Life of an international student during a pandemic

Embarking on studies in the UK has been made even more challenging due to the pandemic. In this blog, Presley Gitari tells us what motivated him to study at Birkbeck, and his life as an international student.

Presley Gitari

My name is Presley Gitari. I am 27 years old and my nationality is Kenyan. I am a conservation biologist currently pursuing an MSc in Climate Change at Birkbeck, University of London on a Chevening Scholarship.

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated by the natural world. It has fuelled my curiosity to learn about how the environment works and how we can conserve it for future generations. I attained a BSc in Environmental Conservation and Natural Resource Management from the University of Nairobi. My previous role was with Kenya’s Interior Ministry where I was working on a programme which focused on helping underserved communities in utilising environmental conservation as a socio-economic empowerment tool. I was both humbled and honoured to contribute to our country’s goal of achieving 10% tree cover by 2022.

Why Birkbeck?

Presley with Chevening scholar sign I was drawn to Birkbeck’s diverse and talented faculty and student base. While searching online for a graduate course focusing on Climate Change, I stumbled upon the College which had an impressive course overview and also had an opportunity to listen to an introductory lecture by Dr. Becky Briant on ‘Climate Change and the River Thames’ I was impressed by the factual analysis in the lecture. It was also an incentive that being an evening university, I could interact with students who bring perspectives from their daytime jobs into the classroom, which has been an enriching experience.

Being awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office was an exhilarating prospect. In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel arrangements were thrown into disarray which created a lot of uncertainty about whether we would travel to the UK or continue our autumn lectures virtually. Eventually, Kenya lifted the ban on international flights which was a huge relief.

Moving to London

I have been to London before to attend an international meeting and as always have been fascinated how diverse London really is. A real melting-pot of cultures! Getting used to the tube was made easier by technology which makes getting between points a seamless experience. Coming from a coastal city with a laid-back demeanour it is quite a cultural turn-up for the books having to experience the hustle and bustle of an international hub that London is. I have taken a huge liking for the amazing parks where I regularly go out for a jog or just to admire the scenic beauty on afternoon walks (the squirrels are an interesting lot!).

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t got to visit many attractions as I would have loved to, but I keep an ever-growing list of places to visit when many of the affected places open up.

Studying during pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Birkbeck’s shift towards virtual learning has been possible by asynchronous as well as synchronous learning activities. The asynchronous component takes the form of pre-session activities. We get to interact with pre-recorded lectures, activities and reading material on our university Moodle platform. I usually set aside 1-2 hours in the evening in preparation for our live session where we go over the provided material with our lecturers and ask questions. This forms the synchronous component. We then join a seminar session where we are divided into groups to carry out joint activities which in many ways provides an opportunity for us to put into practice the knowledge acquired from the pre-session as well as the live session.

In a particular module, we had the opportunity to work on a group presentation highlighting a key environmental report which beyond building my in-depth understanding of the content of the material also helped me develop my communication skills. We use Blackboard Collaborate for our live sessions, as well Microsoft Teams for one-to-one interactions with our tutors and dissertation supervisors. The platforms allow for students to efficiently interact and present material, as well as take polls. We also make use of Google Jam Boards which allow all students to put in their contributions without feeling left out. The broad array of options provided by these platforms are suitable for both extroverted and introverted personalities. The live sessions and group work/presentations take about an hour and a half.

A typical day for me would start with a jog in the park or a visit to the gym. I then work from home through the afternoon. I usually take my live sessions from home but sometimes use the Library if I happen to have a book that I need to collect or drop off. The Library has set aside safe spaces to study and participate in lectures which one may access by reserving online, especially for students who may not have a conducive learning environment from home.

Challenges and highlights

Being far away from home in the midst of a pandemic has been quite a challenge. The situation diminishes any opportunities for human connections which form an important role in our mental and physical well-being as a social species. The pressure is thus more on international students who are far away from their loved ones and seek to form crucial connections with their new environment.

My highlight in the UK is when on a whim, I hired a Santander bike and decided to ride from Buckingham Palace, taking in the sights of London’s architecture, finally ending up at Canary Wharf! It was a healthy and environmentally friendly way of introducing myself to London.

I look forward to fully interacting with my fellow students as well as having the full Birkbeck experience when we will be able to. My 2020 has been an opportunity to reflect and develop gratitude for many of life’s pleasures which we take for granted.

