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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“The MBA gave me a sense of purpose and the ability to recognise what I wanted when I found it.”

Dan Demilew enrolled on the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA seeking a new direction. Now preparing to start a role in renewable energy, he reflects on the experience that led him to this opportunity.

The Central Saint Martins Granary Square campus.

I had always found my work as a Civil Engineer fulfilling; I enjoy being able to build stuff in my neighbourhood and physically show friends and family what I’ve worked on. Before I’d even considered studying at Central Saint Martins, I was an engineer on the redevelopment of Granary Square, helping to build the entrance bridge, Coal Drops Yard, Kings Boulevard and all around the university.

Back then I had the idea of doing an MBA in the back of my mind because my Dad often talked about how it had benefitted his career, but in my industry it was less clear how an MBA would be useful.

Instead, I moved to take up a new opportunity in Australia. I accepted a senior role working mostly on mine sites, and found the work less fulfilling, as I was working on projects that were mostly temporary in nature. Having progressed onto the project management side of things, I found myself spending an increasing amount of time dealing with the politics and work winning side of the business, which started to wear me down.

It was in my next role in Dubai that I realised it was time for a break. I wasn’t performing as well as I could at work and my wife had just been promoted and had a baby, so it seemed a natural time to take a step back and look after my child so my wife could go back to work.

I worried about my brain going a bit rusty so I thought now is the time to do this MBA that my Dad keeps harping on about!

Choosing a fresh approach

University of the Arts London had been on my radar since working on the Granary Square project, but the main thing that attracted me to the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA was the concept of design-led thinking. The company I worked for in Australia was committed to design thinking and I could see the benefit of this approach when working with clients. In engineering, there’s often one correct way of doing things, so being able to apply an artistic and diverse way of thinking was really fulfilling.

The MBA has core modules like finance and leadership that you find on most courses, but 25% of the content is stuff you don’t find elsewhere, such as entrepreneurship and design-led thinking. After my experience of feeling burnt out in my previous roles, these were the parts of the course that appealed to me the most. Because the programme is part-time, I was able to combine my studies with taking care of my daughter as well.

Looking to the future

I knew that the MBA was a path to something different, but I wasn’t sure what was available to me. I thought I would be more motivated in my studies if I had a specific goal in mind, so I focused my energies on the Minderoo Foundation, an organisation funded by Australian philanthropist Andrew Forrest which looks to solve global challenges. Before enrolling, I set myself a metaphorical goal to work for Minderoo, and it was through following them on social media that I learned about Forrest’s new green energy fuel venture, Fortescue Future Industries. They advertised my dream job in January 2021, just as my daughter was starting nursery and I was starting to look for jobs.

I’ve just returned to Australia to take up a Program Management role for a portfolio of clean energy projects. The company is looking to build a global clean energy supply chain spanning more than 25 countries – the scale is breathtaking! I’m thrilled to be able to work on something that I know I can be proud of.

I don’t think I would have applied for the job had it not been for the MBA, and I’m certain that the MBA contributed to my success. It helped me differentiate myself at interview and was a great discussion point to enable me to articulate my skills and value. Above all, the biggest compliment that I can give to the work of Birkbeck and Central Saint Martins is that before I was struggling to know what I was looking for, but the MBA gave me a sense of purpose and the ability to recognise what I wanted when I found it. I’m excited about my future again.

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Finding new paths with lifelong learning

John Simons, who was recently awarded a PhD in philosophy, acknowledges his debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning, having been helped by the College to move from a career in campaign management to a successful academic career in sociology, and now to a new career in moral philosophy.  

When I left school, back in the previous century, my only qualification was a satisfactory set of results in the then equivalent of today’s GCSEs. It was enough to get me a job as a research assistant in a physics laboratory and to start studying at Birkbeck, where I planned to obtain the equivalent of A Levels in physics, pure mathematics, and applied mathematics and then to proceed to a BSc course in those subjects.

