Returning to education: how to be a successful student

Abigail Bryant, recent graduate in Arts and Humanities, gives her advice on coming back to university after a hiatus from education, and how to juggle work and study. 

Before starting at Birkbeck, I worried that the years I’d had out of education may make it difficult to slot back into it seamlessly and that my ‘academic brain’ just wasn’t there anymore. I hadn’t written an essay for over five years! It turned out that I had absolutely no reason to feel like this. As soon as you start you’re given an encouraging, safe space to learn about the technical stuff such as referencing and essay structure, as well as logistics about how the university works and where you can find the resources that you’re entitled to.  There are also plenty of opportunities to ask questions, so you’ll quickly realise that you’re not on your own – there is support everywhere you turn!

If, like me, you’ll be working and studying simultaneously, good for you! You’re in for an enriching, challenging but ultimately rewarding experience. For me, the main goal was always to enjoy my course and never to view it as a chore, and luckily I managed to maintain this for the four years that I was at Birkbeck. Of course, after a long and tough week at work, the idea of sitting and working on an assignment at the weekend was not always a barrel of laughs, but I made sure that I chose modules that I felt passionately about and essay questions that I could get my teeth into, and would involve research that I was genuinely interested in. The feeling of satisfaction and pride upon handing in an assignment would always outweigh the pain of getting it finished! It is important to make time for yourself as well, and make sure that alongside work and study, you have the headspace to pursue interests and ‘me time’. This will no doubt benefit all aspects of your life, and your overall happiness should take priority and feed into your course at Birkbeck!

But what does it really take to be a successful student at Birkbeck? What do you really need to balance work, study and home life? Here are my top three tips:

  • Be curious
    At Birkbeck, you are so lucky to have access to a wealth of research materials, acclaimed professors, and diverse module choices. For maximum fulfilment and enjoyment, stay open minded and have a keen willingness to constantly learn and improve, both from your teaching materials and your peers. Embrace the resources available to you, and immerse yourself in Bloomsbury – there’s so much fascinating history within the walls that you’re learning in! Keep up to date with events going on – I’ve attended many panel discussions, career events and summer workshops throughout my time at Birkbeck. They are all free to attend and are a great way to network with students, teachers and industry folk alike (as well as boost your learning). Most importantly, challenge yourself – never feel like something’s not worth exploring because you don’t initially understand it. Ask questions, do some independent research, and you’ll be amazed at what you can discover and achieve.
  • Be committed
    For all the benefits of evening study, there are inevitable challenges to balancing university with other components of your life. Stay organised, disciplined and committed to your studies. The better you manage your time, the more fun your course will be, and the more you will get out of it. Studying should never feel like a chore, but an accomplishment worth fighting for.
  • Be yourself
    Lastly, try not to compare yourself to other students in terms of ability or knowledge. You have a unique and valuable perspective to bring to the classroom, so never feel afraid to express your opinion or thoughts in seminars. Birkbeck is a safe space to develop and articulate ideas and arguments, with infinite room for progression and improvement.  Follow your instincts, pursue your passions, learn from and with others, and always value your own voice.

Whatever you’re studying, and whatever your stage of life, Birkbeck is a life-changing, diverse, and extremely exciting place to study. It’s easily one of the best things I ever did, and I’d implore anyone to embrace every second, every resource and every opportunity it has to offer.

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100 letters changed my life

When Alison Hitchcock decided to write a letter to a friend after he was diagnosed with cancer, she had no idea it would lead to a new venture and an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck. She writes about how these letters changed her life. cancerlettersBack in 2010, I would never have predicted that when my friend, Brian Greenley, was diagnosed with bowel cancer, the letters that I offered to write to him would change both our lives.

In 2009 Brian and I had met on a yoga holiday in India. We got on well, both equally inflexible and neither of us able to do a headstand, but we had little else in common. I was a City career-girl, and Brian had recently taken voluntary redundancy and was thinking of setting up his own gardening business. We met up a couple of times back in the UK, but neither of us would have described ourselves as anything other than acquaintances. When Brian shared that he had been diagnosed with cancer, perhaps because I didn’t know what to say, I offered to write letters to cheer him up. Looking back, I’m not sure what possessed me – I was no writer. But a promise was a promise!

The letters began and over the next two years, as Brian’s cancer developed to stage four, I kept on writing. I surprised myself, finding that I cherished the time I sat alone and wrote. It felt good to be doing something for someone else and it removed the feeling of helplessness that friends so often feel when a loved one becomes ill.

My enthusiasm for writing was bolstered by Brian’s response to receiving the letters. He once said: ‘Knowing that someone is caring enough to write, buy a stamp and put the letter in the postbox means so much. Your letters help me to feel reconnected with the real world.’

Enthused by my newly discovered passion for writing, I attended an Arvon Starting To Write course and began to understand what it means to want to write. From then on, as for so many who attend Arvon, everything changed. I wanted to write more and learn more. My letters continued but Arvon had given me an appetite for writing and letters were no longer enough, so I applied to Birkbeck’s Creative Writing MA. The MA not only confirmed my love of the writing process, it gave me confidence to explore different styles. By the time the course ended, I had had short stories published, written a novel and become involved with wonderful literary organisations such as Word Factory.

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At the end of 2016, Brian and I were recorded for Radio 4’s The Listening Project. Such was the response to our story, we set up From Me to You, a charity which inspires people to write letters to friends with cancer; keeping them connected at a time when they feel most disconnected. At From Me to You we run letter writing workshops, speak at events and our website hosts writing tips on what to say and how to say it, and shares many inspirational stories from those who have received and sent letters.  Recently we have expanded the initiative so that people can write letters to cancer patients they have never met. The communications range from postcards and notes that say something as simple as ‘keep strong’ to longer letters recounting tales of everyday life. These letters are acts of pure kindness. There is no obligation on the recipient to write back.

Brian never responded to any one of my 100 letters and I never expected him to. The letters had given me the gift of writing and a whole new life. That alone was, and still is, more than enough.

Contact details for From Me to You:

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