“It’s crazy to think that an idea I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Alexander Flint Mitchell took home the prize for Best Business Pitch in June’s Pioneer awards. He reflects on a life-changing year of building his business, Blind Cupid.

Picture of Alexander Flint Mitchell

When Alexander Flint Mitchell enrolled onto Birkbeck’s MSc Business Innovation last September, it was with a view to changing career direction and developing the business idea that had been on his mind for the last five years.

Handing in his notice just one month later, you could say things had moved a little faster than expected. “Looking back on it, that was probably a bit naïve,” Alexander admits, “but if you want to achieve something big, you’ve sometimes got to take a leap into the unknown.”

The motivation for this leap of faith? A little idea for an app called Blind Cupid.

Blind Cupid is a dating app with a difference, using a never-before-used science to match people based on their fundamental values, giving users the chance to see bios and compatibility scores before they reveal pictures to potential matches.

“A lot of dating apps claim to be all about personality,” says Alexander, “but it’s really just a slogan. In their questionnaires, they will ask about polarising issues like politics, which is valid, but simply agreeing on something doesn’t mean that you’re compatible. Take Brexit, for example: people voted Leave on both extremes of the political spectrum. It’s essential to understand the rationale behind the belief.

“The questionnaire that we use for Blind Cupid goes right to basic principles. The greatest feedback we have received so far from users is that they could see the value in the product even from just filling out the questionnaire – before they’d received any matches. When we tested the product, 80% of the test group went on four or more dates with their matches – that’s way higher than anything else in the market.”

Was the concept for the app born out of Alexander’s personal experience? “People ask me that a lot,” he says, “but in reality, the idea just came to me in a lightbulb moment, fully formed. I came up with the concept aged 21, while studying Law and working in the City. I found the reality of being a lawyer very boring and would end up spending most of the day daydreaming about this app. I knew that I was going to do it eventually, but I wanted to do it properly.”

In 2019, Alexander applied for the MSc Business Innovation at Birkbeck, specialising in entrepreneurship. “Studying in the evening meant that I could continue working in the City until the business was up and running,” Alexander explains. “I thought that, worst case scenario, I could find a role in venture capital, but I really wanted to give Blind Cupid a go.

“The course was everything I wanted to learn. One of the early modules, Entrepreneurial Venture Creation, required us to write a business plan. I wrote a business plan for Blind Cupid, and that’s when I decided to quit my job.”

As Alexander worked through the masters and the Pioneer programme, his business and networks grew. “I’ve made some amazing connections and put together a dedicated team – we’d meet at 8am and still be working together at 1am, before we were earning any money to do it, which just shows the commitment we all have to the business.”

Alexander’s Pioneer experience culminated in June’s virtual awards ceremony, where he took home the award for Best Business Pitch. “It was a shame not to be able to do the finale in person, but I was really surprised and pleased by how many people came along to the virtual ceremony. When pitching Blind Cupid to investors, it usually takes a full hour to go into all the detail, so drilling it down to three minutes was a real challenge. I’m thrilled to have won the Best Business Pitch award; it feels like all the hard work is paying off.”

Alexander is currently fundraising for Blind Cupid, with the aim of getting the product on the market within the next three months. Encouragingly, it seems that he’s also hit on an idea that can withstand the current tough economic conditions: “Strangely enough, the dating industry is booming at the moment. Regardless of what’s happening in the economy, people have a natural desire to have someone in their lives romantically, and that doesn’t go away in a recession.

“The decision to do the master’s was a life-changing, life-affirming decision. It’s crazy to think that the idea that I had when I was 21 is now my full-time job.”

Further Information

 

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“A good PhD is a finished PhD”: tips for completing your thesis from academics who’ve been there

Struggling to find the motivation to get through the final furlong of your PhD? Professor Almuth McDowall, Head of the Department of Organizational Psychology, shares some top tips to help you finish strong – with many thanks to Rob Briner, Kamal Birdi, Jane Ogden, Gail Kinman, Katrina Pritchard; and Rebecca Whiting for the quote in the title.