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Coronation salmon curry – a fusion dish that can be cooked and served in 30 minutes

As part of a new initiative to enhance international students’ experience at Birkbeck, our students and staff will be sharing their favourite recipes over the next few months in a series of blogs. In this blog, Professor Sanjib Bhakta, Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Biochemistry shares the secret to making his home-made fish curry.

Background: Being a Bengali and a foodie, I have always gravitated towards foods like fish curry and our traditional sweets! I spent the first 25 years of my life adjacent to the Bay of Bengal and lived around the river Ganges, where there were a number of natural resources to supply sweet-water fish. Hence, when I came to the UK, a challenge for me was to get the taste of my home-made fish curry; moving from Kolkata to Oxford.

As a Wellcome Trust funded International Fellow living in my College accommodation on the Old Marston Road, I first tried the following recipe. It was a delightful triumph! Without any reservations, I can say that home-cooking has always been a stress-busting experience for me. When a recipe can connect you with your motherland, help you to make new friends, saves money, assist you with healthy living and brings joy to your life, then why not?

Let me know how your trial goes after you transform the following recipe into your evening/weekend meal…

Ingredients:

Essentials:
4 salmon* fillets (500g)
Cooking oil (~30ml)
Natural bio live set yoghurt (1 tablespoon/ tbsp)
Mayonnaise (200g)
Spicy ‘korma’ curry paste (1 tbsp)
Mustard paste (smooth) (1 teaspoon/ tsp)
Mango chutney (2 tbsps)
Juice of 1 lemon
Almond powder (2 tbsp)
Salt (1 tsp/adjust per preference)

(*salmon can be replaced by monk fish, seabass or any other white fish fillet, descaled but skin on)

Optional: Almond flakes, raisins, coriander/ thyme for garnishing.

Cooking method: Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees/gas 4. Marinate salmon fillets with a little salt, lemon juice and cooking oil for 5 minutes. Put them in the oven for 12-15 minutes, skin side up. While the fish is in the oven, lightly mix the mayonnaise, yoghurt, curry paste, almond powder, mango chutney, mustard paste and salt in a bowl. Add a little water to help making the paste smoother if needed.

Drizzle some cooking oil on a pan. When heated, pour the sauce and a cup of water into the pan. When it starts bubbling, put the fish in the sauce, wait for 2-3 minutes and keep the heat on high to boil. After 2-3 minutes of boiling put a cover on the pan and switch off the hob.

Presentation: Garnish the dish with chopped coriander/thyme and almond flakes. Enjoy the dish with rice (basmati/jasmine)/naan/pitta/flat bread.

Further Information

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Introducing our Chevening students: Part three

In this last instalment of our 2020 Chevening scholars series we introduce six more future leaders who have joined Birkbeck from Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Georgia, Namibia and Syria. 

Nesrin Morad, Syria/Turkey, MSc Education, Power and Social Change

Nesrin Morad

Nesrin Morad

Nesrin, a Syrian and Turkish leader and activist, has around seven years of experience working in the humanitarian and development sector. In her role, she was responding to the Syrians’ needs in various countries through working with different entities and projects in education, protection, capacity development and partnership.  She believes that learning and collaboration are key to reaching the intended positive change in society. Nesrin has always been a social activist in the community, involved in voluntary and social initiatives. She was a member of the Red Crescent, JCI for youth development, an activist in the university leading different youth initiatives and a volunteer leading awareness campaigns for Syrians in Turkey. She also has a great passion for travelling to learn about different cultures and countries and learning new dances.

Birkbeck’s MSC  Education, power and social Change will complement her practical experiences, allowing her to play a leading role in organising local initiatives to empower Syrian leaders and lead the change.

Within the Chevening Community Nesrin aims to be a Syrian woman leader, share the unique experiences and stories from Syria and gain from the experiences of others.

Menessia Diergaardt, Namibia, MSc Management with Corporate Governance and Business Ethics

Menessia Diergaardt

Menessia Diergaardt

Menessia currently works as a Taxation Officer at the Ministry of Finance in Namibia. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration from the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) and an MSc in Banking and Finance from Moi University (Kenya).

Menessia believes that her aspirations meet her country’s economic growth ambitions and Chevening will help her to become more specialists in her field, allowing her to contribute towards the management and development of the country’s economic and social resources.

