Birkbeck Library website redesign; or, my adventures in a digital transformation project

Elizabeth E. Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services, discusses the redesign of the library website. 

Today, we have launched a brand-new Birkbeck Library website, with completely revamped content, navigation and design.

The Library website has been redesigned on two previous occasions: we changed the landing page, but the content remained the same, which is like repainting your front door and landscaping the front garden, but doing nothing to the interior of the house! I hasten to add that this occurred because, every time the opportunity arose, we just didn’t have the time and it was too close to the start of another academic year.

This time, we asked Naomi Bain, the College’s user experience (UX) expert, to undertake some UX testing with Library website users. This told us some things that we already suspected or knew – there was too much text on the Library website, and it was difficult to find information – but, we also learned that the layout was confusing, alongside a number of other issues.

We knew that the main Birkbeck site had been redesigned and restructured and we liked some of the features, as did our users; so, I contacted Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager in External Relations, with a list of the things we would like changed on the Library website. As the Library site is the second most popular section of the entire Birkbeck website (after the online prospectus), Jane suggested that, rather than simply update our existing site, it would be worth integrating it into the new design. She asked us whether we would be prepared to undertake this as a collaborative effort. The Library web editors agreed that this would be a good opportunity to refresh our website, so we said yes!

The redesigned library website

Getting ready

Jane supplied us with a content audit and looked at traffic to the Library website in the past year. This showed us that a large proportion of the Library site was not being used, and it also told us which content was most popular with our web visitors. Jane presented us with a collaborative spreadsheet, listing all the content areas, and her advice on what to do in relation to each area. After the initial emotional reaction, we reviewed the comments and suggestions and either agreed with them or explained why we disagreed with her assessment.

The next step was to come up with a new structure for the Library website. We were invited to a Library web workshop and, using post-it notes and sharpies, we wrote down the most common queries that we get from our users (one query per post-it note). Then we stuck them on the wall, and grouped and sorted them. We then filled in the gaps and took pictures of the grouped post-it notes for future reference. This then became the basis of the Library redesign, alongside the initial, annotated content audit.

Jane then set up a project on Trello – a collaborative project tool – with a list of tasks, organised into columns like ‘To do’, ‘Doing’, ‘To review’ and ‘Done’.

The project

Given the importance of this project to our web visitors, Jane wanted to complete the improvements as quickly as possible and asked if a member of Library staff could be seconded to the project. I volunteered, as I felt I was best placed to answer queries. So, for one day a week, starting in early April, I was scheduled to work on the website.  As homework, I had to familiarise myself with Birkbeck’s Style Guide and tone of voice guidelines, as well as other support materials provided in the digital standards section of the website. I also attended a bespoke training session, run by the External Relations web content team, then prepared to set to work.

Using the Trello project board, I chose the content areas I wanted to work on (everyone works from the same board, which means that there is no duplication of work), and my job was – for each content area – to answer the queries that came out of the Library web meeting, find all of the pages on the live Library site that related to them, then review the content and rewrite it, to meet the digital standards and to reduce the amount of text.

My first task: getting membership under control

I decided to start with our membership information. My challenge was to convert 55 separate pages to one page. Working with Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor in External Relations, who gave me one-to-one training and advice, I rewrote and changed the formatting to match the house style, then experimented with how the information is presented.

Jane then reviewed the new page and wrote a detailed report on the format, the tone of voice, grammar and house style – I felt I had received a C+, ‘Could do better’ mark! I worked through Jane’s detailed report, addressing each point raised and making changes as necessary. This was helpful because it meant I could then review other pages to ensure the same issues didn’t crop up.

The new membership page was then moved to Ben’s list on Trello, to check that it met the requirements for the Birkbeck tone of voice and the use of plain English and active voice. He cut the text even further while ensuring that the content flowed. Then, the page was given back to me, to check that nothing crucial was missing, giving me another chance to suggest other edits.

This process meant that I received a crash course in writing for the web from a team of experienced content editors, working collaboratively, using live content. It is all well and good to read guidance notes, but quite another thing to implement them and keep to the task!