Picture of PhD student graduating

Studying for a PhD and writing the thesis is one of the most challenging undertakings in academic life. One of the difficulties is that there is no blueprint. Each research journey is different. Each thesis is unique. Some of us, and this includes me, probably spent too much time and energy emulating others. Then the realisation dawns that it’s yours and only yours to finish.

Writing the thesis is not a linear journey. There are stops and starts along the way. We start doubting our capacity as writers. We will wonder if our research will ever be good enough. Will people care? Or will they look down on our undertakings? Self doubt tends to creep in.

Motivation is also an issue. On the home stretch, which should be the final energetic lap, many of us get bored with our own words. The end is in sight, but energy levels dip, which often means that procrastination sets in.

What can we do on the final furlong? In no particular order, here are our top tips:

Make yourself a plan and timetable

Month by month at first. Week by week on the final stretch. Share this. Make it accountable. If you miss deadlines and milestones, rethink and learn from why this happened. If you were too ambitious, revise timelines but share this with your supervisor. If slippage happened because you simply didn’t write, reflect on why this happened. Don’t beat yourself up, but recognise that this was a slip and think of strategies to do better next time.

Create a reward system and reward chart

Maybe don’t hit the biscuit tin every time you write 500 words, but think of other treats. A walk in the park? A cup of your favourite tea? Relish and notice the reward. It will feel very satisfying to tick tasks off.

Divide tasks up into ‘intellectual’ and ‘housekeeping’

Some tasks are tough mental work, such as writing a meaningful conclusion. Others are more tedious, such as formatting tables, but these tasks still need to be done. So when you are feeling fresh, do the hard stuff. When you have brain fog, do the simpler tasks. This way, productivity is kept up.

Enough is enough

No thesis is perfect. A take-home of five to six contributions, clearly articulated, is better than a long list.

Divide your attention equally

Don’t fall into the trap of going over and over a certain section, but neglecting other equally important sections of your thesis. Use your chapter structure to ensure that you work across all chapters equally. It’s a common trap to neglect the conclusion. Use your abstract to articulate and shape what your key contributions are.

Chunking is your friend

Don’t think about writing thousands of words, or an entire chapter. Think about writing lots of 500 words. It will feel much more manageable.

Use your submission form to fix the end date

Do this as soon as realistically possible. Seeing the date in print makes it more real and will focus your energies.

Let go of perfection

A perfect thesis is a rare creature. Is this really what it’s all about? Doing doctoral research is an apprenticeship which prepares you for the next chapters of your life. Celebrate what you do well, and don’t mull on your weaker points. Good research is rarely perfect but thought provoking. That’s what it is all about.

Make a plan

Our final tip is not just to read ‘top tips’ but to plan how to put them into action. What are you going to tackle first of the above? Always remember – “a good PhD is a finished PhD”. Perfectionism and ambition are helpful, but should not deter and detract you from the final submission. It’s part of an academic’s life that we worry if our work is good enough, liked, cited and used by audiences. A thesis does not have to be perfect, but needs to document a learning journey.

We wish you well in your writing journey on the ‘final furlong’.

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The Family Learning Series

Birkbeck’s Access and Engagement team and Brittney Chere and Jessica Massonnié from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development, have launched a virtual Family Learning Series for parents and children. The series of videos, ‘The Brain Explained’, are short lessons accompanied by fun activities for impactful family learning.

In February, the Access and Engagement Team along with Jessica Massonnié and Brittney Chere from Birkbeck’s Centre for the Brain and Cognitive Development delivered a workshop for children and parents at Stratford library. Over 10 families joined us for an hour of activities which included making your own neurons and building a brain hat.

With more family workshops planned for the Easter holidays and as Covid-19 shut all public venues, we began thinking about how we could bring our family learning programme online – and this is the result!

Below you’ll find four videos led by Brittney Chere focusing on the brain and including activities that you and your child/children can do at home. These activities are best suited for primary school aged children (Year’s 4-6) and we hope that they can play a role in any home schooling you are doing with your children right now.

The Brain, Explained: Part 1

Now you’re ready to get going- watch this video to start learning about the brain!

