you?  What challenges have you faced and where are you heading now? Telling people about yourself in story format means they’re more likely to remember you as well.

Listen as much as you talk

If the idea of networking is way beyond your comfort zone, remember that it isn’t just about personal gain – it’s also an opportunity for you to see how you can help others professionally. Really taking the time to listen to people isn’t just polite, it will give you a better understanding of their role and industry and help you identify opportunities to help others.

Create a LinkedIn profile

LinkedIn is THE social media platform for building and maintaining professional connections. Your profile is an online version of your personal story that will help employers during the recruitment process. LinkedIn is also a great tool to follow up on any in-person connections and make sure you don’t lose touch. Make the most of it by joining relevant discussion groups for your industry or career interests.

Birkbeck Futures offers careers support, advice and guidance to students, researchers and graduates. Drop in to their Student Central office any weekday afternoon – no appointment necessary.

Further Information:

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Birkbeck students launch Mammalo – the new “Uber” for on-demand services.

Former Birkbeck students teamed up to start Mammalo – a startup that connects London’s population to hundreds of verified industry professionals.  

Maxime van den Berg, former MSc Management with Business Strategy and the Environment student, and Andrea Armanni were just as eager as many students here at Birkbeck to start their own company. During their studies, they found the time to plan and implement a brand new idea known today as Mammalo.

As a quick introduction, Mammalo is an online marketplace to quickly search and book any professional services. Conversely, if you have any skills that you want to make money out of, you can create a personal profile and list your skill in order to get exposure to people looking for your service.

According to Andrea, “Mammalo is truly a revolutionary platform that we would like to scale globally someday. Until then we are focusing on the expansion here in London and the rest of the UK.”

Starting a business is tough, and Maxime and Andrea recognise the importance of having others to support them on their start-up journey. They are getting involved with Birkbeck’s Enterprise Pathways to give back to fellow Birkbeck students and encourage them to support each other as much as possible. As we learned from them, to be able to start a business you only really need three things:

  1. An idea
  2. A plan
  3. The knowhow

An idea is only 10% of the solution; the execution will determine your success. Carefully consider your business model and competition. Failing to plan is planning to fail, after all.

Lastly, knowhow encompasses what you have learned in university, in the workplace and in life. You need to have some basic knowledge to get a company physically started. If you don’t have this knowledge, be curious! There is always room to learn to do what you cannot today.

Maxime mentioned “The thrill of not knowing what will happen but putting in as much effort as possible to make the best come true is what got us started and keeps us going. Not only are we solving an issue for everyone in London but we also get to build the solution from the ground up.”

This is an example of a success story in which students have used the knowledge they have gained to pursue a dream of starting their own company.

So, if you have some time feel free to check out the platform on www.mammalo.com and signup today! They can use all the feedback they can get and would hugely appreciate your thoughts.

Maxime will be coming to Birkbeck to share his start-up story soon – look out for the event details when they go live here.

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Get Talking – our mentoring scheme for prospective and past students

Starting university is an exciting time, but we know it can be daunting too. Lots of students have questions about the years ahead, whether they’re joining university straight from school or going back to education after a break. Speaking to someone who’s been through it all before can be reassuring, which is why we run Get Talking.

Get Talking is a mentoring scheme where former Birkbeck students are matched with those thinking about starting their studies for a coffee and a chat. It’s an opportunity for prospective students to ask questions or share any concerns they have about studying in the evening, and for mentors to share their experiences of studying at the College, and anything they wish they’d known before starting their courses.

If you’re interested in taking part in Get Talking, either as a mentor or a mentee, please get in touch.

Why I wanted to take part in Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Eleanor Tough, current BSc Psychology student

I initially signed up for the Get Talking scheme because I felt quite overwhelmed at the notion of beginning my degree at Birkbeck and felt it would be beneficial to speak with someone who had experience at the university.

I sent an email to the Get Talking team and was put in contact with a graduate who had completed the same course that I was enrolled onto. After exchanging emails, my mentor and I met up face-to-face. During this meeting, we chatted about how I was feeling, why I had chosen my degree and the potential career prospects I hope to explore when I graduate.

My mentor described her own experiences and was able to fully answer questions that I had, about the experience she had at Birkbeck and how achieving her master’s degree had impacted on her own career.

I also received very valuable advice on how to structure my studying around working full-time and how to make the best use of the support services at the university. This helped me to engage with the full range of services provided at Birkbeck and has absolutely influenced the way in which I manage my own time, current career and personal life.

My highlights at Birkbeck are the course itself, the diverse range of people I have met through studying, the impressive facilities of the university and the support and positive environment that Birkbeck provides.

Why I volunteer as a mentor for Birkbeck’s Get Talking mentoring scheme
Richard Harrison, MA Arts Policy and Management graduate

I have volunteered for the Get Talking scheme over the last few years because I enjoy being able to support people who are thinking about embarking on a course of study at Birkbeck, particularly those who are new to higher education. University study is a challenge but also one of the most fantastic things a person can do, and I feel privileged to support people as they consider starting on this journey.

It is a real privilege to be able to support someone in making such a significant decision, and if that decision can be a little bit better informed by alumni like me sharing our experiences, that is hopefully useful to Birkbeck’s prospective students.