Improvements

Rewriting content wasn’t the only improvement we made to the Library site. We also improved navigation and findability of content:

  • We didn’t duplicate information that already existed elsewhere – we linked to it.
  • Forms to suggest new books for the Library and for staff to request teaching materials were converted into Apex forms and located either in My Birkbeck for Staff or in My Birkbeck for Students. So, Library users do not have to retype personal information that we already hold about them.
  • We also made huge improvements to navigation in two key areas of content:
    • Angela Ashby, Digital Editor in External Relations, reorganised the navigation for past exam papers, which had included a separate web page for each department for each year of exams – amounting to more than 200 pages. Angela cut the navigation down to 26 pages – one for each department.
    • I compressed 232 web pages listings our for databases and online resources into just one page. This was made easier by deciding to move extensive help guide information for each database into a document, which will eventually become a support manual for Library staff on the helpdesk.

Keeping Library staff updated

This has been the first opportunity I have had to fully examine the content of the existing Library website and to undertake a root-and-branch review. I focused on thinking always of what our users want/will be looking for and trying to ensure that they can visit a web page, scan it, easily find what they need, and move on. Helping users to find the resources they need without adding additional layers of unnecessary content was very important. When in doubt, I would look at the website traffic figures, the feedback from the UX testing, and the post-it notes.

After all that work had been done, the slimmed-down website was shown to Library staff and to students who attended a Student-Library Partnership meeting. The response was very positive: obviously, we were on the right track.

Creating the wayfinding page

The wayfinding, or landing, page was the last component of the project. We had more post-it-note sessions with groups of Library staff to consult with them. This enabled us to come up with an initial layout, based on a top-task analysis, to inform the order in which signpost tiles appear.

Then, I built the wayfinding page. We decided to use new photos taken last year, focusing on images of our students using the Library.

Redirects

Before we could go live with the new website, we had to create a comprehensive list of redirects, to ensure visitors following old links ended up on new content. This was a huge task, which ended with 1700 redirects (and, wouldn’t you know, I also got to help with that, too).

Looking forward

We have already requested UX testing to ensure that we have not overlooked anything, to pick up on any issues, and to provide evidence to make informed decisions on any further changes/tweaks to the Library website before the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year.

Conclusion

It has been a challenging and stimulating experience. But, I have learnt a great deal from the External Relations web content team and I can honestly say, I now understand what is required to write for the web in a consistent and engaging fashion. I’ve also learned the importance of optimisation for search and paying consideration to where our users would expect to find the information they are looking for. I also know the whole of the Library website intimately, and I will continue to learn and retain my newly acquired skills, through continuous practice and actively reviewing the content on our website.

My thanks to Jane, Ben, Angela, Emlyn, Steve, Naomi, John and Outi and the Library Web Group and the Library staff for their support and for providing feedback at the drop of a hat.

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Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

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BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

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Enhancing content on the Birkbeck website

Birkbeck’s Digital Editor Angela Ashby discusses how the web team are working to improve the quality of the College’s website.

Photo credit: Paul Cochrane

The digital content team in External Relations (ER) had a quandary: with a large and growing website, multiple contributors, and not enough resources to keep eyes on every page, how could we possibly monitor and maintain the quality of the website? We expected there to be broken links, which are inevitable over time, and we had created and published a style guide to keep our content consistent, but we needed both a big-picture view of the site and a way to focus our attention in order to make best use of our time.

Sitemorse

With the help of our technical colleagues in Corporate Information and Web Systems (CIWS), we explored various solutions and agreed that an online governance tool called Sitemorse would meet our needs best.

Sitemorse sends us monthly reports that pinpoint various aspects of pages that need attention and score us on issues falling into themes such as accessibility, function/links, search engine optimisation (SEO) and metadata (descriptive page tags). Sitemorse has also allowed us to build in rules that tell us when our pages don’t follow our own style guide and shows us where and how the content can be improved. These rules include decisions on abbreviations, email and phone format, italics, ampersands and link text.

Each new Sitemorse report shows our scores and ranking clearly improving for the pages that we’ve worked on. For instance, the Student Services area went from 5.7 out of 10 in December 2017 to 6.4 in January 2018. It’s a slow process, as each error needs to be individually corrected, but in the last four months, we’ve already fixed over 1000 broken links. It is still early days, but we will watch with interest to see whether errors approach zero over the long term. Our goal is to bring each section to at least a score of 7.0 out of 10.

Web maintainers meetings and Yammer

If you are the only person in your department working as a web maintainer, it’s possible to feel isolated. You are definitely not alone, though – there are at least 30 web maintainers working within Birkbeck, and we saw a need to create a community so that web maintainers feel part of a wider team, with common goals.

