“My journey at Birkbeck as a trans person couldn’t have been easier”

BSc Geology student and Birkbeck Trans Students’ Officer Jayden Solitro describes the experience of coming out as transgender at school age and settling into university life at Birkbeck.

Jayden Solitro

I came out as transgender at 15-years-old on the day of my last GCSE exam. I stayed at the same school in sixth form, and when I came out to my teachers, they decided to have a “transition period” – no pun intended – in which they would call me a short-hand version of my name for a while, because they thought other students would be confused by the sudden change of my name.

To this day, I’m still speechless at the fact that my teachers were more concerned about the effect my gender identity would have had on other students.

As a transgender person, I have always felt disconnected to my gender identity due to society not acknowledging it or respecting it. Every day I feared being misgendered or being called my former name (deadnamed). After I spent two years in a small town in Surrey trying to make stubborn teenagers use the right name and pronouns, I was terrified to go to university, because I thought I would have to start my journey all over again. Luckily, I was wrong; as soon as I came to Birkbeck, I noticed that I was surrounded by respectful adults, and my journey couldn’t have been easier.

When I joined the Students’ Union in 2019 as the Trans Students’ Officer, the Supporting Transgender, Intersex and Gender Non-Binary Students policy was enforced, thanks to the collaboration of College and Union staff.

As soon as I changed my name on the Birkbeck online portal, my decision was immediately respected by all members of staff, which was such a refreshing experience after having to wait for weeks in hope that my teachers would stop deadnaming me in school.

As a fellow student, and not just the Trans Students’ Officer, I am passionate to make sure that transgender students feel safe at Birkbeck, and I would like to encourage you to read this new policy, as it is important for us to know our rights and that they are a way to make our experience as a student the best it can be.

Thanks to this policy, chances to be “deadnamed” on campus will be lowered, as students are now able to change their preferred name on My Birkbeck and receive a new student ID free of charge. As a Deed Poll is not required to do this, this is also accessible to international or EU students who can’t apply for a deed poll in the UK, like myself.

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Is the Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentence turning into the Ministry of Justice’s own Windrush scandal?

Professor Mike Hough, Emeritus Professor and Founder of Birkbeck’s Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research (ICPR) explains how thousands of prisoners are still facing injustice, ten years after IPPs’ failings were first exposed, and endorses latest demands for action.

Ministry of Justice, Westminster

The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) is to be congratulated on their excellent – but profoundly depressing – report No Freedom, No Life, No Future, which charts how large numbers of prisoners sentenced to the indeterminate sentence Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) are still stranded in prison many years after they were sentenced. As the report vividly demonstrates, part of the cause of this is the irrational and grossly unfair way in which the recall system is operating, following prisoners’ breach of their licence after release.

In 2010 Professor Jessica Jacobson and I worked on an ICPR/PRT collaboration which resulted in the report on the IPP sentence, Unjust Deserts. We showed how prisoners were required to demonstrate to the Parole Board that they were no longer a danger to the public, mainly by participating in courses to reduce the risks they posed. However, prisoners were denied means to demonstrate that they no longer posed a high risk to the public. Often courses were simply unavailable. In some cases, prisoners were told that they presented too low a risk for the course on offer, or that their levels of literacy were too low for the course in question. More broadly, the effectiveness of courses as a means of reducing dangerousness was questionable; while, at the same time, there were no obvious alternative ways in which individuals, in a prison setting, could prove the negative proposition that they no longer posed a risk to the public.  Matters were made worse by the originally mandatory nature of the sentence, meaning that many more IPP sentences were passed than originally expected, and many of these were for relatively minor offences. The Parole Board was overwhelmed by cases and delays grew. The net result was that many IPP prisoners were serving much longer sentences than expected – sentences that were, by any yardstick, grossly disproportionate.

Our report was well-received, and the then Justice Secretary, (now Lord) Kenneth Clarke, asked to see a pre-publication draft. We took some satisfaction in the announcement made shortly afterwards that the sentence would be abolished, qualified only by the fact that there were no plans to deal retroactively with those still serving IPPs, for example by converting all IPPs into determinate sentences. However, we thought that it would not take long for solutions to be found to release those prisoners in a fair and sensible way, whether through legislative or executive action.

How wrong we were! I was astonished to learn from PRT’s new report that by mid 2020 almost 2,000 IPP prisoners have never been released, and almost 1,400 have been released but are now back in prison, facing exactly the same intractable problems of proving their reduced risk as we found ten years ago.  The ongoing treatment of IPP prisoners is scandalous, and the scandal is, for the Ministry of Justice, taking on qualities that parallel the Windrush scandal that the Home Office is failing to deal with. The obvious unfairnesses and inhumanity which IPP prisoners face demand rapid attention.  We strongly endorse PRT’s call for action.