Activity 1 resource: Trace the Brain (1)

The Brain, Explained: Part 2

 

Activity 2 resource: Brain Hats

The Brain, Explained: Part 3

Activity 3 resource: ChatterBox instructions and activity ChatterBox.

 

The Brain Explained: Part 4

Activity 4 resource: Brain Game Instructions, Brain Game Board, Brain Game Neurons.

Where can I find other learning resources?

If this has sparked your interest as a parent in psychology or the brain, why not take a look at the Centre for the Brain’s virtual coffee mornings where you can hear from researchers about their research. Other Birkbeck events can be found on our events page.

If your child wants to find out more about the brain or how the body works; check out this University of Washington resource which has lots of great activities including these fun experiments you can do at home! This website also has some great science resources.

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The importance of frequent handwashing to tackle transmission of COVID-19 and many other infectious diseases

As government’s across the world announce the easing of lockdown measures it is understandable to feel that the threat of COVID-19 has subsided for now. However, it is more important than ever to exercise caution. In this blog, Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry at Birkbeck reiterates and breaks down the importance of hand washing in the prevention of the spread of the virus.

 

We have been consistently reminded to wash our hands several times a day, but do we legitimately understand why? I am here to explain to why the Government is urging us to wash our hands with the intent to intrinsically stop the spread of COVID-19 and other, similar infectious diseases.

The novel infective Coronavirus causes a respiratory illness which implies that it is circulated through the virus-laden air-borne particles from sneezes and coughs, if we fail to catch sneezes/coughs in a tissue and carefully discard of it, the virus consequently ends up on surfaces where they can survive. Generally, we may fail to do this due to inconvenience and our predispositions; however, if somebody else touches that contaminated surface, the virus is able to transfer onto their hand and eventually can cause new infection to a susceptible host.

A recent study indicated that people touch their face 23 times an hour on average, the virus on your hands subsequently infects our eyes, mouth or nose when we touch it. Hence, the significance of washing your hands; not only to decrease the chances of you contracting the virus, but to prevent the spread on a global scale. When we come to talk about preventative measures, to decrease the chances of it spreading further, the public have a huge role to play.

Washing your hands on a regular basis ensures a decreased risk of contaminating surfaces and spreading infection. So, we have the basis of the importance of ‘washing’ your hands, but it is paramount that you wash your hands in an accurate manner for optimal efficiency in controlling the spread. Any Coronavirus is contained within a lipid envelope – essentially, a layer of fat. Soap has the ability to break this fat apart. As a result, the virus is unable to infect you and others. Moreover, using the correct handwashing technique mechanically pries off the germs and rinses them away.

Watch a video demonstrating the best way to wash your hands.

This video courtesy to Sreyashi Basu: While the video is demonstrating a good hand washing protocol, in order to save water, you should consider using taps with auto-off sensor or with elbow levers where available.

References:

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Is the city a place of freedom? Reflections on Priya Sen’s documentary on Delhi

Priya Sen’s newest documentary explores the everyday lives of young women in contemporary Delhi. The film is available for streaming as part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week. In a podcast that accompanies the documentary, the director was interviewed by Professor Melissa Butcher (Geography, Birkbeck) about the process of film-making in urban India. Together, the podcast and the film invite the audience to reflect on how the arts and the social sciences can be used in combination to explore contemporary urban life. The event marks the launch of Birkbeck’s new MA/MSc Cities programme, showcasing its interdisciplinary approach.

Image courtesy of The Kitchen.

The social life of cities

Early thinkers of urbanization reflected on the ways in which city living was transforming the relationship between individuals and others. In the “Metropolis and Mental life”, Simmel coined the famous concept of the “blasé”, in reference to the indifference that urbanites expressed in multiple everyday interactions. Compared to traditional rural settings, he argued that urban life allowed for a certain degree of autonomy. In the city, people were liberated from the constant social expectations of communitarian life and could thus behave more freely. What would Simmel say if he could watch Priya Sen’s exploration of everyday life in Delhi?