Our first step was to invite all web maintainers from around the College (including our Moodle colleagues) to meet every two months as a group. At meetings, the central web team shares details of projects and progress and encourages all web maintainers to raise any issues or queries, and to share their own best practice.

This inclusive approach is continued via an enterprise networking tool called Yammer. All web maintainers are encouraged to join the ‘Web support’ group, and any posted queries and requests for edits are dealt with by the relevant members of the central digital team in a way that benefits the whole community.

Another way that the central digital team extends its support to web maintainers is to invite anyone working on particular web projects to come and ‘hotdesk’ in ER, where we can offer more personalised support and collaboration.

Contact Jane Van de Ban if you’re a web maintainer and you’d like to join the group.

Fix-it Friday

The ER digital content team receives dozens of requests each week from around the College to update content on various web pages. Since our May 2017 go-live for the central pages, we’ve completed more than 200 separate pieces of work. This is in addition to the intensive improvement work we carried out on programme and module pages last year.

In order to fit this ‘quick-fix’ work in with our longer-term ongoing projects, we have initiated ‘Fix-it Friday’, where we schedule in requests that have come to us during the week. We can almost always complete small pieces of work on the next available Friday. If a request involves a larger project, such as a new set of pages, then we can discuss with the project owner how to prioritise the work over a longer period.

We prefer to receive work requests via Yammer, as it’s possible for emails to be overlooked during staff absences. To join Yammer, log in to Office 365, find the Yammer app and select to open it. Search for the ‘Web support’ group and click join. We’ll approve your request.

Training in 2018

So far, the newly designed central web pages have been maintained by the digital content team in ER. This is because we are planning briefings and a comprehensive training programme to ensure that web maintainers have the tools and the confidence to update pages in the new template. Once staff members have completed the training, they will be able to edit and maintain pages, with ongoing support from the content team.

Current and future projects

We are currently working with schools and departments, via a new Web Working Group, to scope and plan requirements for the improvement of department pages, in particular, the very important staff profile pages. We are also planning the improvement and migration of professional service pages to the new web design, beginning with Estates and Facilities, IT services and the library, with HR and the Registry Office to follow.

Like all the improvements made so far, these projects are focusing on users, the questions they need answers to and the journeys they want to make at Birkbeck. We continue to base our work and decisions on evidence and user-testing, adjusting our approach as necessary.

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Have your say in Birkbeck’s 2018 Students’ Union elections

Sean Fitzpatrick from the Birkbeck Students’ Union explains why you should vote in the upcoming SU elections, and how to do it.

The Student Officer elections will be open from 19-23 February. This year’s election is set to be the most highly contested in many years: your vote could make all the difference in ensuring your favoured candidate is elected to lead and shape the Students’ Union’s activities for the coming year.

The Students’ Union is run both by and for students. It’s your way of making sure that the University is acting in the best interests of you and your peers. To make sure that you get the chance to influence how the union is running, we hold elections once (or, occasionally, twice) a year. Students who want to be either one of the Union’s two Student Leaders or a Liberation Officer for the LGBTQ/Women’s/Black Member’s/Disabilities campaigns should submit manifestoes detailing what they hope to do to make Birkbeck a better place for its students.

Once this is done – it’s down to you to pick those that you think would be best for the role! We use the Alternative Transferable Voting system, which allows you to select multiple candidates and list them in order of preference. Once everyone has voted, we do the count, and then announce the brand new officer team.

The Students’ Union then supports these officers to work on the projects they planned on the manifesto they were elected on. If you’re interested in learning a little more about the roles and responsibilities of Officers, you can read our articles here on Facebook on both Student Leaders and Liberation Officers.

You can also vote for students standing to act as Birkbeck’s voice on the national stage. NUS Delegates attend the National Union of Students’ General Conference to represent you within the wider student movement across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. These students will bring issues of particular relevance to the attention of NUS, and attempt to gather cross-union support for campaigns intended to improve the student experience nationwide.

In short, your vote has a wide-reaching impact: from the small grassroots campaigns set up by individual students to far-reaching issues at the top of the agenda for millions of students across the country. Your vote matters, make sure you use it.

Log in to our website and head to birkbeckunion.org/vote from the 9:00 am on the 19 February to get started.