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Educating the educators

What motivates a Maths teacher to return to life as a student? From reigniting a love of learning to getting their head around applied statistics, teachers Sebastian Bicen, Donato Schiavo and Leonard Pistol share their experience of going back to school.

Picture of Maths teacher Seb Bicen.

Graduate Diploma in Mathematics alumnus Sebastian Bicen teaches Maths and Further Maths in London.

The reputation for being one of the most difficult A-level subjects is something that Mathematics has found hard to shake. Yet with rising demand for STEM teachers, it’s increasingly common for educators to find themselves teaching Maths with no experience of further study in the subject.

That’s how Sebastian Bicen, a History graduate from Oxford University, found himself teaching Maths through the Teach First training programme in 2010. Indeed, it’s easy to assume that stress around subject knowledge was what prompted Sebastian’s return to further study.

“You might expect that I went back to university because someone told me I needed a Maths degree,” he explains, “but in reality, even people with Maths-related degrees often don’t want to teach A-Level or Further Maths. Instead, it was being back in the classroom and seeing my students’ passion for the subject that reignited my own love of Maths and my enthusiasm for learning.”

The buzz of the classroom is something fellow teacher Donato Schiavo, who completed his MSc Mathematics in 2013, can relate to: “I remember as a student I really enjoyed explaining concepts and helping my friends with their homework,” he explains, “that pleasure of helping others made me realise I could be a teacher myself.”

Looking for a study route that would complement his work, Sebastian enrolled onto Birkbeck’s Graduate Diploma in Mathematics on a part-time basis: “It’s quite rare for universities to offer something that bespoke, like a personal conversion course where I could jump in at my level and not repeat the concepts I already knew.” Sebastian managed to secure partial sponsorship from his employer and, as a union member, was eligible for a 10% fee discount from Birkbeck.

What’s the point?

While every Mathematics classroom has students who love the subject for its own sake, there are many more who need some convincing, as Maths and Further Maths teacher Leonard Pistol discovered: “A lot of my students were interested in studying Maths at university, but not in becoming Mathematicians. They wanted to know how Maths could be applied in other fields and I felt like I came a bit short in providing personal, real world experience.

“I thought MSc Mathematical Finance would be a really good application. When I was talking to my students about it, I was able to give them concrete applications of the use of statistics and probabilities. The more into the applications I got, the more interested I became and the easier it was to teach as a result.”

For Donato, who now teaches at an international school in Italy, deepening his understanding of Mathematical concepts was a way to engage students in the subject: “When I tell people that I’m a Maths teacher they always say ‘I was so bad at Maths’ – it’s rare to meet someone who enjoyed Maths as a student. I had some wonderful teachers who shaped my idea of what Mathematics can be – solving a problem and understanding the logic that underpins it.

“A lot of my students can’t see the point of studying Maths, so I try to bring in examples that are tangible, like developing passwords or working out the dimensions of a room. The course helped me bring fresh examples to the classroom and teach at a higher level.”

Back to school

So, how did it feel being on the other side of the desk?

“As teachers, we forget what it’s like to be a student,” Sebastian admits, “It was really humbling being in the same boat as my students and having to take my own advice on revising! I experienced first-hand what worked and which things I was telling my students to do that even I wasn’t doing in practice.”

Re-living the university experience also enabled Sebastian to prepare sixth form students for higher education: “I want to treat my year 12 and 13 students as maturely as possible, knowing that they will be going to university. Having access to online lectures and notes from Birkbeck was really reassuring and helped me stay organised, so now I do that for my students as well. I give them lecture notes just like I had to help them experience what university teaching is like. Recording my lessons has been the biggest transformation to my teaching and the response from students has been amazing.”

Leonard, too, found that heading back to university supported his role as a Year 13 tutor: “I had fresh experience of the academic environment, so could give my students up to date advice on lectures and what life would be like. Being able to advise students on what modules to take for their specific goals was really valuable. I was reminded of the expectations lecturers have of you: asking for help, making sure you see your lecturers often, and that’s linked very much to what it’s like to be a teacher.”

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Reflections on online learning in the School of Business, Economics and Informatics

As the autumn term draws to a close, students and staff reflect on their experience of online delivery and how they have adapted to a new way of teaching and learning.

Earlier this year, we made the decision to move our teaching online for the autumn term and for as long as is needed to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff and students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With staff having to rapidly get up to speed with online teaching and students coming to terms with a less than traditional university experience, it hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve pulled together as a community and managed to find some unexpected highlights along the way.

