BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at

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Birkbeck Study Skills: play to win

Sal Campbell, a Learning Development Tutor at Birkbeck explains what Learning Development Tutors do and how students can use the resources available to them.

What if I told you I knew how you could work a little less on your degree and get better results?

Imagine someone wants you to bake them a cake. You know about cakes, having eaten many of them and you’ve been given all the basic ingredients – but not a recipe, because they thought you already have one. You don’t, but you know it involves mixing everything together and there’s an oven involved. Beyond that, it’s pure guesswork. You assume that it must be straightforward because other people seem to know what they’re doing and you’re not going to admit you don’t know the method, because how hard can baking a cake be? So you give it a go, but it’s all a bit stressful and the result is… well, cake-like, but it’s not the best cake you could have baked, compared to if you’d had the recipe in the first place.

Birkbeck isn’t a bakery, but we do expect you to produce essays and assignments with all the ‘ingredients’ – the knowledge and skills we are trying to teach you on your courses – to prove your abilities. This can be a stressful and frustrating process if you’re not familiar with how to go about it, or it’s been a while since your first degree and sometimes this means your ideas and understanding – which is really what your lecturers are interested in – don’t shine through as much as they could.

Across all subject assignments, as well as assessing your understanding of the content of your courses, lecturers are also assessing how well you can perform various academic skills such as how to structure an essay, your use of correct academic English, correct referencing and citation, evidence of critical thinking and so on. We want to know that you can read and understand; that you can think critically; we want to know how well you can articulate and substantiate your own arguments and how well you can write.

These are not personal qualities you either do or don’t have – they are skills that can be learned and the fundamentals can be learned easily and quickly. As a Learning Development Tutor, I think it’s a tragedy when students are clearly motivated, hardworking, diligent and able – in short, they have all the ingredients they need to reach their potential but they don’t know how to go about it. As a result, their efforts miss the mark and they don’t get the grade they are capable of. The only thing missing is a kind of ‘academic capital’; it is freely available information.

Students often mistakenly believe that coming to study skills workshops is what you do if you need ‘support’ and you are not independently able to do your degree – whereas nothing could be further from the truth. Study skills tutors are academic specialists, the methodologists of academia. We are the equivalent of personal trainers for your studies and our whole purpose is to show you how to optimise the quality of your work. Your course lecturers are experts in the content of your degree – they teach you what. We are the experts in how to do your degree – we can show you how to do it to a higher standard and in less time than you can work it out for yourself.

Studying at university is hard work, and it is expensive – so play to win. Use the resources and services available to you to maximise your chances of doing the best you can. Don’t sweat in the library hour after hour trying to work out how to do your assignment, when you can come to a workshop, meet with a tutor, or look at the huge wealth of online resources available to find out what you need to know right now.

Our resources, workshops and tutorials are freely available. Take a look at the Birkbeck Study Skills webpage and Moodle module, the Study Skills workshop timetable and just see what’s available.

So many students I meet don’t realise how much it can help, or how easily and quickly they can access it. Do yourself a favour – just invest a little time in investigating what is available and if it looks helpful, pick three things to look at in more detail. Read what the lecturer feedback says on your essays and assignments and choose one or two things to improve on your next assignment, and look for resources to help with that.

As Birkbeck students, we know you are as busy as you are dedicated, and we want to help ensure that your hard work and dedication pays off. Let’s do this right: the information is there and it works – all you have to do is take a look.

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From asylum seeker to student: how the Compass Project changed my life

An asylum seeker from Sri Lanka, who successfully applied to the Compass Project, tells of how he became a student at Birkbeck and his ambitions to help future asylum seekers have their voices heard.

My name is SJ. I belong to an oppressed ethnic minority in Sri Lanka, the Tamils. Due to my ethnicity and my political views, I was abducted and tortured. Therefore, I was unable to pursue higher education. I had basic school education in Sri Lanka and fled to the United Kingdom in 2010 when I was 17-years-old.

While my asylum case was under processing, I was unable to keep up with life as it took different stages every day. There was no one to help me find things or to advise me. At first, I did not even know how to use a microwave oven and ended up eating the food ice cold. I was left to sleep in a parking garage at a house. I struggled and felt strange. It was a haunting experience for me. There was nobody to hear what I had to say. Instead, they heard only what they wanted to hear. Those days were filled with solitude and emptiness. With whom should I share? How much should I share? Is it okay to share? Such questions crowded my mind. And they kept me drowned in thoughts and fear all the time.

Years passed. So much has happened between the years 2010 and 2014. I was homeless for a while and slept on the street while having chicken pox. The house owner did not let me stay in their garage as his wife was pregnant at that time. It was a fair concern and who am I for them to take extra care? By 2012, I was living with a friend in Doncaster. I was desperate to talk to someone and I was lucky to meet someone who had gone through what I had gone through in Sri Lanka.

In 2014, I gave up on myself and handed myself over at a police station as a failed asylum seeker. I was being a burden to my friend and I could not cope up with my life. I was detained in an immigration detention centre for about five months. I was able to witness the dark side of the UK while I was there. It was horrendous in many ways, from the food given to the detainees to how they are being treated.