Menessia was attracted by Chevening because of its track-record for producing and developing many of the world’s finest scholars, leaders and presidents and the unique opportunity it offers to transform future leaders. “Chevening will create a platform for me to connect and network with a diverse and talented community, not only will I be exposed to and experience the UK education system, but I will also develop a diplomacy relationship that will equally benefit Namibia, the UK and the world at large.”

Sami Mehiaoui, Algeria, MSc Business Innovation with Entrepreneurship

Sami Mehiaoui

Sami Mehiaoui

Passionate about management consultancy & entrepreneurship, Sami holds a Master’s degree from the National High School of Management. During his, Masters Sami was elected president of the Scientist Club of Future Manager. He began his career as business analyst consultant supporting the development of more than 20 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in a programme funded by the UK government.

Sami is an entrepreneur and has co-founded several innovative businesses such as the Makelti mobile app or Forward development. An active member in the social entrepreneurship network, Sami was selected by Chevening in order to pursue his research in business innovation with entrepreneurship at Birkbeck. With the skills in strategic management, he will acquire Sami achieve his goals of strategic development with sustainability and social impact.

Adriana Borja-Enriquez, Ecuador, MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture

Adriana Borja-Enriquez

Adriana Borja-Enriquez, Ecuador

I got a degree in Clinical Psychology at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador. I’m interested in human rights advocacy and psychoanalysis. Since 2014,  I have collaborated in psychosocial projects at non-governmental organizations that support survivors of gender-based violence, refugees, and asylum seekers in Ecuador. I aim to promote safe spaces and inclusive mental health care for women and the LGBTQI+ community.

I also hold a Postgraduate Certificate in Writing: Human Creativity and Communication from FLACSO Argentina. In 2018, The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the US. Department of State sponsored my participation in The International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. I attended this literary residency alongside other authors that promote dialogue through literature and cultural diplomacy. My writing has been published in magazines and short-story collections in Spanish, English, and Italian.

Thanks to the Chevening Secretariat and The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, I will study an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck, University of London. It is a great honour for me to be part of a community that promotes social change while celebrating diversity.

Kristina Arakelova, Georgia, MSc in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Kristina Arakelova

Kristina Arakelova

Kristina Arakelova is a member of the Core Group of Experts for the OSCE “Perspective 20-30” and a former Fellow in the UN OHCHR Minority Fellowship program 2018. She is a founder and President of the “Youth for Diplomatic Engagement” non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on youth involvement in the conflict, security, and ethnic minority integration issues in Georgia. As the President of the organization, she provides consultancy for state and civil society organizations working in these fields. Passionate about empowering or helping minorities/marginalized people, Kristina is an international trainer on conflict resolution and mediation.

“I applied for Chevening to contribute to bringing about much-needed peace, tolerance, and prosperity in my home country, Georgia, and beyond.”

Randolphe Severin N’Guessan, Cote d’Ivoire, MA TESOL

Randolphe Severin

Randolphe Severin

“I’ve been teaching English in Côte d’Ivoire (my country) for years, and I am also preparing a PhD in English, with the option of linguistics and didactics of languages in continuing training. This year, I am studying an MA TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Birkbeck, University of London.

The need for modern and standardised education systems is evident in my country, which is a French-speaking one, but English is taught at school.  From my little experience, the teaching of English brings up many challenges and gaps to be bridged.  Thus, it will be interesting to attend a world-class university like Birkbeck, meet native speakers, share experiences with many others from all over the world. This will help me to be more proficient upon my return home.

I am very interested in Applied Linguistics and Intercultural Communication; and also willing to move to a more specialised position, such as teacher-trainer or language consultant and a teaching materials designer. Consequently, the MA TESOL is the relevant course that enables this.

Chevening is making my dreams come true.  Great, no!  NO NO, I CAN’T KEEP CALM!!!”

Find out more about:

 

 

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Introducing Birkbeck’s 2020 Chevening cohort

This year Birkbeck is delighted to welcome 30 new Chevening scholars, hailing from all corners of the world. The prestigious Chevening scholarship is offered each year by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to promising students, chosen for their leadership potential and academic promise.

Once again Chevening students from a number of countries opted to join Birkbeck, attracted by its reputation, the possibility it offers to study alongside London’s professionals.

Meet our 2020 Chevening cohort.