For students, one of the main challenges was knowing what exactly they had signed up to, but they soon found their stride:

“I was a bit apprehensive when I started regarding if I had made the right choice signing up, but Birkbeck have been really great. The virtual teaching has worked for me (and was the tipping point to make me apply), it provides a lot more flexibility. Also, having the pre-videos before the lecture I think really is so beneficial. They take me a while to go through but I can go through them at my own pace, and then because I have taken the time to understand the content, it helps me follow during the lectures.” – Student in the Department of Economics, Mathematics and Statistics

And it seems the hard work of lecturers in planning engaging online learning material is paying off:

“The slides were very well organised and in order, the concepts were explained clearly, the seminar questions were very interesting and engaging.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

“The quality of the materials has been high, they are available weeks in advance, and the organisation, clarity and administration of the lecturer is first class.” – Student in the Department of Organizational Psychology

It certainly seems that online learning has given academics cause to think more deeply about the learner experience, as Dr Federica Rossi, Reader in Innovation Policy and Management explains:

“I found delivering the module online a very interesting experience. Since it was not possible to rely on direct interaction in order to clarify specific points or to communicate expectations, I had to think in much greater detail about all aspects of the students’ learning process and how to support them.

“The module was taught in Spring 2020, during the first lockdown period, and I can imagine that it was particularly hard for our students to stay focused and motivated – many of them would have had to manage working from home, looking after children, and studying at the same time. Therefore it was particularly rewarding to see that the students did well and their marks were in line with those of students who, in previous years, attended the module in class.”

And how are staff finding online teaching? Does it compare on any level with classes or lectures? Brian Gannon, Lecturer in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, found unexpected benefits to taking his teaching online:

“I’ve been surprised at how effective the online delivery model has turned out to be. It actually helps to increase the level of engagement: students who would normally be too shy to ask questions or get involved seem to be quite happy to interact remotely. This has helped recreate some of the intimacy of the classroom and has been very valuable to everyone.”

Dr Muthu De Silva, Senior Lecturer in Entrepreneurship and Innovation, also found new ways to get students talking through online platforms:

“I have thoroughly enjoyed online teaching…It does require a lot of preparation but once this investment is made, it becomes a very positive experience for both the staff and students. I found that break-out groups with clearly laid out group tasks increase student engagement. Additionally, inviting guest speakers, who could discuss the application of theories has also enriched student experience.”

This is seconded by student feedback from the module:

“I have really enjoyed the guest speakers and their insights/advice for being an entrepreneur. I also enjoyed the group discussion where we get split off into different groups as I feel it makes people feel more comfortable to speak virtually.” – Student in the Department of Management.

While we’re missing Bloomsbury and seeing our community face to face, it’s clear that we’ve come a long way since March.

Dr Geoff Walters, Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, says: “As the autumn term draws near to an end, I want to take this opportunity to thank all colleagues that have worked hard to make this term’s teaching happen. I also want to thank all students that have engaged with their studies this year and have embraced online delivery, attending lectures and working on material pre- and postlive sessions. In the (almost) 200-year history of Birkbeck, there has never been a start to the term like this. I do hope that the Christmas period, whatever this may look like, will be as festive and restful as possible for everyone.”

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“Marriage or Career?”: The Times and Tribulations of Dr. Turnadge

Dr Isabel Turnadge,née Soar was a Birkbeck alumni who championed women’s right to vote and work after marriage in the 1920s. As part of the College’s 200th-anniversary celebrations Ciarán O’Donohue, PhD candidate in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology recalls the origins and trajectory of Dr Turnadge’s activism. 

Dr Isabel Turnadge

Dr. Isabel Turnadge, née Soar, with her son, Peter James. Becoming a parent will be a turning point for anyone, but perhaps for none more so than Isabel.

Only five PhDs in the sciences were awarded by the University of London in 1921. These were the first people ever to hold the distinction. Among them was botanist Isabel Soar, who had toiled tirelessly every weekday evening after work for five years at Birkbeck College.

Soar was in many ways the archetypal Birkbeckian, engaged as she was in full-time work and part-time study. The daughter of a stationer and a book-seller, Soar was a bright child: a ‘keen student of science, and particularly fond of botany’. After her own schooling, she pursued a career in teaching, taking up her first post as a science teacher in Ipswich in 1907.

Within six short years, she found herself in the daunting position of lecturing to trainee teachers in London at Stockwell Training College: an impressive achievement for one so young. Yet, Soar was not satisfied. Perhaps inspired by the experience of teaching others, Soar was determined to deepen her own knowledge. So, working full-time in the week, Soar began evening classes in botany at Birkbeck.