In “Yeh Freedom Life” we follow the lives of Sachi and Parveen, two young people living in a working-class neighborhood (Ambedkar Nagar) of Delhi. The film shows their struggles to negotiate family and societal expectations for “the right to live their lives properly and openly”. Far from the “blasé” attitude, what we observe is the constant scrutiny of others in relation to the protagonists’ choices of who to love and how to live their lives. The film invites viewers to reflect on how patriarchal norms are contested but also reproduced and accommodated within India’s fast-urbanizing society. This topic has been recently discussed by Sanjay Srivastava during Birkbeck’s “Gendered cities” webinar in which he explored the spatial-politics of gender in contemporary urban India. For Sanjay, rather than challenging gendered norms, Indian society is incorporating those normative ideas through practices of “modern” consumption.

(Un)making gender in urban India

The documentary opens with scenes of an event where a female audience listens to a talk based on Hindu mythology followed by a discourse on the importance of women’s education. The event can be seen as a space where “traditional” and “modern” ideals are combined to offer a standard of womanhood compatible with contemporary India. In the event, we are first introduced to Sachi and her soon to be married friend Didi. They both work in a beauty parlor where they spend their time discussing their love affairs while threading costumers’ eyebrows with impressive dexterity. In the “Beauty Care and Training Centre”, femininity standards are being produced but normative behaviors are also subverted through Sachi’s personal struggle for a fulfilling life. Despite Didi’s protest over the sorrow inflicted on her friend’s family as a result of her unusual choices in love, Sachi refutes any critical commentary, arguing that “if you live by what people around you say, life will be very hard”.

The constrains of associational life

Similar to Sachi, Parveen also struggles for love and happiness, facing the negative consequences of his unconventional life. He works on a cigarette stall owned by her family located in a busy intersection. Despite his hard work for the family business, he remains an outcast, often facing the hostility of those around him. Nonetheless, he is unapologetic about who he is and willing to have a less comfortable life to keep his autonomy. His discourse never veers towards a rights-based language, always foregrounding instead the truth of his emotions and his need for freedom. Like many others, he is willing to accept the penalty of exclusion from social networks in order to claim a “freedom life”.

The film reveals the complex ways in which solidarity actually works. The reality is far from the idyllic appraisals of associational life often celebrated by international development agencies for its beneficial role in poverty alleviation. In those accounts, communities are often portrayed as unproblematic networks of solidarity and trust that can be accessed by its members in case of need. Particularly in Southeast Asia, schemes of microcredit and other market-oriented initiatives focused on the inclusion of the “bottom of the pyramid” usually assume the existence of such socially cohesive networks. However, as Priya Sen’s documentary reveals, the maintenance of social networks often require adherence to social norms that either constrain individual’s autonomy or exclude those who are non-conforming. The film also illustrates how the complex realities of urban life in postcolonial settings are not easily captured by rigid frameworks.

A view from the South

Recently, postcolonial urban thinkers have challenged “universal” narratives of urbanization rooted on Western experiences. Calling for a “view from the South”, urban scholars have challenged “modernizing” discourses that ignore situated trajectories of urbanization and impose inadequate analytical frames and solutions. In this context, researchers on urban India have criticized the use of binary categories, such as modern/traditional, formal/informal, as unsuitable for uncovering the complexities of contemporary urbanization in the country. In “Yeh Freedom Life”, the unfolding of everyday urban life reveals how rigid categorizations of gender, femininity and sexuality are simultaneously reinforced and contested.

Dr Mara Nogueira is a Lecturer in Urban Geography and Programme Director of the MA/MSc Cities programme.

 

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Queerantine Bookshelf

While the usual Pride parade may not be possible this year, we’re still keen to amplify LGBTQ experiences and lives. Golnoosh Nour, a Creative Writing Alumna, teacher and author of her most recent short story collection, ‘The Ministry of Guidanceshares her essential LGBTQ reading list.