The detention centre atmosphere forced me to relive my dark days in Sri Lanka. I was not aware of the pains and feelings that were hidden inside me until I was locked away. I used to isolate myself in a room for years. But living behind the big gates and razor wires made me feel so scared and unsecured. I met people of many kinds there. They belonged to different ethnicities and culture. They spoke various languages. There were few Sri Lankans as well. I faced various situations there, such as many violent incidents, suicide attempts, deaths, riots, and riot police invasions. I was so broken at that time and lost all hope. So, I went on a hunger strike to kill myself. I thought that life was not worth living.

One day the doctor at the detention centre examined me and told me that they must move me to a different detention centre, which has an inpatient bed, as my kidneys started to malfunction. I had weekly reviews and one of the detention supervisors told me that I could be the next one to die in detention if I was not given medical treatment. It frightened me. Those words echoed what I heard back in Sri Lanka.

From 2010, I took up learning English as a challenge. I have used resources such as YouTube, Google, newspapers, reading English books with the help of an English-to-Tamil dictionary and listening to conversations and observing the method of communication in the community. I could not possibly be able to explain the hard work I put in to learn English here. While I was in detention, I had some help from a charity. I explained to them the situation through the English I had learned by myself.

Once I could speak English, I was asked to translate for Tamil people as an emergency translator in the detention centre. I was still in an unstable situation. However, I helped the people in need. By doing this, I was able to identify and relate my situations to that of many other detainees. I understood that it was not happening to me only, but to many others in a systemic way as well. Many of us in destitute situations did not get any proper legal advice. It was the experience of a lifetime and it was what motivated me to fight for a good cause.

I tried to apply for local colleges and institutions once I got out of the detention centre. I did not have many friends in the community to get information about institutions outside Doncaster. All my applications were turned down by the colleges. I was told that I do not have the right to study. They said that if I got a letter from the Home Office saying I can study, they would let me study. When I requested the said letter from the Home Office, they refused to give me one and asked me to get the letter from the court, as my case was still pending at the court. When I approached the court, I was questioned by my solicitor about how I was going to pay the fee if they allow me to study. So, I gave up the dream to study.

Knowing that all these detainees are suffering inside the detention centre, I could not just sit. I was unable to let them suffer on their own. I wrote to many MPs about the bad treatment of asylum seekers and the prevailing conditions inside the detention centres. Due to this, I was contacted by someone who runs a counseling service for Tamil asylum seekers. I was fortunate enough to be identified as someone who needed the help as well. She invited me to attend counseling sessions. The days flew by, filled with nightmares and panic attacks. But this time I had someone to share my sorrows and thoughts with.

In 2017, she shared with me a link to a university project for asylum seekers called the Compass Project. I was not so sure about what to do. I attended the workshop for the project. It was the first time I ever stepped inside university premises. I was very nervous and was hardly controlling my anxiety. I entered the room allocated for the workshop. The project manager greeted me with a smile on her face and my nervousness faded away a little. However, I did not know what to expect or to ask. So, I kept quiet. I was given a friendly introduction to the project and guidance on how to apply. Finally, we were given a university tour.

With enormous support from the project manager and people at the counseling programme, I applied to the Compass Project Fund. I was so worried about not having any qualifications. It had been almost eight years since I was in the school. My personal statement explained my circumstances, my aspiration to study law, my experiences at the detention centre, poor handling of the asylum cases and a detainee’s dream to be a qualified immigration lawyer.

After a few weeks, I received an email saying that I was awarded the Compass Project Fund. I could not express how happy and accomplished I felt. I was finally given an opportunity to study. I was asked by the university to do an examination as well an interview to see if I am fit to study law as I did not have any prior academic qualifications. I was able to pass the exam and the interview with some great support. Getting the Compass Project Fund and a place at the university were the biggest things that ever happened to me. This was the first step in reaching my goal.

Meanwhile, my asylum case was still pending. The Home Office accepted that I was tortured in Sri Lanka and the case proceeded to the court for the hearing. Just a week before my first day at the university, I had to attend the court for my hearing. I was worried, but I was also hopeful for a change. I attended university without any decision from the court. Initially, it was so strange to me. For the first time in many years, I was sitting in a classroom with a pen and an exercise book before me.

It was very hard for me to understand the lectures at first as English is not my native language. I had to read the text at least four times to understand. But I did not give up. I continued to put in all my energy and worked hard at home and at the university. For my first essay, I received 68 marks. I was in joy since this was my first ever academic essay. By correcting the mistakes in my first essay, I was able to score 70 marks for my second essay. My hard work started to pay off.  Now, I started to communicate with my fellow students in a better way.

Then I was granted refugee status by the court. It was life-changing and finally, my life got a little steady. However, I still must wage war with my unstable mind. University education is the ideal tool for me to break my solitude. It gave me hope and tools to learn from. I believe that by obtaining the necessary qualification, I will be able to get my voice heard.