All her work was crammed into long weekdays. She made ‘it a point never to study on Saturdays, Sundays or other holidays’ and was a fervent believer that there was ‘a time for work and a time for play.’ In 1916, after three years of intense study, dedication and sacrifice, Soar achieved her Bachelor of Science in Botany, with first-class honours. The Middlesex County Times highlighted Soar as ‘an outstanding example of the rewards which await industry and determination.’

Still, Soar’s thirst for knowledge remained unquenched. Immediately after the completion of her bachelor’s she began to pursue original botanical research. Her trademark abundance of determination and its seemingly inexhaustible wellspring ensured she persevered for five long years. In June 1921, Soar’s Ph.D. thesis was approved, and she became the second Birkbeck student to achieve the title of Doctor. Bearing the title, The Structure and Function of the Endodermis in the Leaves of the Abietineae, it was of substantial interest to contemporary botanists. Before the end of 1922, an abridgement was published in The New Phytologist and she was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society.

Meanwhile, her professional life was also reaching new heights. In this same year, she was appointed headmistress of Twickenham County School for Girls by Middlesex County Council. For her work, she was to be awarded an extremely generous commencing salary of £600 per annum. And her run of good fortune was not over yet.

On Saturday 4 August 1923, Soar married Charles James Turnadge. Turnadge was a member of the Aristotelian Society, and was sometime editor of South Place Magazine, the organ of the South Place Ethical Society. Soar took her husband’s name, and they soon departed on their ‘ostentatious’ honeymoon: a six-week motor tour of Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, and Wales.

Life seemed to be going well for Isabel Soar: academically, professionally, and personally. Unfortunately, it was not to last. In November 1926, in what should have been a happy time in her life, Soar, now Dr. Turnadge, was in the newspapers again.

In May 1926, she gave birth to Peter James Turnadge. As a result, she was fired. The Twickenham Higher Education Committee beseeched the Middlesex Education Committee to terminate her employment. They argued that ‘the responsibilities of motherhood are incompatible with her school duties.’

The Chair, and Twickenham’s Mayor, Dr. J. Leeson, defended his actions to the press: ‘with characteristic male impertinence,’ according to the feminist weekly Vote. He asserted that he had warned her, spluttering that it ‘was against my advice that Dr. Turnadge, holding the position she did, ever married… We pay her a good salary, and we want her undivided interests.’

Turnadge’s argument that her being a mother would be an asset to her work was given short shrift. In an interview with the Middlesex County Times, she explained that she was ‘even bold enough to hold the view that, as a mother, I might be better qualified to teach. May not maternal sympathy… be something of a help in training the young?’ She even later argued that ‘single women are not normal, they are emotionally starved.’ Accordingly, large numbers of single women teachers posed ‘a grave menace to the pupils.’  She made the further point that it was ‘absurd to pretend that it would be impossible for me to make adequate arrangements for Peter’ during the day, given her salary. This, similarly, did nothing to move the Committee from its position either.

Her arguments fell on deaf ears. Charles’s birth was the pretence they had been searching for since the wedding. Middlesex Education Committee had a policy that the marriage of an elementary school teacher would void their contract and terminate their employment. At the time of Soar’s wedding, however, this did not cover the marriage of secondary school teachers. The loophole was promptly closed afterwards, and although they could not act retrospectively, Soar became an exception in a fragile position, with a hostile employer.

Turnadge’s case added fuel to a debate which was already raging about the state’s employment of married women. Clearly, not everyone was in favour. Upon hearing of Turnadge’s dismissal, author James Money Kyrle Lupton sent his opinions into the West London Observer. ‘This position ought to be held in all cases by a single woman, who can devote all their time to the position,’ Lupton opined, continuing that besides a ‘married woman with any family cannot do her duty to the school and her home at the same time – this is self-evident.’

Others were appalled by the decision. Bernard Shaw quipped that ‘Twickenham is not very far from the river, and the sooner the people of Twickenham put their Higher Education Committee in the river, the better.’ Vote declared the incident ‘sufficient indication of the necessity for further vindication of the important principle of the freedom of the married woman.’

As for Dr. Turnadge herself, the bar imposed on married women teachers became the next target of her fiery determination and indefatigable work ethic. On 7 February 1927, Turnadge delivered a lecture entitled “Marriage or Career?” to the Six Point Group, a feminist organisation founded by Lady Rhondda in 1921. In Turnadge’s lecture, she decried the ‘present position of women’ as ‘most unsatisfactory, because we are not chattels, yet we are not regarded as responsible individuals who should be allowed to choose our own paths in life.’ For her, this was an issue of state interference in private life, and along undeniably unequal lines. Some women wanted ‘to continue their work after marriage, and I do not see why anyone should interfere with them,’ she asserted. It was not the work of education authorities to regulate household economies. If they were economically minded, she stressed, they would realise the folly of expending public money on teaching scholarships, only then to dismiss married women outright.