Fiction: Three Queer Novels

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy: This is a book that beautifully depicts the fluidity of sexuality and desire. This novel was published in 2016, my prediction is that this book will become a classic for its mastery of plot, characterisation, and language, but also for its unapologetic portrayals of female desire, motherhood, and the nuclear family. Levy’s descriptions of lesbian desire and female bisexual desire are beatific. Also, Sofia Irina is one of my favourite protagonists. She is curious, clever, and bold – even though she thinks she is not bold, and she really is ‘pulsating with shifting sexualities’.

Guapa by Saleem Haddad: Another unputdownable novel with an adorable protagonist, Rasa. An Arab gay man who describes his beautiful but forbidden love for the closeted Taymour with the utmost sensitivity both in an imaginary Arab country and the United States. The book subtly debunks the myth that the West is a sanctuary for gay people. The novel also does so much more; it is an extremely nuanced account of being a Middle Eastern queer. While this book made me laugh out loud and cry several times, on the whole, I cherish it for its warmth and compassion. If books had hearts, I’d say Guapa has a heart of gold.

The Sluts by Dennis Cooper: I love this book for the exact opposite reason that I love Guapa; I’m intrigued by its depiction of brutality, cruelty, and hollowness that can accompany uninhibited sexual desires – in this case, homosexual men who enjoy being extremely violent and at times murderous to one another. But apart from these compelling depictions, this book is a work of literary genius in terms of narrative structure. It is a mystery that at the end of the day the reader needs to solve on their own – if they believe it needs to be solved at all. I did and I didn’t. I felt so overwhelmed by the ethereal and yet pungent quality of the prose that during the two days that it took me to finish it, I felt I was on some strange drugs. This was a drug that made me unable to read any other books for several weeks apart from the ones by Dennis Cooper.

(There are so many more amazing queer novels, including the enticing classic: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, My Education by Susan Choi, Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez, London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp, and many more that the limitations of space don’t allow me to mention. The three I elaborated upon are the ones I discovered fairly recently in queerantine.)

Poetry

There is so much breathtaking contemporary poetry exploring queer desire: these are some of the collections I have been rereading during the lockdown: English Breakfast by Jay Bernard (a literary masterpiece that boldly explores race, gender, and sexuality, not often talked about as it’s probably ‘too queer’ for the UK poetry scene) Soho by Richard Scott (a queer bible), I Must Be Living Twice by Eileen Myles (funny and canocial), Rabbit by Sophie Robinson (deliciously readable, yet deep and sapphic), Selah by Keith Jarrett (a star Birkbeck alumni!), Muses and Bruises by Fran Lock (especially the poem Rag Town Girls do Poetry, also, Fran is another Birkbeck star…), and last but not least Insert [Boy] by Danez Smith (their first and in my not very humble opinion, strongest collection).

 

 

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“Birkbeck equipped me with knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community.”

Esther Joyce Ariokot, from Uganda, graduated with an LLM in International Economic Law, Justice and Development. The intensive programme involves two blocks of intensive face-to-face teaching in London, with preliminary materials and readings developed especially and sent to students in January.

Esther Ariokot

Esther Ariokot

Can you tell us about your background?

Before joining Birkbeck I had completed a Bachelor of Laws from Uganda Christian University after which I pursued the Bar Course to enable me to practice Law in Uganda.

I chose Birkbeck’s intensive LLM International Economic Law programme because it fitted within the work I was doing at the time. I was working as a Court Mediator which involved helping people settle disputes without going through the whole process of litigation. I was helping the vulnerable attain justice.

The programme includes two blocks of intensive face to face teaching. Can you tell us about your time in London and on campus?

I enjoyed studying with my classmates because we were from a range of professions, from lawyers to bankers to actresses. They brought a rich contribution to the lectures and discussions we often had. The different professions brought a different angle to the human rights course unit we were studying. I have kept in touch with four of my classmates.

I particularly enjoyed the Human Rights class and the Risks and Response class. I received additional support from the Library Team. They made using the Library easy along with the online Library. I also received a Tutorial on how to write a dissertation.

Unfortunately, I did not join any social clubs or societies as I was studying an intensive course so had little free time on my hands. But I had a great time looking around London.

What did you enjoy the most about living in London?