The Compass Project Fund is a life-changing opportunity for me and many others. Being an asylum seeker in an unfamiliar place with restricted access and limited knowledge about the system limits many people from gaining access to further education.

I am looking forward to taking the available opportunities to desperate asylum seekers and to continue my work in the human rights field, to advocate for the betterment of all the asylum seekers and refugees.

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Making the most of part-time study

Apprenticeships and university are often presented as a binary choice for ambitious people looking to make the best start to their career. Part-time Business Psychology student Sabina Enu-Kwesi began her degree after completing an apprenticeship to get the best of both worlds – and now discusses how Birkbeck’s support for working students makes this possible.

I started my undergraduate degree in BSc Business Psychology at Birkbeck last September and I will be studying part-time over four years.

I migrated from Ghana to Sweden in my pre-teens. I attended secondary school in Sweden and moved to England with the aim of continuing my education. Whilst in England, I enrolled on a BTEC manufacturing engineering program at college and visited local companies for work experience.

I completed a three-year apprenticeship programme in September 2017 and currently work in a team of engineers as a field-based Service Lift Engineer at Otis Elevator. The company offered training and employment which for me was a win-win combination considering that STEM skills are in high demand and the costs of studying without sponsorship are considerably expensive. I developed a curiosity about the mechanisms of lifts and how under appreciated they are in moving people around buildings. Taking the apprenticeship route has enabled me to progress through invaluable work experience and exposure to the business world.

A little over a year into my apprenticeship, I was nominated for an in-house EMEA initiative for young people to work on projects that would help the company become an attractive place for millennials. These were presented to the EMEA President and regional leadership in Paris and Milan. I was the only apprentice to join a group of self-motivated and culturally vibrant individuals. In the past, such a partnership would have triggered a sense of doubt, but sometimes you have to push yourself on stretch assignments to grow and think critically. I learnt so much and got great support on project planning and management, analysis, and making presentations. My colleagues really appreciated my view from the field.

Whilst participating in the EMEA project, my workload increased dramatically: I had to balance full-time apprenticeship obligations with regular project research and execution, and time management was essential.

The theories and approaches I’m studying have helped me to solve problems at work and think about how important organisational culture is in shaping how people see themselves and their connection to the business goals. In many ways, embarking on an apprenticeship primed me for undertaking my degree at university. Although it’s challenging, I have come to appreciate the different elements involved in balancing full-time work with studying for an undergraduate degree. I have the support of Otis through its Employee Scholar Program where it provides financial assistance to pursue further education.

Working 38 hours a week in a role where I travel between sites means that traffic can potentially mess up my journey plans when I have to attend class. It is important to establish a clear communication with my employer and all those involved. Fortunately, my employer has a scheme in place to support employees balancing work with studying.

So, my advice for anyone considering an apprenticeship is to go for it! It will propel them towards a bright future. Conversely, extensive research is required to ensure whatever apprenticeship you choose will offer adequate training that meets your aims.

I am looking forward to exploring the vast knowledge of the business and social world. Birkbeck is renowned and respected for its staff, research and facilities to produce graduates ready for the business environment. And I am also delighted that Birkbeck has dedicated resources to support working individuals – this is why I decided to come here.

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The Compass Project: The light out of the darkness

Elizabeth*, a 37-year-old asylum seeker from Ghana in West Africa began her studies in Legal Methods (Certificate of Higher Education) at Birkbeck this year, thanks to the Compass Project. 

My name is Elizabeth. I am 37 years old. I am originally from Ghana in West Africa. It is a beautiful country near the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. I was born in Ghana and had my primary and secondary school education there. I came to England in 1999 to continue my education but due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to do so.

Now, I am studying a Certificate of Higher Education in Legal Methods at Birkbeck and during the day, I am the Grassroots Intern at Women for Refugee Women (WFRW). I work alongside the Grassroots Director, helping to run the drop-in session on Mondays and support refugee and asylum-seeking women.

The charity ensures a safe space for women who have sought asylum in the UK. To continue my support, I am also a member of Women Asylum Seekers Together London, a group run by WFRW that provides free English and yoga classes, lunch and advice on immigration, housing and legal matters with an advice worker for the women.

I have always wanted to study law because I have always had the sense of justice and fairness in my core, but being an immigrant in this country, it was very difficult for me to access higher education. I did not have my qualifications with me and I could not show them when I was asked; I also did not have the finance in place to study.

I found out about The Compass Project through the Islington Migrant Centre, a charity providing practical guidance and support for those who have sought asylum in the UK, as well as providing free English, art and music classes.

To find out more, I went to the ‘Prepare to Study’ session held at Birkbeck’s central London campus, where I was introduced to the College, given a tour of the university and found out more about the Compass Project scholarship.  Afterwards, I decided to apply.

The Compass Project team were so helpful and encouraging and I was so happy and pleased when I received the email that I had been awarded the scholarship. This meant that I could finally start my journey through law. It’s a bit challenging because I have not been through education for such a long time, but I receive a lot of support from the university and that helps to motivate me to stay committed to the course.