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From asylum seeker to student: how the Compass Project changed my life

An asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, who successfully applied to the Compass Project, tells of how he became a student at Birkbeck and his ambitions to help future asylum seekers have their voices heard.

My name is SJ. I belong to an oppressed ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, the Tamils. Due to my ethnicity and my political views, I was abducted and tortured. Therefore, I was unable to pursue higher education. I had basic school education in Sri Lanka and fled to the United Kingdom in 2010 when I was 17-years-old.

While my asylum case was under processing, I was unable to keep up with life as it took different stages every day. There was no one to help me find things or to advise me. At first, I did not even know how to use a microwave oven and ended up eating the food ice cold. I was left to sleep in a parking garage at a house. I struggled and felt strange. It was a haunting experience for me. There was nobody to hear what I had to say. Instead, they heard only what they wanted to hear. Those days were filled with solitude and emptiness. With whom should I share? How much should I share? Is it okay to share? Such questions crowded my mind. And they kept me drowned in thoughts and fear all the time.

Years passed. So much has happened between the years 2010 and 2014. I was homeless for a while and slept on the street while having chicken pox. The house owner did not let me stay in their garage as his wife was pregnant at that time. It was a fair concern and who am I for them to take extra care? By 2012, I was living with a friend in Doncaster. I was desperate to talk to someone and I was lucky to meet someone who had gone through what I had gone through in Sri Lanka.

In 2014, I gave up on myself and handed myself over at a police station as a failed asylum seeker. I was being a burden to my friend and I could not cope up with my life. I was detained in an immigration detention centre for about five months. I was able to witness the dark side of the UK while I was there. It was horrendous in many ways, from the food given to the detainees to how they are being treated.

The detention centre atmosphere forced me to relive my dark days in Sri Lanka. I was not aware of the pains and feelings that were hidden inside me until I was locked away. I used to isolate myself in a room for years. But living behind the big gates and razor wires made me feel so scared and unsecured. I met people of many kinds there. They belonged to different ethnicities and culture. They spoke various languages. There were few Sri Lankans as well. I faced various situations there, such as many violent incidents, suicide attempts, deaths, riots, and riot police invasions. I was so broken at that time and lost all hope. So, I went on a hunger strike to kill myself. I thought that life was not worth living.

One day the doctor at the detention centre examined me and told me that they must move me to a different detention centre, which has an inpatient bed, as my kidneys started to malfunction. I had weekly reviews and one of the detention supervisors told me that I could be the next one to die in detention if I was not given medical treatment. It frightened me. Those words echoed what I heard back in Sri Lanka.

From 2010, I took up learning English as a challenge. I have used resources such as YouTube, Google, newspapers, reading English books with the help of an English-to-Tamil dictionary and listening to conversations and observing the method of communication in the community. I could not possibly be able to explain the hard work I put in to learn English here. While I was in detention, I had some help from a charity. I explained to them the situation through the English I had learned by myself.

Once I could speak English, I was asked to translate for Tamil people as an emergency translator in the detention centre. I was still in an unstable situation. However, I helped the people in need. By doing this, I was able to identify and relate my situations to that of many other detainees. I understood that it was not happening to me only, but to many others in a systemic way as well. Many of us in destitute situations did not get any proper legal advice. It was the experience of a lifetime and it was what motivated me to fight for a good cause.

I tried to apply for local colleges and institutions once I got out of the detention centre. I did not have many friends in the community to get information about institutions outside Doncaster. All my applications were turned down by the colleges. I was told that I do not have the right to study. They said that if I got a letter from the Home Office saying I can study, they would let me study. When I requested the said letter from the Home Office, they refused to give me one and asked me to get the letter from the court, as my case was still pending at the court. When I approached the court, I was questioned by my solicitor about how I was going to pay the fee if they allow me to study. So, I gave up the dream to study.

Knowing that all these detainees are suffering inside the detention centre, I could not just sit. I was unable to let them suffer on their own. I wrote to many MPs about the bad treatment of asylum seekers and the prevailing conditions inside the detention centres. Due to this, I was contacted by someone who runs a counseling service for Tamil asylum seekers. I was fortunate enough to be identified as someone who needed the help as well. She invited me to attend counseling sessions. The days flew by, filled with nightmares and panic attacks. But this time I had someone to share my sorrows and thoughts with.