By March, she was honoured at Vote’s annual spring sale, by giving the opening address whilst rubbing shoulders with veteran campaigners such as the president, Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence. Her focus had crystallised on equal suffrage, for both married and single women.

Her points were direct, brimming with a scientist’s rationality. A woman and her life must no more be interfered with than a man. Anything less than equality would rob the nation of talent. Women should be given the same rights of individual determination.  Her conviction was that possessing the vote at 21 was of the highest importance. This is when women were entering their professions, she determined, and so most needed the power to influence policy. Evidently, her experiences had left their mark on her, and she was determined no other woman should suffer the same fate.

When the Equal Franchise Act was passed a few months later in July 1928, the achievement of policy change through the exercise of the vote was in sight. For many women, their objectives had been achieved, their battles over. Lady Rhondda, a suffragette and life-long feminist, recalled some years later ‘that when, in 1928, the vote came on equal terms, one felt free to drop the business.’ For her at least, it ‘was a blessed relief to feel that one had not got to trouble with things of that sort anymore.’

As indomitable as ever, Turnadge’s years of campaigning were only just beginning. As the international organiser for the Six Point Group, we last catch a glimpse of her busy organising a conference in Geneva to lobby for an Equal Rights Treaty. With the confidence equality was well on the way in Britain, her sights were set on the League of Nations.

Today, Birkbeck awards over 100 PhDs a year; quite the difference to a century ago. Yet, it seems that Birkbeck’s students retain the same qualities. Isabel worked consistently, with perseverance and dedication, to follow her passion. She took her fate into her own hands, sacrificing her evenings to better her prospects. And although she faced it in spades, adversity never triumphed over her. She cannot help but remind us of our peers and colleagues in these current days of difficulty, and thankfully Isabel’s virtues seem set to live on in Birkbeckians for another hundred years.

 

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“Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student”

The Compass Project has been successfully supporting students from forced migrant backgrounds into higher education since 2016; read what two Compass scholars have to say about the impact it has had on their lives.

Hana* joined Birkbeck in 2020 to start an LLB Law degree:
“My passion for human rights and immigration law has grown and I know I want to be a human rights lawyer in the future. For me, the Compass Project hasn’t just been an opportunity to study, it’s been an opportunity to change my life.

People coming from forced migrant backgrounds know what it means to have nothing and know how challenging life can get. Now we have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our potential. I don’t have all the words to say thank you. My advice for future Compass students is to make sure you are clear about your passions and what you want to achieve. Find the courage within yourself as you will only have regrets if you don’t. It doesn’t matter about where you come from, just about where you go. I am now at Birkbeck, studying a great course and meeting amazing people.”

Two people reading a book together to represent Compass students

Grace* joined Birkbeck in 2018 and recently completed a CertHE in Psychodynamic Counselling and Skills in a Psychosocial Framework:

“Psychodynamic Counselling was of particular interest to me because I have always wanted to help others and the theory and practical skills I gained in class also helped me with my own personal trauma. I am glad that I have now been able to turn the helping aspect of my personality into a qualification. Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student. Even with everything I have been through, one of the biggest barriers I faced prior to studying was my own self-doubt. However, the support I received from those on the Compass Project team and other Birkbeck staff took that self-doubt away.”

* Names have been changed

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Coronation salmon curry – a fusion dish that can be cooked and served in 30 minutes

As part of a new initiative to enhance international students’ experience at Birkbeck, our students and staff will be sharing their favourite recipes over the next few months in a series of blogs. In this blog, Professor Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry shares the secret to making his home-made fish curry.

Background: Being a Bengali and a foodie, I have always gravitated towards foods like fish curry and our traditional sweets! I spent the first 25 years of my life adjacent to the Bay of Bengal and lived around the river Ganges, where there were a number of natural resources to supply sweet-water fish. Hence, when I came to the UK, a challenge for me was to get the taste of my home-made fish curry; moving from Kolkata to Oxford.

As a Wellcome Trust funded International Fellow living in my College accommodation on the Old Marston Road, I first tried the following recipe. It was a delightful triumph! Without any reservations, I can say that home-cooking has always been a stress-busting experience for me. When a recipe can connect you with your motherland, help you to make new friends, saves money, assist you with healthy living and brings joy to your life, then why not?