I am going to use my experience at Birkbeck to develop myself, to go on to complete the law degree and hopefully to become a constitutional lawyer. I would like to be able to have a positive influence in the law-making process in this country. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity to be able to study at Birkbeck – it feels very special to me and I do not take this opportunity lightly at all. My course mates are all very supportive and I feel blessed to have met so many people at Birkbeck who are constantly ready to help.

My advice to anyone looking to apply for the Compass Project scholarship to study at Birkbeck is to believe in yourself and not give up on your dream of higher education, because The Compass Project makes it possible.

Yes, it is possible. Just stay focused and be open to receive all the support and help available to you. Education is truly the light out of the darkness.

*name has been changed.

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Kareen Duffus: Education is the key to success

MSc Educational Neuroscience student Kareen Abdu’Allah-Duffus, 45, tells her story of coming to England from Jamaica on her grandmother’s wishes and finding joy in education at Birkbeck.

I was born in the Jamaica so my early years were spent on that beautiful island surrounded by sun, sand and sea. I am the eldest of three children and even though my parents were present, the culture in Jamaica still remains, that your grandparents are usually the head of the household. Growing up as a child into adulthood, my fondest memories and discipline were instilled by my grandparents back home.

I graduated from Secondary School in 1989 at the age of 17 and started Nursing College in September 1990. I wasn’t enjoying the course so I told my grandmother that I didn’t want to continue. My grandmother understood the education system very well so she was very strict about achieving personal goals. She was gutted when she realized that I was really giving up on the Nursing career. She told me that I needed to start thinking about another career – otherwise she would think about it for me.

I was very reluctant to do so because I was 18 years old and knew it all. I left college in December 1990 and in February 1991 my favorite uncle from England came to Jamaica to visit the family. I asked him all types of questions – what was life like living in England, whether he loved the country and whether he was planning to retire back in Jamaica – and that’s when he dropped the bombshell. He said all these questions you are asking about England, you will find out soon enough. I asked my grandma and she told me I was going to England to continue with my education.

I arrived in England on 28 February 1991. What an experience! It was cold and miserable, dark and snowing on and off. I remembered the day just like it was yesterday. I started to cry because I had never seen anything like this. It was depressing and I wanted to go back to Jamaica where my family and friends were, not to mention the sun. My uncle promised me that if I wasn’t enjoying my time here in England after six months I could go back to Jamaica.

Shortly after I arrived, I met with my cousins and we started going out raving and having a good time. I was homesick, but I was embracing the country and getting familiar with my new life. I looked at a few colleges and enrolled at Greenhill. I was also looking for a job at the time so whichever one came about first that was the decision I would make. A job offer came up at the local dry cleaners and I started working as an Assistant Manager. I was really happy about working so I could support myself. I made a decision to start working and forgot the real reason why I came to England.

I worked at the dry cleaners for five years then I decided on a career change when my eldest son was born. I started working at Howdens Joinery in Feb 1996 as a Business Developer. By 2000 I was made an Assistant Manager. In 2003 my second son was born and the job was getting more demanding so I asked to be demoted to counter sales instead. In 2005, my daughter was born and I wanted to give up work totally. However, the manager at the time said I could reduce my hours and work in the office. I jumped at the offer because this means I could have the best of both worlds, I could work and be a mother at the same time.

It is every woman’s dream to have everything in life and I felt I was in that world. I was able to drop and pick up my children from school and work at the same time. But something was still missing from my life, I hadn’t fulfilled my grandmother’s wishes and she passed away. My daughter was 6yrs old and started ballet lessons so a few of the parents always sit around and converse about anything and everything.

It was a Saturday afternoon and a conversation started about regrets in life. Well, everyone got talking and I explained my story about coming to England at the age of 18 to go to University and still hadn’t done it.

There was a woman there who was interested and listened carefully to what I had to say. She was very positive and started encouraging me to go to university and achieve my goal. She kept saying you are never too old to learn. I always remembered my grandma saying that and that ‘education is the key to success’. I reflected on the conversation while I was making my way to the train station. The train arrived and I got on, sat down and looked up and there was my epiphany; an advert about Birkbeck, University of London – evening classes for working people.

I went to the open evening with the intention of finding out about the counseling course but for some reason, I ended up in Psychology. I remember thinking, “I am 40 years old, what am I doing here?” However, I didn’t feel alone because there were people there older and younger so that made me feel comfortable. I also spoke to lots of people who were in the same position as me.

Psychology was interesting; I am a curious person so I wanted to study the human mind and behavior given my circumstances. I enrolled and got accepted on the fast track Psychology course. I had to get over 50% in all my subjects to continue straight to 2nd year and I did! I knew if I could study three or four subjects per week while I was working 32 hours a week and been a mother to three children at the time I was capable of a degree. I tested myself in that year and I passed, so I enrolled in 2nd year BSc Psychology.

This was where it all began. The feeling of excitement! I was in a lecture with more than 100 students.  I was making new friends and this was my new life for the next 3 years. It was very challenging and there were times that I wanted to give up because I felt awful leaving the children in the evenings on their own. Family time over the weekends was non-existent because I had to study for my exams.  I had essays to write and deadlines to meet. I was motivated and could not give up on my dream.