In 2017, she shared with me a link to a university project for asylum seekers called the Compass Project. I was not so sure about what to do. I attended the workshop for the project. It was the first time I ever stepped inside university premises. I was very nervous and was hardly controlling my anxiety. I entered the room allocated for the workshop. The project manager greeted me with a smile on her face and my nervousness faded away a little. However, I did not know what to expect or to ask. So, I kept quiet. I was given a friendly introduction to the project and guidance on how to apply. Finally, we were given a university tour.

With enormous support from the project manager and people at the counseling programme, I applied to the Compass Project Fund. I was so worried about not having any qualifications. It had been almost eight years since I was in the school. My personal statement explained my circumstances, my aspiration to study law, my experiences at the detention centre, poor handling of the asylum cases and a detainee’s dream to be a qualified immigration lawyer.

After a few weeks, I received an email saying that I was awarded the Compass Project Fund. I could not express how happy and accomplished I felt. I was finally given an opportunity to study. I was asked by the university to do an examination as well an interview to see if I am fit to study law as I did not have any prior academic qualifications. I was able to pass the exam and the interview with some great support. Getting the Compass Project Fund and a place at the university were the biggest things that ever happened to me. This was the first step in reaching my goal.

Meanwhile, my asylum case was still pending. The Home Office accepted that I was tortured in Sri Lanka and the case proceeded to the court for the hearing. Just a week before my first day at the university, I had to attend the court for my hearing. I was worried, but I was also hopeful for a change. I attended university without any decision from the court. Initially, it was so strange to me. For the first time in many years, I was sitting in a classroom with a pen and an exercise book before me.

It was very hard for me to understand the lectures at first as English is not my native language. I had to read the text at least four times to understand. But I did not give up. I continued to put in all my energy and worked hard at home and at the university. For my first essay, I received 68 marks. I was in joy since this was my first ever academic essay. By correcting the mistakes in my first essay, I was able to score 70 marks for my second essay. My hard work started to pay off.  Now, I started to communicate with my fellow students in a better way.

Then I was granted refugee status by the court. It was life-changing and finally, my life got a little steady. However, I still must wage war with my unstable mind. University education is the ideal tool for me to break my solitude. It gave me hope and tools to learn from. I believe that by obtaining the necessary qualification, I will be able to get my voice heard.

The Compass Project Fund is a life-changing opportunity for me and many others. Being an asylum seeker in an unfamiliar place with restricted access and limited knowledge about the system limits many people from gaining access to further education.

I am looking forward to taking the available opportunities to desperate asylum seekers and to continue my work in the human rights field, to advocate for the betterment of all the asylum seekers and refugees.

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The Compass Project: The light out of the darkness

Elizabeth*, a 37-year-old asylum seeker from Ghana in West Africa began her studies in Legal Methods (Certificate of Higher Education) at Birkbeck this year, thanks to the Compass Project. 

My name is Elizabeth. I am 37 years old. I am originally from Ghana in West Africa. It is a beautiful country near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. I was born in Ghana and had my primary and secondary school education there. I came to England in 1999 to continue my education but due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to do so.

Now, I am studying a Certificate of Higher Education in Legal Methods at Birkbeck and during the day, I am the Grassroots Intern at Women for Refugee Women (WFRW). I work alongside the Grassroots Director, helping to run the drop-in session on Mondays and support refugee and asylum-seeking women.

The charity ensures a safe space for women who have sought asylum in the UK. To continue my support, I am also a member of Women Asylum Seekers Together London, a group run by WFRW that provides free English and yoga classes, lunch and advice on immigration, housing and legal matters with an advice worker for the women.

I have always wanted to study law because I have always had the sense of justice and fairness in my core, but being an immigrant in this country, it was very difficult for me to access higher education. I did not have my qualifications with me and I could not show them when I was asked; I also did not have the finance in place to study.

I found out about The Compass Project through the Islington Migrant Centre, a charity providing practical guidance and support for those who have sought asylum in the UK, as well as providing free English, art and music classes.

To find out more, I went to the ‘Prepare to Study’ session held at Birkbeck’s central London campus, where I was introduced to the College, given a tour of the university and found out more about the Compass Project scholarship.  Afterwards, I decided to apply.

The Compass Project team were so helpful and encouraging and I was so happy and pleased when I received the email that I had been awarded the scholarship. This meant that I could finally start my journey through law. It’s a bit challenging because I have not been through education for such a long time, but I receive a lot of support from the university and that helps to motivate me to stay committed to the course.