Let me know how your trial goes after you transform the following recipe into your evening/weekend meal…

Ingredients:

Essentials:
4 salmon* fillets (500g)
Cooking oil (~30ml)
Natural bio live set yoghurt (1 tablespoon/ tbsp)
Mayonnaise (200g)
Spicy ‘korma’ curry paste (1 tbsp)
Mustard paste (smooth) (1 teaspoon/ tsp)
Mango chutney (2 tbsps)
Juice of 1 lemon
Almond powder (2 tbsp)
Salt (1 tsp/adjust per preference)

(*salmon can be replaced by monk fish, seabass or any other white fish fillet, descaled but skin on)

Optional: Almond flakes, raisins, coriander/ thyme for garnishing.

Cooking method: Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees/gas 4. Marinate salmon fillets with a little salt, lemon juice and cooking oil for 5 minutes. Put them in the oven for 12-15 minutes, skin side up. While the fish is in the oven, lightly mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt, curry paste, almond powder, mango chutney, mustard paste and salt in a bowl. Add a little water to help making the paste smoother if needed.

Drizzle some cooking oil on a pan. When heated, pour the sauce and a cup of water into the pan. When it starts bubbling, put the fish in the sauce, wait for 2-3 minutes and keep the heat on high to boil. After 2-3 minutes of boiling put a cover on the pan and switch off the hob.

Presentation: Garnish the dish with chopped coriander/thyme and almond flakes. Enjoy the dish with rice (basmati/jasmine)/naan/pitta/flat bread.

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Around the world in an MBA

Marketing Manager and MBA student Lorena Ramirez shares her journey on the MBA, across three continents and what she has learned along the way.

Picture of Lorena Ramirez

The first time I heard about the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was while living in Peru. I’d been working in the fashion industry for the last ten years and was ready to expand into different creative areas. I was looking for a Masters degree that focused not only on fashion, but on creativity and innovation.

There are lots of really good MBAs in London, but the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was different. There is nothing else in the market that mixes art, design, business and social innovation in that way.

I fell in love with the course immediately, but attending face-to-face sessions in London wasn’t an option for me, so I was forced to put my plans on hold.

Moving to London

It just so happened that, months after discovering the MBA, my husband was offered a job in the UK. We moved to London without any hesitation: I arrived, found a job, got pregnant and applied for the MBA! I had my interview with Dr Pamela Yeow, the Course Leader, about a week before I gave birth.

I had my reservations about starting a Masters with a newborn baby, but when I won a scholarship for the course I felt like it was a sign to just do it. I started the programme and absolutely loved it. On a course like this, it’s so important that your peers are with you on this journey. For a lot of MBAs, the average age is around 24 or 25. I’m 37, and while the youngest person in our cohort was 25, the oldest was 60. Through the MBA, I met people in media, television, different organisations and entrepreneurs. The diversity of ages and interests in my cohort was what I enjoyed most about the experience.

Then my maternity leave finished, the pandemic hit and I found myself working full-time with a baby under highly pressured circumstances. Sadly, I couldn’t continue the MBA with my cohort, but Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins were very understanding and supportive. It was not an easy decision, but looking back, I think it was the right one. I wouldn’t have had the time to properly enjoy the reading and the learning process if I had continued then.

Picture of Lorena with her son

Recognise this scenario? Lorena trying to work and study, featuring her son Noah.

A new challenge in Ceuta

Despite having to put my studies on hold, this has been a whirlwind year: I was promoted to Marketing Manager for Spain for my organisation and relocated to Ceuta, an autonomous Spanish city in Morocco. Ceuta is a small, quiet city, so it’s a big change from London!

In my new role, I am already applying the learning from the first module of the MBA, which is all about how to solve complex problems. Right now, in Spain, the gambling industry is facing new marketing regulations which drastically change the way it has worked for the past twelve years. This has a huge impact on our work, meaning we have to really think outside the box when it comes to promotion.

Changing the way an entire company works is very difficult, especially when you lead teams. For me, the MBA was the perfect preparation to face this challenge. On the course, we completed a project with the London Ambulance Service – what we are learning is not theoretical, it’s real life, day by day. In my work now, we essentially have to reinvent all the departments and how we’re working. For this to be a success, you have to change the way of thinking not of the directors but of the users and your team, and that is the most difficult thing. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to study to have a preparation to understand this better.

Where next?

From March 2021, I’ll be travelling to London once a month to re-join the MBA programme – I can’t wait to get started again!

In the long term, I would like to go back to sustainable fashion, for which my current experience in online marketing will be really valuable. I’d like to work with artisans, especially Peruvian artisans, linking them with brands across the globe. Most artisans around the world don’t speak Spanish or English, so it can be difficult to reach them, but I hope to do this through a foundation or social enterprise – I think the MBA will lead me to the right way to do this.

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Introducing our Chevening students: Part three

In this last instalment of our 2020 Chevening scholars series we introduce six more future leaders who have joined Birkbeck from Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Georgia, Namibia and Syria. 