My eldest son was so inspired because we were both going to graduate around the same time. In fact, he found it fascinating that I started university when I did. I was so determined to get a good degree and not letting my children or myself down. I finished my degree with a 2:1. When I saw the result I cried with joy. This was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life but also the most rewarding. The graduation took place on 9th November 2016 and my children were there at the ceremony. That was the happiest day of my life. I still get goose-bumps even writing about it now.

After one year’s break, the time had come to make the decision whether to do a Masters. I applied in May to get on the Educational Neuroscience part-time course and shortly after I applied, I got the letter of acceptance. I was really excited about starting something brand new and really exciting. As if that email wasn’t enough I got another email about the Acker Bursaries Scholarship.

My eyes lit up and I thought… All my Christmases came at once. I had nothing to lose but I could gain substantially from applying. Within a month, I received an email to say I won the award. I was ecstatic, I felt good about myself. I felt as though all the hard work I did had paid off in my degree. I was rewarded for something that I loved doing and I couldn’t get my head around it.

This bursary has helped me so much. I feel extremely proud of myself and very honored to have received it. It has given me a confidence boost and I am very grateful that I was selected for it. I felt pleased because I worked really hard and I felt worthy of it. This award means that over the Christmas holidays I can travel into Birkbeck with ease to complete my essay due in January and worked on my research for my presentation.

After almost 22 years of working at Howdens Joinery I am finally looking for work in the schools as a SEN Teaching Assistant. I need to gain enough experience working with children, as this is one of the required criteria for getting on the program. My long-term ambition is to become an Educational Psychologist. It’s only a matter of time before this goal is achieved because the help and support at Birkbeck is phenomenal.

England is now my home and I would not change anything about it.  My grandmother was right, there are huge opportunities here if you want to embrace it. I have three beautiful children supporting my dream, wonderful friends and a university where I called home. I am very happy and I look forward to a beautiful future ahead.

View our range of undergraduate courses for 2018 and apply now.

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Journalist uncovers new opportunities at Birkbeck through Chevening Scholarship

Carolyn Bonquin is a 27-year-old journalist from the Philippines. She is currently taking MA Investigative Reporting at Birkbeck after applying to the Chevening Scholarship programmeShe discusses how her studies have opened up a network of opportunities for her career.

I spent most of my childhood in a rural town in Quezon province in the Philippines. Growing up, I witnessed how poverty separated families and sometimes pushed people to do bad things.

Now, 27 years later, I still see thousands of Filipinos living under worst conditions. This motivated me to become a journalist and further enhance my investigative reporting skills — I find it unfair to see other people struggle and live in suffering because of the greed and apathy of those in power.

For seven years, I worked as a journalist for ABS-CBN Broadcasting Corporation up until last September, when I came to the UK for my postgraduate studies. Aside from reporting for television, I also produced stories for our radio and online platforms.

I started as a regional correspondent in the South Luzon before I was assigned to the national platform. Crimes, rallies, environment and agriculture are the areas I usually covered until in 2015, I was assigned to the anti-graft beat, which included monitoring of criminal and civil cases against public officials and audit reports on public spending.

My heart is really set on doing investigative reports.  By uncovering under-reported issues and exposing wrongdoings, I hope to affect policy changes and trigger developmental reforms. One of the last expository stories I did with our investigative team was about the alleged human rights violations of policemen in the Philippine Government’s bloody campaign against illegal drugs.

With the help of data, I want to do more expository reports that will unravel the root causes of poverty when I come home. These are the stories that would reveal corrupt and neglectful activities. This way, I feel like I could help the reported 20 million Filipinos who still live under the poverty line.

Leaving the Philippines amid ongoing chaos and cropping up issues on human rights abuses was a struggle. A part of me wanted to stay but, in the end, I realized that I need a year away to enhance my skills so I can better serve the public.

Aside from funding my study in the UK, the Chevening Scholarship programme is a network of future and current leaders and influencers that could help me realize this goal. After all, what’s not to like about being a part of a network of experts in their own field, who would work together in imparting their knowledge to help change the world?

I found Birkbeck while researching for an investigative journalism Masters programme. When I saw the curriculum, I immediately knew it was the right programme for me. I appreciate how the modules have been designed to fit the current demands and trends in journalism. This ensures we have all the practical skills needed to start (or continue) working after graduation.

I’m also impressed by the diversity of students in our class — from journalists to a podcast reporter to a political science graduate. This provides various insights and ensures mature and rich discussions in our class.

Information security experts and award-winning journalists have presented at our seminars, including Iain Overton and Ewan MacAskill (remember the Snowden files?). This is all just in the first term and I look forward to all the great things I will learn for the rest of the year!

If I could offer any advice to someone looking to apply for the Chevening scholarship or wanting to come to Birkbeck, it would be to know your purpose and your goal. All the scholars I’ve met, and even my classmates at Birkbeck have one thing in common —their hearts are set on doing something that would make an impact on other people’s lives.