Nozipho Nomzana “Zana” Mziyako, Eswatini, MSc Corporate Social Responsibility & Sustainability

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

Nozipho Mziyako, Etiswani

“I applied for the Chevening scholarship because it presents a big opportunity for individuals like me who envision themselves as key contributors to society’s positive development, to learn through academics, forged networks and international experiences.  I love travelling, hiking, adventures, meeting people as well as experiencing different cultures. Through this Chevening experience, I look forward to the exposure and growth and most importantly ploughing back to society.”

 

Joan Santani Santanasam, Malaysia, MA Journalism

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

Joan Santani Santansam, Malaysia

“I’m a business journalist working with Malaysia’s National News Agency, Bernama. I have been working in the journalism industry for eight years now covering a range of news on business, finance, commodities, stock market and politics.

The Chevening Scholarship is really the gateway for me to enhance my knowledge, broaden my worldview and hone my leadership and social skills. These are essential skills to further enhance my career as a journalist.”

 

 

 

Bongani Njalo, South Africa, MA Arts Policy & Management

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo, South Africa

Bongani Njalo is an award-winning South African artist whose work in drawing, performance, installation and traditional bead-making explores themes in culture, collective and individual identity. Njalo was a recipient of the David Koloane Award (2014), he was named one of the Top 200 Young South Africans by the Mail & Guardian (2016) and went on to become a Mandela Washington Fellow in 2017, a programme lead by the Department of State for Young African Leaders.

 

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt, Cuba, MSc Marketing Communications

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

Yoandra Rodriguez Betancourt

“As a communication specialist and marketing enthusiast, I’ve been able to work and gain experience on different scenarios; from large public companies to private small businesses in Cuba, and they all could benefit from accurate and up-to-date marketing tools.

For me, to deserve this opportunity means one of the greatest challenges that I’ll ever have, I’ve always found British culture and history fascinating, and being able to experience it in person is a unique privilege; especially for a woman like me that coming from a working-class family I’ve always felt driven to exceed expectations”.

 

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine, MSc Creative Industries

Zeina Ramadan

Zeina Ramadan, Palestine

“Being a professional in the creative industry in my home country and observing the sector first hand on the ground led me to choose this major. Through working on various projects and different institutions within filmmaking, animation, TV, content editing as well as the audio publishing industry, I gained a deeper insight into the needs and the hole in the wall which need to be filled not only in my home country but in the region as a whole and the potential it has to grow. This heightened my passion and consequently led me to Chevening as it was a one-of-a-kind opportunity for me to be able to make a difference. Here I am! About to start a life-changing experience whilst simultaneously gaining knowledge and connections in the field I am most passionate about.”

 

Chiranthi Senanayake, Sri Lanka, LLM International Economic Law, Justice andDevelopment

Chiranthi Senanayake

Chiranthi Senanayake

A youth empowerment advocate specializing in the niche area of Youth Empowerment Incubation (YEI) Chiranti Seneneyake is the Founder and President of Hype Sri Lanka which is the country’s first youth empowerment incubator. She is also the Founding President of the Young Legal Professionals Association of Sri Lanka.

She was appointed as the United Nations Youth Delegate for Sri Lanka in 2016 in recognition of her community service. In this capacity she has worked as a Youth Focal Point to the National Youth Services Council and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs. Chiranthi also served as the Global Ambassador for Sri Lanka for Youth Opportunities in 2018. She is a Women Deliver Young Leader of 2020 and the recipient of The Diana Award 2020.

 

Presely Gitari, Kenya, MSc Climate Change

Presley Gitari

Presley Gitari, Kenya

“I’m a conservation biologist from Kenya, who works with the country’s Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government in helping ex-offenders reintegrate into society by using environmental conservation as a tool of socio-economic empowerment.

“I’m also an Associate Fellow with the Royal Commonwealth Society and I am passionate about improving the lives and prospects of citizens of the Commonwealth.

“I applied for Chevening because it represents purpose beyond academic progression, as it inculcates a mindset focused on leadership and fostering networks to positively impact the lives of others. ”

 

 

 

Further information:

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“I chose Birkbeck for its multicultural community and its evening courses.”

Francis Olie, from Abuja in Nigeria, talks about embarking on his MSc Information Systems and Management at Birkbeck and settling into London life as an international student.

Francis Olie

Francis Olie

I grew up in Nigeria (Abuja F.C.T.) and completed my education, up to my first degree (BSc. In Computer Science) at Baze University. I worked at the Nigerian Institute of Science Laboratory Technology as a Computer Analyst before arriving in London on the 13th of October 2019.