Nesrin Morad, Syria/Turkey, MSc Education, Power and Social Change

Nesrin Morad

Nesrin Morad

Nesrin, a Syrian and Turkish leader and activist, has around seven years of experience working in the humanitarian and development sector. In her role, she was responding to the Syrians’ needs in various countries through working with different entities and projects in education, protection, capacity development and partnership.  She believes that learning and collaboration are key to reaching the intended positive change in society. Nesrin has always been a social activist in the community, involved in voluntary and social initiatives. She was a member of the Red Crescent, JCI for youth development, an activist in the university leading different youth initiatives and a volunteer leading awareness campaigns for Syrians in Turkey. She also has a great passion for travelling to learn about different cultures and countries and learning new dances.

Birkbeck’s MSC  Education, power and social Change will complement her practical experiences, allowing her to play a leading role in organising local initiatives to empower Syrian leaders and lead the change.

Within the Chevening Community Nesrin aims to be a Syrian woman leader, share the unique experiences and stories from Syria and gain from the experiences of others.

Menessia Diergaardt, Namibia, MSc Management with Corporate Governance and Business Ethics

Menessia Diergaardt

Menessia Diergaardt

Menessia currently works as a Taxation Officer at the Ministry of Finance in Namibia. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) and an MSc in Banking and Finance from Moi University (Kenya).

Menessia believes that her aspirations meet her country’s economic growth ambitions and Chevening will help her to become more specialists in her field, allowing her to contribute towards the management and development of the country’s economic and social resources.

Menessia was attracted by Chevening because of its track-record for producing and developing many of the world’s finest scholars, leaders and presidents and the unique opportunity it offers to transform future leaders. “Chevening will create a platform for me to connect and network with a diverse and talented community, not only will I be exposed to and experience the UK education system, but I will also develop a diplomacy relationship that will equally benefit Namibia, the UK and the world at large.”

Sami Mehiaoui, Algeria, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship

Sami Mehiaoui

Sami Mehiaoui

Passionate about management consultancy & entrepreneurship, Sami holds a Master’s degree from the National High School of Management. During his, Masters Sami was elected president of the Scientist Club of Future Manager. He began his career as business analyst consultant supporting the development of more than 20 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in a programme funded by the UK government.

Sami is an entrepreneur and has co-founded several innovative businesses such as the Makelti mobile app or Forward development. An active member in the social entrepreneurship network, Sami was selected by Chevening in order to pursue his research in business innovation with entrepreneurship at Birkbeck. With the skills in strategic management, he will acquire Sami achieve his goals of strategic development with sustainability and social impact.

Adriana Borja-Enriquez, Ecuador, MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture

Adriana Borja-Enriquez

Adriana Borja-Enriquez, Ecuador

I got a degree in Clinical Psychology at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. I’m interested in human rights advocacy and psychoanalysis. Since 2014,  I have collaborated in psychosocial projects at non-governmental organizations that support survivors of gender-based violence, refugees, and asylum seekers in Ecuador. I aim to promote safe spaces and inclusive mental health care for women and the LGBTQI+ community.

I also hold a Postgraduate Certificate in Writing: Human Creativity and Communication from FLACSO Argentina. In 2018, The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US. Department of State sponsored my participation in The International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. I attended this literary residency alongside other authors that promote dialogue through literature and cultural diplomacy. My writing has been published in magazines and short-story collections in Spanish, English, and Italian.

Thanks to the Chevening Secretariat and The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, I will study an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London. It is a great honour for me to be part of a community that promotes social change while celebrating diversity.

Kristina Arakelova, Georgia, MSc in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Kristina Arakelova

Kristina Arakelova

Kristina Arakelova is a member of the Core Group of Experts for the OSCE “Perspective 20-30” and a former Fellow in the UN OHCHR Minority Fellowship program 2018. She is a founder and President of the “Youth for Diplomatic Engagement” non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on youth involvement in the conflict, security, and ethnic minority integration issues in Georgia. As the President of the organization, she provides consultancy for state and civil society organizations working in these fields. Passionate about empowering or helping minorities/marginalized people, Kristina is an international trainer on conflict resolution and mediation.

“I applied for Chevening to contribute to bringing about much-needed peace, tolerance, and prosperity in my home country, Georgia, and beyond.”

Randolphe Severin N’Guessan, Cote d’Ivoire, MA TESOL

Randolphe Severin

Randolphe Severin

“I’ve been teaching English in Côte d’Ivoire (my country) for years, and I am also preparing a PhD in English, with the option of linguistics and didactics of languages in continuing training. This year, I am studying an MA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Birkbeck, University of London.