I am going to use my experience at Birkbeck to develop myself, to go on to complete the law degree and hopefully to become a constitutional lawyer. I would like to be able to have a positive influence in the law-making process in this country. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be able to study at Birkbeck – it feels very special to me and I do not take this opportunity lightly at all. My course mates are all very supportive and I feel blessed to have met so many people at Birkbeck who are constantly ready to help.

My advice to anyone looking to apply for the Compass Project scholarship to study at Birkbeck is to believe in yourself and not give up on your dream of higher education, because The Compass Project makes it possible.

Yes, it is possible. Just stay focused and be open to receive all the support and help available to you. Education is truly the light out of the darkness.

*name has been changed.

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Tapping into Birkbeck’s talent

Hannah and Emmeline from Birkbeck’s in-house recruitment agency for students and recent graduates, Birkbeck Talent, explain how the service can benefit employers.

Businesses looking to attract new candidates in the recruitment process have been drawing the most talented applicants through Birkbeck’s professional, in-house recruitment agency, Birkbeck Talent, since its foundation in 2015. In this time, Birkbeck Talent has placed 384 students or recent graduates into jobs or internships.

Birkbeck Talent bridges the gap between employers and students by offering paid employment opportunities, finding and shortlisting students and graduates to meet the recruitment needs of businesses all over London and the surrounding areas.

The service provides candidates for:

  • immediate and future graduate positions
  • senior roles aimed at experienced students
  • entry-level roles for students
  • placements and internships

Employer profile: Maria Arpa

When alumna Maria Arpa from the Centre for Peaceful Solutions wanted to recruit a member for her team, she turned to Birkbeck Talent after her friend Caroline Nelson from Viva Sing Spanish had recommended the service; “It was a no-brainer. As a graduate of Birkbeck, I was happy to give it a go and, to be honest, other adverts had not generated the quality of candidate I was looking for. Birkbeck Talent visited us, took a detailed brief and shortlisted 4 high-quality candidates for a Skype interview.

“They kept us informed every step of the way and arranged the interviews seamlessly. Of course, the measure of a professional service is when they make it seem effortless and they made it so easy for me. For a very small organisation, finding a good ‘fit’ is really important which can be difficult when time is not on your side. We’re delighted to have hired our ideal candidate through Birkbeck Talent.”

Find out more and submit your vacancy here.

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Meet the Ronald Tress Prize runners-up

The Ronald Tress Prize was established to celebrate excellence in research by early career academics. In this blog, we learn more about the runners-up of the award.

Philip Pogge von Strandmann, Reader in Isotope Geochemistry

“I’m a biogeochemist, studying how the climate responds to, and recovers from, natural climate change events that occurred in the past. This provides us with information on what will happen as the Earth warms up in the future. In particular, at the moment I’m researching how the planet has broadly kept its climate stable enough for 4 billion years of life to exist. In other words, there is a natural thermostatic regulator of the climate – it operates quite slowly (hundreds of thousands of years), but stops the Earth becoming Venus-like. It is the process that will eventually allow the climate to recover from our activities – and we may also be able to speed it up, to assist us in mitigating climate change.

“I came to Birkbeck (and UCL, who employ me jointly) in 2013 after a NERC advanced research fellowship at Oxford. Before that I was a post-doc at Bristol, a PhD student at the Open University and an undergrad at Oxford. Birkbeck has been a good place both to do research and teach – it has less inertia to get things done than other institutions, and lets departments make important decisions.”

Dr Duncan Jackson, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I received my PhD in industrial-organizational psychology from Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand, which I completed on the validity of assessment centres.  I have continued with this line of research into the present and am currently broadening my research to encompass other types of measure commonly used in organisations, including 360 degree ratings, situational judgment tests, and interviews.

“My research challenges key assumptions widely held about measurement in organisations; particularly assumptions regarding the measurement of competencies (e.g., teamwork abilities, communication skills) that are ubiquitous in the organisational environment.  I have published in some of the leading journals in my discipline, including the Journal of Applied Psychology, the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, and Personnel Psychology.  I have contributed to the international guidelines on assessment centres published in the Journal of Management and I was previously chief editor on the volume The Psychology of Assessment Centers published through Routledge New York.”