John Simon

John Simons

In those days, the College was in Fetter Lane and had its own theatre, which was used by an active group of drama enthusiasts, The Birkbeck Players. I joined them to play the part of Hodge, the gullible servant of an elderly countrywoman, in a production of the 16th Century rustic comedy Gammer Gurton’s Needle. I believe the happy experience of being in that play with students from across the College departments helped me finally reach a decision that I had been considering for some time: that I was on a career path for which I was not well suited. After obtaining the three A-level equivalents, I abandoned my studies and my job, determined to find a new path. But first I had to get through two years of then obligatory National Service.

After leaving the army (with Second Lieutenant, infantry, added to my very short CV), I worked in marketing for several years, and then obtained a role that would have a radical effect on my subsequent career. It was as Director of a national campaign, sponsored by the Family Planning Association, to arouse awareness of the scale of world population growth and the need for better access to birth control services in many countries. From my work in that post I acquired a strong interest in the dynamics of reproductive behaviour – so strong that I decided to change direction again and become qualified to study it. So, in my mid-thirties – married and with three small children and a mortgage – I went to the London School of Economics (initially part-time) to acquire a bachelor’s degree in sociology and demography. My A-Level equivalents gained at Birkbeck made me eligible for the course. Two other advantages made it possible for me to attend part of the course full-time: a grant that was available from the Local Authority in those days, and, even more important, a wife, herself an LSE graduate, who fully supported my career change.

The degree from the LSE enabled me to obtain a post at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which is just across the road from Birkbeck. There I helped the late William Brass, an internationally renowned expert in the analysis of population data, to create the School’s Centre for Population Studies, and make it one of the largest of its kind in Europe. I contributed a course on the Sociology of Fertility to its MSc programme, supervised research students interested in social research on reproductive behavior, conducted my own research in this field, and undertook consultancy assignments for the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, and other agencies. I attended to some of my own educational needs by taking specialist courses relevant to my work provided by Birkbeck and the Open University, eventually obtaining a BA from the latter. I retired from the Centre (as its Head) after 25 years, but continued to work in the field as chief editor of one of its main journals, Population Studies, a post I held for 20 years.

I also continued with a long-term quest into the explanation of differences in fertility by religion. That quest would eventually take me back to Birkbeck, because it led to an interest in the evolution of religious belief, and from that to an interest in moral philosophy and eventually a decision to study philosophy at the College. I first obtained an MA in philosophy there and then a PhD. The latter was for a thesis on the determinants of morally significant conduct in social roles. It offered a revisionary account of the moral philosophy developed by John Dewey, one of the founders of the school of philosophy known as Pragmatism.

My CV did not have the advantage of beginning with an extended school and university education. But my early experience of Birkbeck enabled me to compensate for much of what I had missed, and later made me eligible for a degree course at the LSE that would make possible my career in population studies. More recently, the College’s outstanding Philosophy department allowed me the freedom to pursue an interest that many other institutions would have regarded as outside their compass, and that enabled me to start a new career in moral philosophy. Now actively engaged in contributing to the literature of that field, it is a pleasure to acknowledge my debt to Birkbeck’s commitment to the principle of lifelong learning.

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Supporting and co-producing with communities during COVID-19

Our ‘Community Leadership for Newham Residents’ course funded by The National Lottery Community Fund,  provides a space for local people with an interest in volunteering and community projects to come together, network and learn about community development. Since it began in September 2019, we’ve had over 100 residents join us at both online and face to face workshops. Read our recent blogs on reaching this milestone and delivering the programme online during COVID-19.

Sign with together written on it

A key part of the programme is co-production and ensuring that our sessions meet the needs and interests of people in Newham. Throughout 2020, we’ve worked with participants of the programme to develop a series of videos sharing their experiences and expertise on subjects such as parenting and resilience, digital inclusion and successful fundraising. This has been an important part of moving towards a course which is co-produced and breaking down perceptions of barriers or divides between academic teaching and practical, everyday lived experiences.

One of the key worries for many of the community groups we work with this year has been funding existing or new projects. In many ways and for many people, 2020 was an exceedingly difficult year and lots of groups have faced challenges keeping their services going.

On the 14 December 2020, following participants requests for more information about funds, grants and raising money we bought together a panel of experts from a variety of community organisations to run a special event for our Community Leadership participants on Fundraising and Funding Applications.