In meetings we tend to cover the practical aspects of university study, including how alright it is to feel quite overwhelmed in the first term! (This settles down after the Christmas break.)  I am sometimes asked about my experience as a student.  We are provided with excellent training by the Alumni Office, and are given resources to direct mentees to particular areas of the College for further advice, so when needed, I will share those resources so that my mentees can feel fully informed about the journey ahead of them.

Birkbeck is an incredible institution. It is full of passionate experts who impart their knowledge and share their love of their subjects readily.  I remember feeling thrilled to be studying again, and intellectually stimulated and challenged.  That is, in part, why I volunteer for programmes like Get Talking, so that others can access and feel most prepared for this life-changing experience.

 

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University Mental Health Day: managing student stress

Being a student can be stressful. This University Mental Health Day, Head of Birkbeck’s Counselling Service Charlotte Williams looks at the causes and impacts of mental distress on students, practical tips to manage stress, and where to turn if you need help.

What are the main causes of student stress?

Stress to some degree is a normal part of life, it is only when the amount of stress we are experiencing exceeds our capacity and resources to manage that we can run into difficulty and find ourselves using unhelpful defence mechanisms to try to manage and find ourselves in a vicious cycle of stress.

Many factors cause stress to students including the demands of juggling their studies alongside work and family responsibilities;  relationship difficulties; housing problems;  financial concern;, loss and bereavement; transitions and achieving their academic goals, essay writing, public speaking, exams. However what causes stress really is a subjective matter, what causes one person intense stress can be managed relatively effortlessly by another. It is important to be aware of things that stress you in particular and prepare to take care of yourselves at times of increased stress triggers.

Be aware of the first signs of stress in yourself and make a conscious effort to get on top of it and stop the cycle of stress getting a hold. Often when we are stressed we revert to old coping mechanisms some of which may be outdated and not helpful long term such as drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking more caffeine, eating sugary foods, staying up late, isolating ourselves, ruminating, avoiding matters, obsessing. When the cycle of stress gets a hold we need to break into it and make a conscious effort  to resist falling back on unhealthy coping mechanisms and make conscious choices to do things that may help. What helps will differ for individuals but here are some of the key things that can help manage stress.

What 3 practical things should a student consider doing to manage their stress if suffering?

Exercise:

A meta-analysis (Cooney et Al, 2013) showed that exercise is as effective in treating depressive symptoms, as talking therapies or antidepressants. Another comprehensive study adds to previous evidence suggesting exercise is not just good for reducing symptoms of depression, but may also prevent it.’ (NHS, 2018). Birkbeck University Counselling Service, in conjunction with the YMCA has developed a MIND BODY MATTERS scheme and offers 8 week free gym passes including personal trainer to students suffering from mild to moderate depression or anxiety. Exercise helps to rebalance the physiological system when stressed and boost natural endorphins to improve mood.

Sleep:

Maintaining a sleep routine is of paramount importance to mental health and managing stress. Taking time to relax before you go to sleep can help the quality of your sleep. Try to go to sleep at the same time and wake at the same time each day – 7-8 hours is the recommended amount of sleep but of course this differs for each individual needs. Take a bath to wind down or watch something gentle on television like a nature or holiday programme rather than something that stimulates anxiety such as horror or thriller. If you study in the same room you sleep in, cover your books and desk with a sheet or a screen at around 9.00 each night and take some time to rest before sleep. For more tips on sleep read our self-help leaflet entitled Sleeping Problems.

Food and Drink:

If possible avoid self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s a vicious cycle which will make you feel worse in the end. Also try to avoid relying on caffeine to keep you going If you are stressed and tired you need to rest, eat well and exercise at suitable times. Use herbal teas to calm and soothe such as camomile before bed; mint if your digestive system is upset and lemon in the morning to wake and refresh you. Avoid sugary carbohydrates – they will pick you up temporarily but you will soon crash – try to eat a balanced diet – some protein, carbohydrate and vegetables each day at regular intervals and carry nuts and seeds for a boost of your energy dips whilst on the go.

Manage your Mind

When we are stressed our minds sometimes behave in ways that hinder rather than help. Rather than ruminating over the problem, catastrophizing about the future or critically analysing your latest attempts,  take time out to focus your mind on something relaxing and positive. There are lots of apps and websites that offer mindfulness exercises and distraction techniques and links to those can be accessed from the Counselling Service Website Further Resources section. Alternately take a break, go visit a friend and tell them about the problems you are facing and then tell them about the good things in your life, ask them to help you to gain some perspective. Sharing difficulties can help: however going over and over them often doesn’t and is likely to tire your friends so ask them to listen first and then help you to get a different angle on things or a plan going forwards.

Manage your Behaviour

Our behaviour can also be affected by stress, some people avoid the problem, others tackle it manically never taking a moment for fun or rest. Avoidance increases our anxiety about something so breakdown the problem, set a plan and approach the issue step by step reminding yourself of similar situations where you have coped. If you behave in the opposite way make sure you take time out to  visit a friend, go to the cinema, or read a novel to give yourself a break.

Who can a student suffering from stress turn to for help/advice?

If you have tried all of this and just can’t seem to get a grip on the cycle of stress alone it’s fine to ask for help. The Counselling Service runs a workshop each turn entitled Stress Less and a self-help leaflet on managing stress is available for free download. You can also write to the counselling service and ask to meet with one of the counsellors to talk things through and think together about how to manage and move forwards. It may also be worth visiting your G.P to check that the symptoms you are experiencing are indeed stress related and there are no underlying issues.

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