The need for modern and standardised education systems is evident in my country, which is a French-speaking one, but English is taught at school.  From my little experience, the teaching of English brings up many challenges and gaps to be bridged.  Thus, it will be interesting to attend a world-class university like Birkbeck, meet native speakers, share experiences with many others from all over the world. This will help me to be more proficient upon my return home.

I am very interested in Applied Linguistics and Intercultural Communication; and also willing to move to a more specialised position, such as teacher-trainer or language consultant and a teaching materials designer. Consequently, the MA TESOL is the relevant course that enables this.

Chevening is making my dreams come true.  Great, no!  NO NO, I CAN’T KEEP CALM!!!”

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Top tips and benefits for using video in lectures and seminars

Jenna Davies, Birkbeck’s Enterprise and Employability Consultant, encourages students to keep their cameras on whilst attending online lectures or seminars by outlining the benefits and addressing the most common barriers.

Among the various changes that 2020 has brought – our ways of working, studying, even socialising – there is one piece of equipment that has enabled us to retain our connection to others: our cameras.

While we have been unable to physically meet and see our colleagues and peers, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to maintain a level of connection through our screens, be it our phones, iPads, laptops or computers. In our online lectures and seminars, we can replicate the classroom as best as possible through the technology that we are able to access, providing a unique experience in a challenging environment where everyone can benefit from the virtual teaching space.

However, there are a number of barriers that may prevent us from fully embracing the online learning environment; to switch our cameras on, use our microphones to speak up, and be as present as possible, as we would in person. We may not feel comfortable being on video in front of our tutors and peers, we may have distractions in the background that we don’t want to risk interrupting the sessions, or we may feel we can still get the same from the session by not being on video. To overcome these challenges and reap the benefits of having our videos on in our online lectures and seminars, there are things we can do to make sure that we maximise our learning.

“I’m not comfortable being on video in front of my tutors and peers”

The transition to remote studying and working this year has meant that our home and work/study life are much more intertwined. Our homes are our study spaces – and although it’s only our head and shoulders in shot, we may feel more exposed on video compared to in-person.

Consider how you feel when you see someone on video in an online lecture, or meeting for example. Often, we’ll feel more of a connection to that person because we can see them. If we’re in an online meeting with three other people, two of whom have their videos on and one doesn’t, we feel less of a rapport with the person we can’t see.

If we have our videos off, we may be impacting the connection that others have with us and their experience in the virtual learning space as well. Birkbeck’s Disability Service Manager, Mark Pimm, recently reflected on his experience in virtual meetings: “I’m blind, and I have become so conscious of how much I miss out on being able to see everyone in the virtual meeting. This has made me wonder if when you leave the camera turned off in your online lectures and seminars, whether your fellow students are missing out on you.”

If everyone in our online lectures embraces the virtual space and switches their videos on, we’ll feel more connected to our peers and tutors. We’ll be more engaged and avoid potential distractions because we will be more present in that space. This will positively impact our experience and the goals we may have set when we enrolled onto our courses – to learn, to meet new people, to progress our careers, to graduate.

“I have distractions in the background that could interrupt the sessions”

There will often be occasions when we can’t avoid interruptions while we’re online – we may have children to look after, someone might be at the door, we might not want to show the space around us on video. The resistance to be on screen can come from a number of reasons.

If we consider how we feel when we have seen someone else on-screen experience interruptions during a lesson or a meeting, often there isn’t an impact on the session for others. We have all become far more understanding of what it means to study and work from home, and this comes with the acceptance that people will be in different spaces and have things going on in their homes that they can’t control.

If a distracting background is the difference between turning our videos on in lectures and making the most of the lesson, having a screen behind you may be a useful option. This could be a room divider or something in the home that you can use as your background.

“I’m not sure how I should position my camera”

Whichever device you use for your online sessions, try to have your head and shoulders in the shot. This will ensure that you fill the ‘frame’ without being too close or too far away from the camera.

Aim to have your device’s camera at the same height as your head, which will help to avoid looking down at the camera lens and it will also ensure that your posture is in a good position.

There are some useful tips in this video about setting up your cameras and making more impact on video.

“I’m still getting the same level of teaching with my video off”

There are numerous benefits of being part of a group and studying alongside peers who share the same interest in the topic you’re studying. While we have transitioned from physical classrooms to virtual classrooms, this doesn’t mean that those connections with your peers should disappear.

Being able to learn from your tutors as well as your fellow students is hugely beneficial and enhances your learning experience. The more engaged and present you are in your online sessions, with your videos on and speaking up to contribute to discussions, the more you will benefit from the session.

As we continue into the academic year, embrace the virtual learning environment and the opportunity to connect with your peers and tutors by making use of the technology we have, to benefit your studies as well as your peers’.

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