David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography opened the workshop by giving an overview of the current funding landscape and highlighting the many COVID-19 recovery funds available for community, charitable and faith organisations. It was great to also be joined by Emma Edgell from the Heritage Lottery Foundation, Caroline Rouse from Compost Community Interest Company and Darragh Gray from Bonny Downs Community Association and CHIPS.

The conversation was wide-ranging, from digital fundraising to writing a good funding application, and expanding your network of donors. Participants really appreciated having a space to ask direct questions to funders and experienced fundraisers, especially those who had recently set up new organisations or initiaves to meet local needs during the pandemic, such as the Newham Solidarity Fund.

We’re looking forward to more Community Leadership events this year. The value that creating spaces for conversations, networking and sharing knowledge, especially at this time can’t be underestimated. As one of our participants emailed me saying following the event, ‘Birkbeck rocks’ and we hope to keep rocking it by offering support and spaces for learning in Newham throughout 2021.

 

 

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Driving Investment: The Missing Piece to your Investment Portfolio?

This blog was contributed by BSc Financial Economics student Paul Talbot and was originally written as an assignment for the module Quantitative Techniques for Applied Economics.

Picture of a classic car

Classic cars, an alternative investment that is rarely discussed when investors are looking for a strategy to increase ROI in their portfolios. Some prestige classic cars have increased over 400% in the last decade[1], but what sets these assets apart from status quo investing?

“Stories. That to me is the answer. Every car has its own history, its own adventures, its own japes and probably plenty of scrapes. Tales to be told and shared with fellow enthusiasts. Few other asset classes, however valuable or beautiful, can match it”[2]

The majority of investors would not be able to afford a 1960 Ferrari 250 GT, but investment growth has been seen across the majority of the classic car market. A more affordable sector is British classic cars, iconic cars such as the Jaguar E-Type or the Triumph TR6 has yielded over 50% returns since 2007, outpacing the heavyweight UK asset classes.

Graph showing price indices of UK classic cars

The classic car market also benefits from a favourable tax status, investors do not pay capital gains tax on profits as they are classed as “Wasting Assets” by HRMC. Movable assets such as classic cars can be gifted to family members, if no benefit is retained or lent, or for a period each year, to a car museum to avoid paying inheritance tax on death. If you intend to enjoy your investment on the road, they are also exempt from road tax and a MOT.

Tax relief of 20% on investment gains already drives these assets ahead of other financial instruments and it is no surprise that this is attracting some attention. The classic car market added significant gains to the UK economy last year[3] and is expected to continue grow from £940 Million in 2019 to £1.65 Billion in 2023.

Graph showing projected UK classic car market

Investing in classic cars does not come without a few speed bumps, it is not a case of purchasing any car and hiding it away for many years. Paul Michaels of Hexagon Classics notes “The very best cars — meaning those with full histories in exceptional condition, either completely restored or lovingly maintained with some age-related patina — will always command the highest prices.”

It is always advisable to get an expert opinion and the history authenticated before purchasing your investment and continue to keep your new asset lovingly maintained and stored away from the elements. All the above will add an upfront and annual running cost to purchasing the investment, reducing overall yield, but in turn, the better the asset is maintained and stored, the higher possibility of future gains.

The average global investment portfolio last year contained only 4% of luxury investments, this includes fine wines, collectable coins, art, jewellery and classic cars to name a few[4]. With climate change at the forefront of government polices banning the sale of petrol/diesel cars by 2030 and the rise of autonomous vehicles, will only make these investment stars a rarer commodity.

Pie chart showing global average asset allocation.

With central banks flooding the markets with liquidity, artificially supporting equities and driving down bond yields, parking a little piece of history in your garage and diversifying your portfolio will not only provide the perfect inflation and market correction hedge, but you may have some fun along the way.

Next time you look at your annual investment report, the immortal words of Wilbur Shaw may spring to mind.

