Tag Archives: Access and Engagement

Supporting parents, carers and educators during the pandemic

Over the past year, Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department has teamed up with the Psychology for Education BA: reaching out to parents, carers, and educators in the pandemic. In this blog they outline how they are supporting those who face barriers entering higher education in a virtual world. People in a classroom with a person speaking Social interaction and peer support are invaluable to all of us, and for children and young people isolated from their friends and usual routines, it has been an especially tough year. Parents, carers and educators have also been hit hard, having to adjust to online learning and struggling to find time for their own needs while juggling online learning, work and caring responsibilities.

Recognising these increasing pressures and following the launch of Birkbeck Inspires last year, Ana Da Cunha Lewin, Senior Lecturer and Course Director for the Psychology for Education BA contributed a series of online lectures for parents and carers. These covered coping with anxiety during lockdown, exercise for wellbeing, and nurturing resilience. At Access and Engagement, we were delighted when Ana agreed to work with us to deliver a five-week taster programme on the subject of Psychology for Education with a focus on children’s learning, wellbeing and resilience.

The Access and Engagement Department aims to support those who face barriers to Higher Education to take a step into formal education. This taster programme provided a space where people could come and learn more about the subject and apply it to their life as parents, carers or at work. It also gave participants a chance to explore what university learning is like using Moodle, seminars on MS Teams and pre-recorded video content.

We had 30 people without a first degree join us, with ages ranging from 20 to into the 60s, and an array of different life experiences. Working with our Trade Union partners, a third of our attendees heard about the course via Unison or the Public and Commercial Services Union. Participants shared their experiences of their own schooling and parenting, or their work in schools or youth work.

Ana da Cunha Lewin said: “It’s been a pleasure to work on the Psychology for Education Taster Course with the Access and Engagement team; planning was really well-supported and the team made the preparation very straightforward. It was also an absolute pleasure to teach a really interested, engaged and enthusiastic group who made the sessions lively with many interesting discussions. A really positive experience and I would be very happy to take part in the programme again.”

Feedback from participants was positive with one person commenting: “Ana and Vanna were magnificent educators and their passion and enthusiasm for the subject has been infectious!”

We’re looking forward to running a similar programme with Mike Berlin and Tim Reynolds from the History and Archaeology Certificate of Higher Education later this year. For more information about our Taster Programmes and Access and Engagement’s other work take a look at our newly revamped web page.

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Mentoring on the Compass Project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Camden Scholarship brings a fresh start and legal opportunities on the horizon

Birkbeck has supported disadvantaged, low-income Camden residents with full scholarships to progress their studies for the past few years. One of the programme’s students discusses her new lease of life following family woes and the lack of confidence she struggled with for years.

This is an image of a female student

Helen recently started her studies at Birkbeck on the LLB Law programme, with the full cost of her course funded by the Camden Scholarship, available to two Camden residents each year who have already applied for their undergraduate courses at Birkbeck and who fulfil a number of criteria.

If you’d asked Helen a few years ago if she could have envisaged being a student on a law programme, she most likely would have replied with an emphatic ‘No’, given that she had to shelve her education after becoming pregnant while at university previously in her late teens. Any chance of education was further compounded with her ensuing role as caregiver and home provider, her strict upbringing and the observance of cultural norms.

As a child, Helen was obedient, respectful and quiet. She recalls always feeling anxious and conscious of her culture’s perceptions of the place of a woman. This created certain limitations on what she perceived as a reality for her future and she delicately reflects on her childhood as ‘difficult’.

She says, “Since becoming a parent and with life in general, my anxiety has become progressively worse. I believe this is linked to my childhood as I’ve gone through a lot of things. My upbringing taught me that women are subordinate and I’ve seen personally how women are oppressed. Over time, it’s left me feeling that I’m not good enough. I always knew I had potential but I always find myself experiencing barriers. I put it down to the anxiety…I realise I’ve had this my whole life.”

It wasn’t until her early thirties that Helen would endeavour to resume her education.  She attempted to complete a statement for university five years prior to the Camden scholarship application. However, family life got in the way and she once again felt discouraged and “let got of the dream”. Helen then applied for a number of apprenticeships but was unsuccessful; and then an email came through with information about the Camden scholarship.