Dr Rebecca Whiting, Lecturer in Organizational Psychology

“I’ve been in my current role since March 2015 though my connection with the College goes back further; I completed both my MSc and PhD in the same department, both part-time.  After completing my doctorate, I worked in the College as a researcher on the Age at Work project, then for a couple of years at the Open University as a researcher on the Digital Brain Switch project, before returning to Birkbeck to take up my academic role. Like many of our students at Birkbeck, I know what’s involved to study whilst working and to undertake a career change (I started out as a lawyer).  It’s a privilege now to be teaching students pursuing degree studies at different stages of their lives and for various purposes.

“My current research covers three main areas: age in relation to work, the role of digital technologies in the organization of contemporary working life, and internet ethics. Digital technologies are at the heart of my substantive research interests and the methodologies I use for research and dissemination. In a field traditionally dominated by quantitative methods, one of my contributions has been to enhance the methodological options available to organizational psychologists through my use and promotion of qualitative approaches.”

Dr Pedro Gomes, Lecturer in Economics

“I completed a PhD in Economics in 2010, at the London School of Economics. The title of my thesis was “Macroeconomic effects of fiscal policy” and it was supervised by the Nobel Prize winner Sir Christopher Pissarides. After completing my doctorate, I took my first academic position at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid. I’ve just started as a Lecturer at Birkbeck, joining in 2017. What I like about teaching at Birkbeck is that most students have accumulated so many different experiences in their lives that I see them as my peers, rather than students. I teach them Economics, but I feel I could learn as much from them in other areas, as they can learn from me. This makes the lectures all the more interactive and challenging.

“My current research focuses on understanding the effects of public sector employment and wage policies. Public sector employment is a major element of both the labour market and government budgets. In the UK, public sector employment, including NHS and Armed Forces, represents 22% of total employment and its wage bill represents 52% of government consumption expenditure. It is particularly sizable for specific groups of workers. The UK public sector hires 37% of all college graduates; 34% of all working women; and 30% of all workers age 47-55. Decisions like raising pay by 3% instead of 1% or hiring 20000 workers instead of firing 10000, affect the state of public finances, as well as the unemployment rate or private sector wages. Understanding what are the effects of these decisions and whether the chosen government policies are the best for the country is the goal of my research.”

Dr Sarah Marks, Postdoctoral Researcher in History

“I joined Birkbeck in October 2016 as a historian working with the Hidden Persuaders research group, funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project examines the ‘psy’ professions – psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis – during the Cold War, and particularly how debates about brainwashing and hidden persuasion shaped their reputation at the time and into today.

“Much of my own work focuses on the other side of the so-called Iron Curtain, on how these professions operated under Communism, and what models of mind and therapy were developed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet sphere, in addition to the abuses that we’re more familiar with. This offers a more balanced account of the Cold War, moving away from stereotypes about the ‘stultification’ of science and medicine in the socialist world by comparison with the West. It’s useful to look back at this history for policy today: many countries in the region are beginning to embark on mental health care reforms, and are dealing with the legacies of the past. Birkbeck is an incredible research environment to be part of – I’ve been impressed by the sheer range of different projects being undertaken here, and the vibrancy of seminars and events where both staff and students participate. It’s clear that this culture feeds in to the teaching, too, making the college a rich and unique forum for ideas and debate.”

Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in Museum Studies and History of Art

“I worked as a curator in Australian art museums before completing my PhD and joining the History of Art department at Birkbeck in 2013. I have a long-standing interest in the visual culture of the British empire, and the role and special character of travelling artists in the nineteenth century. I have recently completed a book called Witnessing Slavery: Art and Travel in an Age of Abolition. My work on the iconography of slavery has led more recently to an interest in the cultural legacies of British slave-ownership, particularly as it relates to the early history of public art museums in Britain.

My publications include an award-winning book, The Encounter, 1802: Art of the Flinders and Baudin Voyages (Art Gallery of South Australia, 2002), book chapters including ‘Slaves and the spectacle of torture: British artists in the New World’ (2013) and ‘Allegorizing Extinction: Humboldt, Darwin and the Valedictory Image’ (2015), and journal articles such as ‘The Spectre of Empire in the British Art Museum’ (Museum History Journal, 2013). Birkbeck provides a very supportive research environment for an emerging scholar. I currently run a work placement module for MA History of Art and MA Museum Cultures students, and as part of this I very much enjoy working in partnership with museums across London.”

Meet the winners of the Ronald Tress Prize here. 

 

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