It’s important to realize that we are continuously honing our skills and gaining knowledge not only for ourselves, but also to contribute to the development of our society, even in our own little ways.


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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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The changing role of Birkbeck’s website homepage

Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager for Birkbeck, gives insight into the functionality and strategic design behind our new homepage. Read part one and part two in our blog series about the redesign project.

We launched the new Birkbeck website six months ago and, since that time, one of the areas that has sparked a lot of conversation is the homepage – the ‘‘ page that traditionally would have functioned as our ‘virtual’ front door.

Colleagues from across the College have been very curious about the changes that have been made to the homepage – and rightly so. Along with a lot of very positive responses – about the modern design, clear navigation and sense of purpose for both recruitment and research – some concern has also been expressed. This is understandable – we have made a drastic change from what went before.

So I thought it would be worth dedicating this latest edition of our series of blog posts about Birkbeck’s digital transformation project, to exploring this subject in a little more depth, explaining the evidence and rationale behind the design route we have taken.

The concerns that colleagues on our campus have expressed largely cluster around three issues: long pages; use of large images; and the loss of the carousel – a filmstrip of images that you can click through.

The ‘above the fold’ myth
Some people are worried that the introduction of long pages on content might put off visitors, who they imagine do not want to scroll down a lengthy page. This concern is sometimes expressed as ‘our content needs to be above the fold’.

There is a persistent, outdated belief that all of our most useful content needs to be available ‘above the fold’ on the homepage or people simply won’t find it. Some folk imagine that web users won’t scroll. This was certainly the case in the 20th century when mass web use was in its infancy (and on desktops), but is no longer true.

The term ‘above the fold’ comes from the world of printing presses and ink, where newspapers ensured their best story was featured on the top half of the paper so, when folded in half for the newsstand, the front-page lead story could easily be seen by passersby.  This concept carried over to the web, where people equated the bottom edge of their browser window to the fold in a newspaper. Some colleagues are worried that, a bit like those newsstand customers, web visitors will simply scan the headline and, if not presented with every key messages at a glance, they will walk on by.

This certainly used to be the case, but the web and how people use and interact with it has changed dramatically with the rise of mobile.

  1. The fold has moved – different devices have different viewing screens, and the ‘fold’ on my desktop is not the same as the ‘fold’ on my iPhone. Nor is it the same as the fold on my colleague’s Android phone or the fold on another colleague’s iPad. The relevance of the ‘fold’ as a strict guide for web design – and the injunction to ensure your most important content is above it – faded at the point at which people regularly started using devices other than their computers to access the internet (last year, visitors used more than 6000 different devices to access our website). This doesn’t mean the fold is entirely irrelevant, but it does mean web design in relation to it has had to change.
  2. Scrolling is now normal web behaviour. In the 90s, scrolling was not normal for web users and websites lacked the sophistication of functionality available today.

Here’s what the Birkbeck website looked like in January 1999.
At that time, we didn’t ask people to scroll, but our website was tiny and not even the place most people turned to find out about us. Imagine this – Google was only founded in 1998! Like many other websites in the 90s, it mostly comprised text that was uncomfortable to read on screen.

Now, thanks to the proliferation of devices with small screens that people use to access the web, along with advances in readable screen technology and the advent of social media channels that require you to scan lots of content, people have not only learned how to scroll and read online, but scrolling has become the norm. This means we no longer have to put all of our most important information above the fold – indeed, we’re no longer expected to – which means we can be more flexible when it comes to homepage design.

Where did the carousel go?
Since we launched the new homepage, some people have mourned the loss of the carousel – the sliding set of images that used to adorn the top of the homepage. They are concerned that, with the loss of the carousel, we no longer convey the unique character of Birkbeck at a glance.

When we were working with Pentagram, our design agency, to develop our new homepage, we had long discussions about whether the carousel should stay or go: we were initially resistant to the idea of losing it. After all, it was an efficient way to showcase lots of information about Birkbeck in one space, wasn’t it? Actually, no it wasn’t.

It turns out that web carousels aren’t working for website users, but internal audiences love them. So, while we thought people were finding out all about Birkbeck from the rotating images and messages in the carousel, in fact, our visitors weren’t interested at all: they did not always see them; scrolled past them; went straight to our course finder; or noticed just one image and followed that link. Our carousel was giving us a false sense of security and, as a result, we were not working hard enough to ensure our visitors understood what Birkbeck was about.

This chimed with findings from our customer journey mapping research, where students told us that, even though they trawled our website enthusiastically (some of them claimed to have visited ‘hundreds of times’), they weren’t necessarily aware of our core offering or our ‘unique selling points’, in marketing parlance.

For example, some did not realise we offered evening teaching as the norm: they thought it was just an option and that we were a daytime university. Nor did they realise how well respected we are for our research, both nationally and internationally. Or that our NSS results can really shine. Our researchers told us that we ‘hide our light under a bushel’ and we absolutely needed to do more to share our unique characteristics and our successes with our web visitors, the majority of whom only ever engage with us online.