“Gentleman, start your engines”

Further Information

[1] https://www.hagerty.com/apps/valuationtools/market-trends/collector-indexes/Ferrari

[2] HRH Prince Michael of Kent interview with Knight Frank November 2020

[3] FBHVC National Historic Vehicle Survey – https://www.britishmotorvehicles.com/news/fbhvc-national-historic-vehicle-survey-reveals-significant-contribution-to-uk-economy

[4]The Attitudes Survey is based on responses from 600 private bankers and wealth advisers managing

over US$3 trillion of wealth for UHNWI clients. The survey was taken during October and November 2018

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Making Working from Home Work for You

The first Birkbeck Astrea event of 2020-21 explored how small changes can make a big difference to wellbeing, productivity and work-life balance while working from home.

Picture of a laptop with coffee and a children's toy.

If you, like much of the UK population, are continuing to work from home in the New Year, how did you feel returning to your desk (/dining room table/kitchen worktop) after the Christmas break? Were you relieved to give a freezing January commute a miss, or disappointed to miss out on catching up with colleagues? Are you returning to your laptop refreshed, or is it already feeling like Groundhog Day? 

If you’ve found the prolonged absence from the office a difficult adjustment in any way, be it the technology, loneliness or struggling to switch off at the end of the day, you’re not alone, as Birkbeck Astrea members discovered in their first formal event of the 2020-21 academic year, Making Working from Home Work for You. 

Working from Home: Love it or Hate it? 

This virtual event began with an opportunity to share the highs and lows of working from homeAmong the bugbears that we’d rather not carry into 2021 were an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; technological issues ranging from Wi-Fi crises to video call etiquette; as well as habits that we just can’t seem to save ourselves from, such as the obsessive reading of bad news on social media known as ‘doomscrolling’. 

It wasn’t all bad though, as colleagues also shared some of the highs from lockdown life, such as getting to know co-workers on a more personal level by being introduced to pets and other elements of home life; having an opportunity to get chores done in the week, leaving the weekend free to relax; and enjoying more comfortable attire, as one member commented: ‘Spending my working day in outside shoes seems ludicrous and I don’t know how I ever did it.’ 

Change One Thing 

While this end of term gathering was a great opportunity to get together and let off steam about working from home, there’s a serious side to this too. The blurred boundaries created by working from home mean that many of us are working longer hours and finding it harder to switch off at the end of the day. Mental health can suffer too, both for those juggling caring responsibilities with work and for those living alone who may feel isolated. So what can we do to make an improvement in 2021? 

Thinking about how we could improve our work/life balance, productivity and foster a healthy mind in the New Year, we asked members for suggestions of one small thing we could do in 2021 to make a difference. Here’s what they said: 

One change to improve work/life balance: 

  • Turn off all notifications: social media, email – they are designed to serve someone else’s priorities. 
  • Ditch the guilt: give yourself permission to take breaks and don’t feel bad for sticking to your agreed working hours. 
  • Make plans to call a loved one on your lunch break or straight after work. 

One change for a healthy mind: 

  • Be kind to yourself: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t finish everything on your to do list. 
  • Use your commute time to walk or read a book – whatever helps you switch off from the day. 
  • Go outside: use your lunch break to get some daylight and fresh air. 

One change for increased productivity: 

  • Take breaks away from your desk – in the physical office we were much less attached to our desks than we are now! 
  • Focus on one thing at a time – multitasking is distracting. 
  • If you’re in a meeting, switch off your emails. Don’t try to spread yourself too thinly. 

Got a great tip for working from home? Add it to our list. 

What small change can you make this year to get 2021 off to a great start? Let us know what you’ll do differently in the comments below. 

Birkbeck Astrea is a grassroots networking group for women and non-binary people working in professional services roles at Birkbeck, University of London. Stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram.

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What has the Covid crisis taught us about happiness?

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we define our happiness. In this blog, David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, discusses how the crisis has changed society and definitions of happiness. 

Cup of coffee with smiley face

Given what we experienced in 2020 (and on into 2021), it might seem inappropriate to consider a pandemic and happiness as having much to do with one another. And in many ways, levels of happiness in the UK followed the bad news. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) has been measuring the nation’s happiness for almost a decade now and it has barely shifted over that time. Austerity, Brexit turmoil —none of these made a dent, until March when the first national lockdown was announced. Then, life satisfaction and everyday mood plummeted while anxiety rocketed. But by summer, with the easing of restrictions, these happiness indicators had pretty much returned to pre-Covid levels.