She decided to take a chance and put the application in April 2020, giving it her all. She still had her reservations, concerned she couldn’t complete the course with a family. But she called on the advice of people who had done the course and they assured her she would be okay. She shares, “I’m so glad I did. I realise I’m determined and made the right decision. At first I thought the timing of my life- leaving it too late- would make it impossible. Then I realised, it’s me who has been stopping myself and I needed to change my mindset.”

Following a successful application, an invitation to interview and the positive outcome, she reflects on the jubilance of hearing the good news: “I felt ecstatic, like a weight had been lifted. I was so happy, like I had a new lease of life given to me, a second chance that I didn’t even think I deserved. It’s just a dream.”

Now in her late 30s, she still feels the oppression of her past: “Sometimes you revert back to how you were as a child. Regardless of your achievements in life, you revisit your past. I’ve struggled with that my whole life.”

But the course has given Helen a fresh start and she observes a change in herself with increased confidence. She is particularly thankful for Birkbeck in helping her adapt to the academic world, especially since she’s been out of education for many years. Being around people who come with different perspectives has given her the ability to balance work and family life and has given her networking and learning resources. She adds, “Birkbeck really motivates people to think of different areas, exposes you to a wide range of careers and expands the possibilities.”

Now she’s looking ahead to the next five years and feels lucky and blessed: “I’m so happy that I even attempted to apply. I’m really grateful for this opportunity. I hope this is seen by people and someone’s life changes by seeing this.”

Helen is now planning to advance her legal studies and hopes to practice in the field of Law. Her encouraging words to others: “It’s never too late. Take small steps and follow your dreams.”

The Camden scholarship 2021/22 is now open for applications. Birkbeck’s funding support for Camden residents and other groups, administered by the Access and Engagement team, can be found here. The work of the Access and Engagement team at Birkbeck supports those from groups who are underrepresented in higher education in their university journey through resources about accessing university and free learning opportunities. This includes mature learners without a first degree, those with non-traditional qualifications and forced migrants.

DID YOU KNOW? Camden is home to the largest student population in London (2011 Census); with over half educated to degree-level- 5th highest in England and Wales.

*The student’s name has been changed owing to sensitive family matters.

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

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

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

Michael

Michael Darko

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

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

What did the workshop involve?

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

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

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

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

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

What are you up to now?

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

What is your favourite memory from your time at Birkbeck?

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

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

 

 

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“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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Community development: fostering dialogue and connections

The Community Leadership Programme for Newham Residents is run by the Access and Engagement Department and the Community Development and Public Policy BSc in the Department of Geography.

Funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, the project aims to bring learning to community spaces and is part of the Access and Engagement department’s aim to bring education and learning opportunities to groups underrepresented in higher education.

In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, talks more about the course and the Newham citizens it’s worked with over the last 13 months.

Community is strength on a billboard

Community is strength on a billboard

One extraordinary aspect of this extraordinary year was what has been called the ‘largest peacetime mobilisation in UK history’, the 1 million-plus individuals who volunteered as part of the community response to COVID-19. These included NHS responders, volunteers for local charities, the 4000 mutual aid groups that sprung up in neighbourhoods across the country and those who spent lockdown making PPE equipment for key workers. Not only this, a demonstrable upsurge in community spirit was observed during the first wave of the pandemic, with large increases in the numbers of people agreeing that their neighbourhood was a place where residents looked out for each other and over half of those polled indicating that they had checked in on their neighbours in the past week.

The Birkbeck Community Development programme has now worked with over 100 active citizens in Newham over the last 13 months. We call the course Community Leadership, not because the participants necessarily have any formal leadership role, but because they all, in various ways and through various roles, are making a contribution to their local area, demonstrating how local people can instigate change because they have a passion or will to do so.

David Tross adding ideas to a board

We have worked with a resident who works for a local community organisation providing foodbanks and delivering youth projects. He’s so good at using digital platforms and social media to market and fundraise that he’s now helping us deliver the learning and resources on this aspect of Community Development. Then we have the resident who starts conservations and spreads awareness about mental health by taking a sofa to public places and chatting to local people about their experiences, signposting to agencies who can help. One of our last cohort was working with Muslim groups to alleviate a particular local consequence of the crisis — international students whose part-time jobs, often in the hospitality industries, disappeared overnight and were then unable to access public funds, leaving them destitute and without enough food to eat

The four-week course is structured around particular themes: leadership approaches, project management, community engagement and wellbeing. We bring in ideas and resources from the degree course we run at Birkbeck, while also calling upon the local resources and contacts developed through Senior Access Officer Hester Gartrell’s work in east London with the Access and Engagement Department.