London has so many tourist attractions that I enjoyed going to when I got some free time. I also enjoyed the diverse range of cuisines available; I was able to eat food from my country during my stay.

I had never lived overseas before coming to UK. I was living in Harpenden and because of the efficient transport system I had no trouble coming into London for study and research.

Furthermore, I was fortunate that a British family took me in and looked after me for my whole stay. I did not have challenges living in London because I was well taken care of by the Vickers Family – I am forever grateful for their generosity.  The weather was not a problem as I was in London during spring and summer.

How has your time at Birkbeck influenced your life and career since then?

Birkbeck helped me to become a critical thinker, a skill that was key to me getting my research job. I was appointed as a lecturer to the School of Law of Nkumba University because I had an LLM and I was also given a Research Job by Judiciary because of the skills I had attained from Birkbeck.

I work under a Justice of the High Court in the Commercial Division of the High Court.  I have also started a Legal Aid Project that is helping the needy and vulnerable people where I live in Entebbe attain legal services at no cost.

What are your top tips for aspiring students?

The Legal profession requires Commitment and hard work, after attaining your law degree aim to make a difference in the community around you. I thank Birkbeck for equipping me with the knowledge that has helped me continue making a difference in my community. I am currently applying for a Law PhD at Birkbeck.

Birkbeck will make your study easy and enjoyable. It has a diverse culture, you cannot fail to fit in. The members of staff are professional and make understanding the concepts easy. Apply for a course now, don’t hesitate!

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How can we manage our organisations and families out of the COVID-19 crisis? 

As we move out of crisis mode and settle into new patterns of working, Professor Almuth McDowall shares her advice on managing work and family life over the coming months. 

In MayI had the opportunity to deliver an online webinar for Barclays Eagle Labs together with their CEO Ben Davey. We tackled important and profound questions, not only about how we manage work itimes of crisis, but also our families and wider networks. 

Ben shared his experience of managing work-life balance. Initially, he explained, he fell into the trap of working very long hours and not having enough time to rest and recuperate. Now he makes an extra effort to go out, get fresh air and then comes back to his desk feeling reinvigorated. I could relate to this so much. During the first two weeks of the crisis, I must admit that I barely slept or ate, as there was so much to do, so much change to manage. Things have settled down now and we are working virtually as teams and organisations. 

Ben asked me if I had any advice for how to make this happen effectively, particularly in international contexts. The research on virtual working tells us that teams work better if they have had initial face to face meeting and bonding time. Well, none of us has had this. It might be something to go back and revisit – have you agreed a set of principles for how your team will work? Has everyone signed up? Regarding international teams, it can be really important to establish and preserve local identity, particularly during this time of crisis and uncertainty. Maybe each team could agree on a ‘strapline’ that summarises their identity and ways of working? Then provide teams with the opportunity to express their needs for how they want to work with others. Provide regular ‘feedforward forums’ so that the spotlight is not only what needs to be done, but also how you work together.  

The attendees in our online session were as concerned about managing their families as they were about managing their work. Many of them had noticed that energy levels are starting to wane. Also, how do you communicate with young children and teenagers? As the situation is so uncertain, a good approach is to focus on the short and medium term. Think about what is precious to you as a family, and what you can control. No one can control the media, or government policy, but we can control how we communicate with each other. Having been stuck in our homes for so long, it can be easy to fall into a rut and take each other for granted. Make sure you actively seek opportunities to talk to each other and share experiences. 

Another question was about how to keep teenagers motivated to do their homework. I shared my own experience. My middle daughter is doing, or rather not doing (in a traditional sense) her GCSEs. At first, we had several heated arguments as I wanted her to do more work, yet she was lying on her bed and talking to her friends. Being honest, I had to adjust my own expectations. This is an unusual situation. She is at an age where her peer group is more important than family. Will anyone really care about the grades she gets in her GCSEs this year? I think not. So I now let her be and chat to her friends. She is happier for it, and so am I.  

How can we help young children make sense of the crisis? Well, limit exposure to news at home, as ‘big words’ said in a serious tone are likely to unsettle. Children appreciate honesty, so don’t pretend. But find a way for them to express themselves. It might be helpful to get them to start a scrapbook, or a journal, where they can draw and chart their experiences visually – then talk about what you see together.  