Our new homepage design

When we commissioned Pentagram to come up with a new web design with and for us, based on our new visual ID, we knew we wanted to showcase Birkbeck effectively. We knew – because Birkbeck staff and students told us – that the Birkbeck website didn’t work for our visitors as well as it might and that it looked dated and staid.

Pentagram took time to understand our objectives, our concerns and the feedback we had received from staff and students before devising this list of design principles to inform our new web design:

  1. Simplify and clear away clutter
  2. Push up content and reduce steps
  3. Connect content and surface a story on every page
  4. Create hierarchy
  5. Don’t be afraid of long pages

We know that people don’t read every word on our homepage – in fact, not everyone sees our homepage but goes straight to a particular page as directed by a search result. But if our visitors do choose to travel down it (and a lot of them do), they will encounter a number of elements that tell them more about the type of institution Birkbeck is:

  • Hero image: this is the big image that loads whenever someone visits our homepage. We have deliberately chosen an image that is both large and striking, because we know this is one way to attract the attention of our visitors and, yes, encourage them to explore. But it isn’t just the size and quality of the image – this image also conveys something about Birkbeck, buttressed by the message ‘Join London’s evening university and transform your life’. And now that we have one image to grab people’s attention, we make sure it works hard. (For example, one of our previous images – a bus driving past the SSHP buildings in Russell Square – tells people that we are in the heart of historical London.)
  • A prominent course finder: we have emblazoned our course search across our homepage, after the hero image. Why? Because the art of a successful homepage is to enable visitors to get to where they want to go, quickly. In the last academic year, people pulled up our course information 6m times, so we know this is important to them. Our course finder makes it quick and easy for them to find our course information – and by including all the level options, they can see that our courses span the breadth of higher education offerings.
  • Research stories embedded across our site: We are proud of Birkbeck’s research profile and know how important it is to Birkbeck staff that we tell people about it. To help us share our research stories more widely, we have embedded news, events and blogs/podcasts on all of our landing pages – not just our homepage – including our course listings. This means our research information – which comprises the bulk of these channels – is accessible almost anywhere people travel on the redesigned pages – and by showcasing our research through these different channels, we are giving people loads of ways to engage with it.
  • Obvious USPs: no more hiding our light under a bushel. Our new image-based ‘statement tiles’ give us the chance to tell visitors about Birkbeck and what makes us unique. On our homepage, for example, we tell people that ‘Birkbeck is different: our classes are held in the evening so you can fit study into your life and build your future’. But this isn’t the only message on our site (because we know that our homepage isn’t the only place people look for information about us) – on our ‘About us’ landing page, we tell visitors that Birkbeck is ‘A leading research university and vibrant learning community’; and so on. If someone engages with our website, they should be in no doubt that we are a unique evening teaching institution with a world-class research reputation, and our statement tiles are designed to reinforce this message.

But that’s not all. In addition to these elements, you will find that we offer routes to destinations across our site through large visual signposts; that accessibility is at the heart of our design and our Reciteme bar means all visitors can access our information more easily; and that our redeveloped pages are responsive, which means they change, depending on the size of the browser you are using to access them, in order to provide an optimal browsing experience.

Is our homepage working the way we wanted?

Two of the objective set for Stage 1 of the Digital Transformation Project were to:

  1. Support student recruitment by making it easier for prospective students to navigate our site.
  2. Better promote our research.

Since the new pages and design went live on 16 May, we have seen a number of results that suggest that we are meeting these objectives. For example, compared to the period immediately before the go-live, prospectus requests have gone up 200%, Open Evening registrations 70% and applications 50%. And we’ve seen a 130% increase in views of our research content.

Of course, we know these results aren’t solely due to the work we did on the web, as these objectives are shared by colleagues across the college, and we work collectively to achieve them. However, we can at the very least be reassured that our website is helping us to meet these objectives and, as we track user engagement with our site (through user testing and the use of online tools like Hotjar), we can see that it is now easier than ever for our users to find the content they need to decide to study with us – and we can also see that they are engaging with our content in the way that we hoped (watch this video of someone reading our home page).

It’s early days and there’s still a lot to do and a lot to learn – but the work undertaken so far has greatly improved the website for our users and who are now able to quickly and efficently find out about Birkbeck and what we offer.

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Birkbeck’s Digital Transformation Project

Ben Winyard, Digital Publications Officer at Birkbeck, discusses Stage One of our online redesign.

Stage one of Birkbeck’s ambitious Digital Transformation Project went live on 16 May 2017, with the launch of a bold new design and layout for our homepage, corporate site and online prospectus. Since then, External Relations and the ITS Web Team have busily continued with improvements that, while less dramatic in terms of immediate, aesthetic impact, are just as important for bettering the user experience, optimising the accessibility of our website for all users, and making sure visitors can get the information they want quickly and easily.

A core principle of the Digital Transformation Project is that our decisions should be evidence-based and user-focused. In pursuit of this goal, we regularly test users’ responses to our website. Since February 2017, we have run around 50 user testing sessions, which covered the pre-launch, launch and post-launch phases of stage one. Some initial changes we made as a result of user feedback were adjustments to styling and making information clearer and easier to find.