Unlike other London boroughs, Newham has no Council for Voluntary Service, local infrastructure organisations dedicated to help local community groups access funding, resources and training, and there is a need for community projects to access this support. However, the key success of the course is what participants share and learn from each other. In this sense, our job is to facilitate dialogue and connections which will sustain and strengthen the projects people are doing, often in relative isolation, and to get great ideas off the ground.

A key activity of every course is the ‘Resource Exchange’, where we simply let participants meet and share resources and information, ask each other for help and provide advice and support. These mutual connections are a part of developing the social capital- networks of mutual support and trust- that are key to Community Development activity in a locality.

Further information:

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Widening access to postgraduate courses

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have been working with the local community in the London borough of Newham for many years. In this blog, Hester Gartrell, Senior Outreach Officer at Birkbeck discusses what widening access to postgraduate courses looks like in the Birkbeck context.

A post-it with a lightbulb

There is a lot of buzz around ‘Widening Participation (WP)’ or ‘access’ to Higher Education. In fact, the Government, through the Office for Students, requires universities to prove that they are actively engaged in activities that will support students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds into undergraduate study. At most universities Widening Participation activities focus on supporting secondary school pupils into university. Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department challenges this model, supporting BTEC and Further Education College students alongside prospective mature students from a variety of backgrounds including Trade Union members and people who are Forced Migrants.

At Birkbeck, we also want to challenge approaches to access that only focus on undergraduate students. We have a fantastically diverse undergraduate cohort, but this diversity is not reflected to the same extent in our postgraduate student body. As our postgraduate student numbers grow and a Master’s degree becomes increasingly important for gaining a professional job we have pioneered new approaches which reach out to potential postgraduate students.

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement Department have worked in the east London borough of Newham for many years and in 2018, the department received funding from the London Legacy Development Corporation enabling them to expand their work in Newham and began trialling advice and guidance for potential postgraduate applicants. While there has been substantial economic development in the borough since the 2012 Olympics, many local graduates still find themselves underemployed or unemployed.  For graduates looking to move on from zero-hours contracts, take the next step after poor attainment in their first degree or stepping back into a career after taking time to care for family, postgraduate study can be just as life-changing as undergraduate.

Working with potential postgraduate students through the lens of access enabled us to explore the many unanswered questions around ‘what actually is non-traditional’ and what is defined as ‘widening access’ at postgraduate level. Across a sector dominated by 18-year olds, the traditional widening access criteria and interventions for undergraduate can’t simply be transferred wholesale to postgraduate applicants. This is especially relevant for Birkbeck, where our undergraduate access work already looks very different from the rest of the HE sector, leading to the question, if our access work at undergraduate aims to reach those left behind by traditional widening access work, what does postgraduate widening access look like in the Birkbeck context?

Our postgraduate Information, Advice and Guidance pilot enabled us to begin exploring this question alongside a wider strategic project going on across the College to improve access to Masters programmes for a diverse range of students.

To find out more about our learnings from the east London widening access at postgraduate programme, watch our webinar. We also have a range of open-access videos for potential postgraduate students that can be used in student communications.

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“Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys.”

Last month, we bought three current part-time Birkbeck students who are also parents together to talk about how they made the step into studying and how they’re managing studying while looking after their children under lockdown.

In this blog, We’ll hear what Liliana (Accounting and Management FDA), Fentezia (Film and Media BA) and Mohamed (Applied Psychology CertHE) have to say about how they’re managing juggling studying and childcare in this challenging time.

If you’re a parent thinking about studying, email us at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk for information and advice about starting a university course. Now, over to Liliana, Fentezia and Mohamed!

Mother and daughter home schooling

Thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts with us about studying while parenting. We know it must be a busy time! So, tell us a little bit about why you decided to come to Birkbeck and what you enjoy about your course?