Finally, we talked about the importance and power of goals at work, and at home. At work, many of us have been in survival and crisis mode. Now might be the time to agree what the priorities for the next few months are and state these very clearly. Then check in on progress and give each other feedback about how things are going. Revisit and revise as necessary. The same applies at home. Is there something you want to learn as a family? Something that you have learned through the crisis which you want to take forward? Get everyone involved in planning. Express your vision – write this down or draw it – but be sure this is shared.  

The crisis is hard, and we are in this for the long haul. Focus on what you can control, this will help you to sustain motivation. Don’t forget – we are in this together. Talk, share and reach out to others where you can. 

Further Information: 

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“Birkbeck gave me the opportunity to help others.”

Marcel came to Birkbeck to follow his dream of becoming a web developer. Now teaching in the Department of Computer Science and Information Systems, he shares his passion for programming with the next generation of students.

Picture of Marcel

I’ve always wanted to work in IT. Back in the early 2000s, I was doing reprographics in a legal department, but knew I wanted to be more involved in computing. I was fascinated by computers and web design, so I began teaching myself at home. I started with Photoshop, then building websites and began to realise this was something I really wanted to do and could enjoy as a job. 

Getting a career in web development with no education and no experience was impossible, so I went along to a few university open days to explore my options. 

One Saturday, I went to Birkbeck and came across the Foundation Degree in Web DevelopmentI couldn’t afford to quit my day job and study full time, but Birkbeck allowed me to do both. 

Studying part-time and working full-time wasn’t easy and involved huge social sacrifices, but after a year and a half on the programme, I landed my first computing job as a Junior Developer for a digital healthcare agency. 

I also got to meet people in the classroom: Birkbeck has a very international community and it was amazing to learn alongside and collaborate with people from all over the world. 

Once I’d completed my studies, I was headhunted by Sky TV to work on data visualisation dashboards. This made me a proper developer, working on really cool stuff around data visualisation, but I knew I also wanted to study more, so I returned to Birkbeck to study BSc Computing. 

In some ways, when I graduated, I’d achieved what I set out to do: I had the qualification and a proper job in digital, but it felt like something was missing. Birkbeck had been a part of my life for the last five years, so I felt strangely empty without it. 

I emailed one of my teachers and asked if there was anything I could do to help out – I would have gone back just to put paper in the printer! I saw Birkbeck as a hobby where I could also help future students in some way. Some people run or play chess – Birkbeck was my hobby. 

Instead of doing the admin though, I was offered a role as demonstrator. For the first term, I helped out in lectures, providing support with the hands-on activities. In the second term I started teaching. It had never been my intention to teach, but I found it so rewarding helping others to succeed. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you show someone how to do something and the next time you see them they say “Hey, look what I’ve done on my own.” 

I’ve changed jobs a few times since then and now work at Barclays as VP/Technology Lead, teaching at Birkbeck once a week as well. 

I know that everyone has different circumstances, but Birkbeck has shown me that if you’re willing to work hard, people will help you. Now, when my students say they can’t do it, I tell them “I know how you feel, I’ve been in your shoes, so don’t tell me you can’t do it, because everyone can.” 

Marcel currently teaches on the modules ‘Mobile Web Application Development’ and ‘Web Programming Using PHP’. 

Further Information: 

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“With the right support structure all things are possible.”

Gaining professional experience with the support of Birkbeck Careers service, making friends from all over the worldtravelling around the UK and Europe… Namibian alumna Omagano Kankondi, Head of Solution Mapping at the Accelerator Lab under United Nations Development (UNDP) talks about her experience at Birkbeck. 

Omagano Kankondi

Can you tell us about your background?  

I am originally from Okahao which is in the northern part of Namibia, I currently live in the capital city Windhoek.  In 2005, I started my tertiary education in Cape Town at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and I was there till 2011. During my time there I obtained a National Diploma in 3D Design, a Bachelor of Technology in Product Design and a Master’s in Design focusing on Socially Responsible Design. I graduated from my Masters in 2012 and four years later started on the MSc in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management. 