This resilience may also be testament to a key phenomenon identified by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and, after the initial shock, to shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. This ‘adaptation’ principle explains why chasing riches produce what economists call ‘low marginal gains’ in happiness terms: you get used to your new-found wealth quite quickly and need to keep accumulating to maintain the same level of wellbeing (yes, just like addiction). New stimuli, both positive and negative, will make quite short-term, dramatic differences to wellbeing; before long, most people revert back to their normal happiness levels. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things.

But lockdown wasn’t merely tolerated. There were aspects of it people really rather liked. A clue is in the fourth indictor the ONS uses to gauge happiness, often termed the ‘eudemonic’ measure– reflecting a tradition associated with Aristotle that happiness is more than simply feeling good but is connected to the meaningful pursuits and good relationships of our lives – that asks people whether they feel their life is worthwhile. Unlike levels of anxiety, mood and life satisfaction, this measure remained relatively stable throughout 2020. Sure, some of what we find worthwhile (an active social and cultural life for example), took a hit, But the enforced hiatus from normal life that we never expected to inhabit –many dreamt of escaping the rat race; few thought the race itself would stop –has, for some at least, led to realisations and re-evaluations about the way they live.

Because by June, the ONS was reporting that almost half of us had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office (one UK wellbeing at work issue is that we put in more hours than most equivalent European nations but get less done!). Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. People cooked more and did more exercise. During a guest lecture for UCEN Manchester students, one participant provided a neat formula for staying sane during lockdown: ‘run, plant, bake. Repeat’.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Most of the activities research studies have shown to be associated with happiness –loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another activity associated with happiness. ‘For me’, says Karl Wilding, CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), ‘Covid demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger’. Not only did the one million plus people volunteering (only the tip of the philanthropic iceberg) constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. In common adversity, solidarity. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius!’.

Of course, even precarious living is subject to the adaptation principle. When danger becomes the new normal, it is hard to maintain this collective spirit. In addition, social solidarity depends not just on feeling connected to a larger entity but also on the idea of shared experience across social groups. This has already faded. Recent reports from the Institute of Fiscal Studies lays out in painstaking detail the ways in which the crisis has both highlighted and deepened the profound social inequalities of UK life. Going forward, unemployment – a key predictor of unhappiness– looks set to rise steeply; a really alarming bit of data picked up from a recent ONS survey was that a third of the population, and half of all renters and parents, say they would not be able to afford an unexpected emergency payment of £850.

Happiness is inseparable from its social context. Every year the UN commissions a ‘World Happiness Report’ and one theme is persistent: the happiest countries spend a higher percentage of GDP on social support systems. Therefore, during the first lockdown, the policy environment became more happiness-friendly. Witness not just furlough but also getting ‘everyone in’ off the streets, suspending housing evictions and benefit sanctions. One Department for Work and Pensions worker told me that advisors ‘no longer felt like cops’ and could offer a more efficient service when clients felt they could speak openly about their problems without a punitive threat. Pre-Covid, a softening of social attitudes towards welfare recipients were being observed in reports like the British Social Attitudes Survey, and it is hard to imagine this reversing any time soon.

In 2020 the state was back, and it felt friendlier. But will this turn out to be just a glimpse of something more hopeful and not a decisive shift? This year has given some actual substance to some of the vague nostrums rolled out by politicians: the big society, the good society, all sectors working together towards a common goal. As vaccines are rolled out, we may not be living on the slopes of Vesuvius for much longer, but we should be mindful of what Covid has taught us about happiness, on a macro level about a more generous politics and on a personal level that the mantra of happiness- Carpe Diem! has two meanings. One, invoked by Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and by T-shirts, mugs and online dating profiles, refers to the hot pursuit of happiness. But the aphorism has been re-purposed for our frenetic age. its original meaning pays tribute to the moderate happiness philosophy of Epicurus whose idea of seizing the day was not grabbing it by the scruff of its neck. Rather, cultivate simple joys and appreciate what we have instead of always seeking more. For, he wrote, ‘nothing is sufficient for he who finds sufficiency too little’.