During the June user testing sessions, we looked at how users search for courses and judge their quality, using Google, UCAS, and other comparison and rating sites. As a result, we implemented improvements to usability on our online prospectus, including: rewording and redesigning buttons and signposts; adding links to other available years of entry and to other versions of the same course (‘Related courses’); retitling fields to make browsing easier; and adding career destinations information (pulled from Unistats) to all of our full-time undergraduate courses.

As well as identifying usability issues, regular user testing is also increasing our understanding of how people use our website, which informs future developments. This feedback is proving vital for the next part of the Digital Transformation Project, which is focused on improving our site and course search. We know that the majority of our visitors come to us via Google. But we have learned that an increasing number of visitors – especially younger users – primarily navigate our site via internal course and site search, or externally through Google, rather than using our menus. This makes it even more pressing to ensure our search facility is the best it can be, which is one of our primary aims for the immediate future. User testing sessions in August concentrated on course and site search; they confirmed that improvement is needed and provided vital information on how users expect a search facility to work on a university website.

We are also looking at how students use school/department content on the Birkbeck website and how this content fits into the user journey. This is with a view to launching a project to bring our school/department content into the new visual identity and web design, which will also include rationalising and improving content and navigation, in order to enhance the user experience and ensure all of our users can find the information they need.

In External Relations, our focus so far has been on improving our online prospectus, the most visited and the most important part of our entire website. Depending on the time of year, our online prospectus can total well over 4000 pages, each with its own unique content and each playing a vital role in telling prospective students about Birkbeck and encouraging them to apply. Improving our online prospectus has two strands: rewriting descriptive text for our courses and improving all of the modules that are currently available for undergraduate and postgraduate students. In both instances, we have been applying our new house style and polishing content to make our course and module descriptions accurate and engaging. Our primary aim with any online course description is to grab the reader’s attention and let them know about what is unique, interesting and exciting about the course and about Birkbeck.

An example of a programme page in our new design.

On our programme pages, we have focused attention on the overview, highlights and course structure fields. We know from heat maps and analytics that these are the most visited parts of every programme page, so we wanted to dedicate time and attention to making this text really sing. It’s important to us that we do justice to the intellectually stimulating content of our courses, to the dedicated, world-leading academics who teach them, and to the life-changing opportunities offered by Birkbeck’s unique model of evening study. We have also been working hard with colleagues to ensure our online course pages are compliant with new legal requirements from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). These changes will increase the usefulness of our online prospectus by presenting important information on student contact hours, independent learning, learning development and support, and how students are taught and assessed across Birkbeck.

Our module improvement project has one primary focus: ensuring that every available module at Birkbeck is part of our online prospectus and includes rich, appealingly written descriptive text that adheres to our new house style. We have been working closely with our colleagues across Birkbeck’s five schools to source content and have updated and improved around 200 modules so far.

So, what difference has our redesign made, in terms of the number and quality of visits? An important measure of improvement and quality is the increased amount of time people are spending on our site; visitors spend longer engaging with the improved content and are finding it easier to navigate between different areas. There has also been an increase in the number of returning visitors, so we know that people are coming back to us.

Our online prospectus remains the focus of most visitors’ attention and continues to attract the highest interest. User testing and analytics reveal that, for many visitors, our course pages are their first interaction with Birkbeck, so one of our primary aims with the new web design has been to convert each of our online course pages into a ‘mini-homepage’, with links to news, events and research across Birkbeck and to vital information, such as financial support, student services and accommodation. To this end, we added tertiary signposts to every programme page and we are now seeing that people use our course pages as their main entry route into, and the jumping-off point to, other parts of the Birkbeck website. Other parts of our site have been dramatically upgraded: there are far fewer pages and we have consolidated information in one place and converted old information into downloadable documents, where appropriate. This has led to a significant increase in engagement: visitors are now spending more time on these pages and going through the information more thoroughly, because it’s all in one place and easily navigable.

Meanwhile, we have instituted a regular weekly maintenance slot, during which three web editors in External Relations make requested changes to all areas of our new site. Since May, we have implemented hundreds of such requests, all with the purpose of improving the accuracy and helpfulness of our content.

We have also developed an entirely new Digital Standards area on our website, which provides advice, information and support to all Birkbeck staff who need to convey information online. You can read our house style guide, find out about search engine optimisation, get practical information on links, files and redirects, and learn more about our visual identity and our social media guidelines. We are working hard to supplement this online support with bespoke face-to-face training, which we are in the process of developing. We have also begun using new software that identifies accessibility, content and coding issues across our site, which is greatly helping us continually maintain and improve the new site.

We have a series of ‘conversion goals’ on our website, whereby a user’s visit is translated into an action. We primarily want visitors to: order a prospectus; or book an Open Evening; or submit an application to study. We have seen a dramatic increase in these since we launched the new website, so it is pleasing to see that our work continues to support and advance the primary objectives of the Digital Transformation Project.


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