Why did you decide to study at Birkbeck?

It was always my intention to get a qualification that was business-centred because I felt as a designer who had the intention of going out on my own in the future, I really needed it. In 2012 I started working for the Ministry of Trade and Industry in Namibia as a Design Consultant, focusing on product development for SMEs. Working here, sparked my curiosity for business studies. Initially, I had wanted to pursue an MBA but after much contemplation, I realised an MBA was not the route I wanted to take.  

When I came across this programme at Birkbeck I believed it would suit me perfectly. The MSc in Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship and Innovation Management had the right balance of business focus and innovation, so I was even more pleased when I was awarded a Chevening scholarship.   

How was studying at Birkbeck?

I found the staff to be friendly and approachable, whenever I approached a staff member with a query or problem, they always offered their full assistance.  This was the case for staff on all levels.   

I made a really good set of friends. We were a diverse bunch, a small United Nations. We started off as a study group and soon we were planning epic trips together, I think our most memorable trip was to the Austrian Alps. My very patient friend Kevin tried to teach me how to ski for the very first time but despite his best efforts, I couldn’t quite get the hang of it. We all still stay in touch via our WhatsApp group and we check in every now and then.  

I didn’t officially join any social clubs, but I did attend a couple of activities organised by the International Students forum. One such activity was a tour to Houses of Parliament which I thoroughly enjoyed.  

When I started writing my dissertation, I thought it would be the right time to look for work experience because my schedule was way more flexible, but I was not making any headway. I reached out to the Birkbeck Futures and one of the staff members helped me review my CV and gave me guidance on how to improve it. I eventually secured a job at Good Innovation London. 

How was it living in the UK?

 When I moved to Cape Town it was my first time moving away from home. At that time I really wanted to live in halls of residence but was unable to get a place, so when I moved to London, I decided that I would live in halls for the experience. I got a place in Connaught Hall right next to campus which was so convenient and cost-effective for me. I loved the experience and I got to make great friends in halls (Hi Russel, Isaiah, Hanako and Shezard!) but I must admit sharing bathrooms was an interesting experience I do not need to relive.   

My London experience was amazing, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I made sure to get to know London; going to art shows, concerts (please tell Adele she still owes me a concert from that time in 2016), joining my brunch club in various parts of London to try out Instagramworthy dishes and chilled hangouts with friends from the African diaspora. I think my initial challenge was getting used to the pace of the work at Birkbeck but I eventually got the hang of it  my main challenge turned out to be the lack of sun! I come from one of the sunniest places in the world so this was a tough adjustment. One of the things I enjoyed and miss the most about London is the variety in Every. Single. Thing!!  

London living showed me that with the right support structure all things are possible. I think one of the ways I have changed is that my level of tenacity has been boosted, ‘try just one more time’ has become a self-cheer and part of my way of doing things.  

What have you done since graduating from Birkbeck? 

I am currently employed as the Head of Solution Mapping at the Accelerator Lab under United Nations Development (UNDP) in Namibia. The accelerator Labs are the UNDP’s new service offering that works with people, governments, and the private sector to reimagine development for the 21st century. Together with the Head of Experimentation and Head of Exploration our main objective at the #AccLabNam is to support the UNDP Country Office in addressing wicked complex challenges in Namibia. At the lab we hope to create people-centred solutions “where today’s moonshots1 become tomorrow’s breakthroughs. 

I landed a job which combines my social responsibility and design background and innovation at the United Nations Development Programme, which was on my vision board as a dream employer. 

My journey has been a little unusual, I started as an industrial designer but now work in development. The one thing that has remained consistent is that at the heart of it all, my work has always been about people so if you would like to keep people at the centre of your workmy advice would be, as cliché as it might sound, remember why you started and how it can contribute to the big picture of not leaving anyone behind.  

What advice would you give other people thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

Do it! You will have the best time, challenging at times and in times like that you can pop over to The George Birkbeck bar. 
😊  

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