Other ancient philosophies had good lockdowns. The Stoic creed of equanimity seems a bit dreary when there’s fun to be had. But in times of adversity, to face one’s fears, accept what we can’t control and still retain a sense of dignity never seemed so apposite. In a timely piece, writer Brigid Delaney recalled the Roman Philosopher Seneca, who, exiled by the state, cut off from his friends, wealth and influence, began to reconcile himself with the enforced simplicity and seclusion of his reduced circumstances, noting that ‘until we have begun to go without them, we fail to recognise how unnecessary things are’. Or, as one UCEN Manchester student put it: ‘the things we thought mattered, didn’t matter’.

 

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Lockdown loneliness

In this blog, Rob Martin a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck shares four ways to help manage loneliness during lockdown, and some resources available to Birkbeck students. 

A woman looking at her phone to depict loneliness

Some of us during lockdown are experiencing difficulties with loneliness. Many people are relying on the internet for all of their social and relational needs. This may not be the case for all students, and we will be covering other lockdown issues in further posts. Below are our top four top tips for managing your loneliness during lockdown.

1.    Quality connections, not quantity

Academic research into online communication suggests that its added distance and anonymity can provide more immediate rewards than face-to-face (FTF) communication. This might encourage us to text or chat with a greater number of people. But sometimes this can lead to frustrations, because, over thousands of years, we have evolved to relate to others through FTF communication.

In FTF we communicate through a variety of ‘channels’ – through the words we use, through the tone, pace, and volume of the speaker, body language and facial expressions, but also through silences. Silences are natural to us in FTF and allow for a moment to process what’s happening, but most online meetings contain few natural silences. Communicating through a more limited number of channels, with fewer opportunities to pause for thought, could explain why many of us feel more exhausted and could be less satisfied.

If you are noticing a sense of dissatisfaction in your relationships during lockdown, try to acknowledge that things are not quite as you would like them to be at the moment. Ask yourself “how can I take responsibility for better meeting my need for connection/company/entertainment?” Might it be better to distance yourself from certain relationships? During lockdown, it might feel tempting to try to meet our needs for connection through channels that do not serve us in the long run. Try to focus on developing higher quality connections with a smaller number of people. You can make a start on this by switching notifications off on your mobile device, even if just for 20 minutes.

2.    Give yourself permission to feel the way you feel

Give yourself permission to feel dissatisfied, if that is what you feel. Do you feel something else? That’s fine too. Some schools of thought believe that suffering comes from the sense of conflict we experience when we try to fight unpleasant emotions, rather than to understand it or simply be with it. It probably doesn’t feel good, but denying it or resisting it will likely feel worse. There are, of course, certain situations or relationships where an exit strategy is necessary, and this should not be overlooked.

Here, we are talking about particular emotions we might feel when alone – sadness, frustration, loneliness, anger. Acknowledging where we are now puts us in a better position to manage our responses and find more helpful ways of getting our needs met. If you want to learn more about managing difficult feelings, take a look at the range of free mental wellbeing apps via the NHS or contact Birkbeck’s Wellbeing Services.

3.    Use this time to develop a more compassionate relationship with yourself

The pace of life in 2020 has changed for most of us. Forgive yourself for feeling less than thrilled about it. Can you use this time to reflect on what it is that you want, or do not want, to invest your time in? Mindfulness meditation can be a good way of developing self-awareness and cultivating a sense of compassion for yourself and others. Try this list of mindfulness meditation apps to get started.

4.    Use this time to develop your personal interests

Is there something you have always wanted to read about, but haven’t? Are there hobbies you have been interested in, but never found the time or space to pursue? For example:

The Students’ Union still have active clubs and societies – perhaps there is one that matches your interests? Hopefully, you will gain a sense of satisfaction from taking up a new interest or two. It will also give you something different to talk about on Zoom.

We hope that loneliness is not affecting you adversely, but if you are finding things too much, contact Wellbeing Services to ask about counselling or contact the Samaritans. You may wish to consult your GP if you require help, or in an emergency, contact Emergency Services on 999 or visit A&E.

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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.

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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