Fentezia: I decided to come to Birkbeck due to the great reputation it had, and flexibility of learning in the evenings. I enjoy my course because a lot of the lecturers are already established in the film and media industry and you get a lot of insight in it through them. The students are also mature and most are returning to education and some have families so you have a lot in common with them.

Liliana: I first heard about Birkbeck at a family event in a university, I thought it was what I was looking for and the part-time option made it easier to make the decision to study for a degree as I thought to myself ‘How can I juggle having two children a part-time job and studying!’

Birkbeck has so many resources when it comes to study skills and I have been able to pass those skills on to my boys. Learning together and being able to find the answers to topics have made me more confident as a parent when helping my children with homework.

Mohamed: Studying Applied Psychology has really given me an insight into why people do the things they do. I enjoy the course because I get to learn more about people. This was really important to me coming from Sierra Leone, it helped me understand the conflict in my own country and why people act the way they do. I’ve also enjoyed the child development parts of my course where I’ve learnt more about how children grow and learn.

How do you normally juggle childcare and studying when you’re attending on campus lectures?

Fentezia: Luckily, I have family that can help and being part-time, I only study two nights a week. While my children are in school, I also take the time to do assignments.

Mohamed: Usually it’s no problem at all. As the classes are in the evening, I can look after the baby during the day (my son is only 19 months old) and swap with his mum in the evening. Sometimes it’s a challenge to do the academic work before class, but I manage to fit it around my other commitments.

Lilliana: I am very lucky because I have supportive parents that help look after my children in the evenings when I have classes. My dad is at home when my children get home from school and stays with them until I get home, he even cooks meals for us! When I study at home, I try to do it when they are at school or I will dedicate a Sunday morning to studying, I think it’s important for them to see my studying.

How are you finding parenting and studying during lockdown?

Liliana: In lockdown my time management skills have been put to the test, I’m working from home and have a collaborate session (a live workshop with other students and the lecturer) on a Tuesday evening, but I make sure I have a long break before I sit down to study. I try to study while they are getting on with schoolwork as I find this is the time when we are all studying which helps us focus. I don’t try to do a full school day with them, rather we are task-orientated and decide how long each task should take and allocate times – however, we also allow room for flexibility.

I give them at least three tasks on most days and it could be anything from getting a piece of homework done to vacuuming their room, this gives them a sense of accomplishment for the day. I have focused on teaching them essential skills like cooking and looking after themselves, I like to think I am preparing them for university life in the future. I also find time to go out for walks – this could be on my own or with my boys, it gives you clarity and a break from staying at home.

Fentezia: It has been challenging as I have taken on the role as governess without the patience of Mary Poppins! However, it has been nice to spend time with my children and see their progress. Sometimes I study while they do their learning, but it’s usually at night when they have gone to bed.

Parenting is harder because we have to do the domestic chores as well as home school and answer a million questions from our children, whilst also being followed around the house.

Mohamed: Staying at home has been good because it means I’ve got to spend more time with my son, but it has been hard because I can only really work when he is sleeping. Even when his mum is there, it’s difficult because there are lots of distractions.

Do you have any tips for other students who are also trying to juggle studying and parenting at the moment?

Fentezia: I would recommend PE with Joe Wicks he is now like a TV family member; the sports sessions help the kids burn excess energy. Home learning should be done in the morning when their minds are fresh and get them to read in the afternoon to give you a bit of (quiet) time to do some work.

Don’t forget to rest and eat well so that you have the energy to do your own work at night. Try not to get too stressed, stick to a good routine and set a bedtime for the kids.

I’m also Birkbeck’s Student Parents & Carers Officer, so if you are a student who is also a parent, email studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk to find out more.

Liliana: Take breaks and do activities together such as cooking and playing board games, it’s also important to do sports with your children; this could be a bike ride around London or just around the park.

Take time for yourself and do something you enjoy like reading a book or watching your favourite series. It’s okay to ask for help – email your teachers.

Mohamed: It’s important to find space to be alone and to have some quiet. Make arrangements with your partner to have that space.

Make sure that you reach out to get support, for example, charities or services at the university. Try your best, look for support, go to school but it can be a challenge sometimes!

Further information: 

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