Studying abroad for the first time is a very important step forward for anyone, so I had to make sure my university of choice was right on the first attempt. I contacted an Education agent for advice and guidance. The agency was mainly responsible for recommending me for a scholarship at Birkbeck. Ultimately, I chose Birkbeck for its multicultural community and its evening courses.View from Eleanor Rosa HouseView from Eleanor Rosa House

Travelling to London was hectic as I did not know if I would be able to make the arrival deadline, but I did. It was also my first time abroad as an International student and as a first- time international traveller. My sister who is established in London made it very easy to get my residence hall (Eleanor Rosa House). I love my accommodation; I wish it had a gym though or an indoor basketball court. London is a well-connected city and quite busy. I had help from my sister navigating public transport (Trains and Buses). I adapted to it in three weeks’ time.  Londoners are always in a hurry, to where only God knows.

Stratford

Stratford Town Centre

The cost of living is quite high since I live in Stratford (London), close to Stratford International train station. The cost of transportation is a little expensive, but that depends if you pay monthly and the number of zones you travel to. I pay for a Zone 1 to Zone 3 travelcard for £135 a month. Overall, London is an expensive city but it has lots to offer (stadiums, food, cinemas, libraries, cafes, malls).

Unfortunately, I arrived late and could not attend the orientation or the festival or the Fresher’s Fayre. It was a bit difficult to find the location of the university but starting my classes was easy once I visited Student Services for guidance. Due to my late arrival, it took a while to get my student card ready, which delayed my access to the library but a temporary card was provided. 

I did make use of the student support to access the digital skills awareness, but have not had the time to make use of the library tours and the Birkbeck career services. There have been several extra-curricular activities on and off-campus, three of which I attended. An insight to starting life as an English premier league coach, safety in London as an international student (hosted by real police officer) and another for dealing with culture shock.

I haven’t had the time to join the Student Union. However, I do appreciate some of the work the Student Union do, they really go the extra mile to create events for students. God bless them.

The most challenging aspect of life in the UK would be the high rent fees (about £940 per month) as I live close to the city centre. The baked bread is quite tasteless compared to the bread back home, as a student who has to move quickly sometimes, breakfast can be unsatisfying.

The public transport is quite efficient and well organized, you can rely on it almost 24/7. The evening classes at Birkbeck are really awesome, gives room for other activities. I looked forward to completing my studies and moving onward with my life. I strongly advice anyone from Nigeria to be financially ready, have an open mind and be quick to adapt and learn every day.

Growing up in a less privileged society has not only offered financial and academic challenges, but has also helped me realise the value of a college education. My educational pursuits would not be possible without the generous scholarship from Birkbeck.

Further information:

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“Studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life!”

Zambia-born Kasoka Kasoka, who describes himself as a very proud ‘Birkbeckian’ alma mater, reflects on his time working on a PhD in Law at Birkbeck and his achievements since graduating in 2018.

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Kasoka Kasoka at graduation

Tell us about your education before Birkbeck

I am from Lusaka and Zambian. In 2007 I moved to the UK where I enrolled to study for a Bachelor`s degree through the University of London International Programmes. I obtained a Bachelor`s degree in Law in 2011. Upon the completion of my degree I was admitted to study at Maastricht University in the Netherlands where I studied for a Masters degree in Forensics, Criminology and Law. I obtained my Master`s degree in 2013.

Why did you choose Birkbeck?

Firstly, I decided to enrol here because of Birkbeck`s massive ranking as one of the best research universities in the World. And yes, it is! Secondly, I applied to study here because I was attracted to the College`s interdisciplinary research study approach. As a result, my research as a doctoral student cut across; law, human rights, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, history, bioethics, and public health. Engaging in an interdisciplinary research project afforded me a rare opportunity to become an interdisciplinary thinker, be open-minded, and embrace new ideas.

Thirdly, true to its name as a research-intensive university, Birkbeck comprises of academics and researchers who are renowned experts in their fields. Thus, my great former PhD supervisors, Professor Matthew Weait and Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, are very respected researchers and authorities in their various fields. They are exceedingly knowledgeable and  down to earth. And finally, but not exhaustively, I decided to study here due to the supportive student and staff community at Birkbeck. I indeed received a lot of support during my study from fellow PhD students, academic and research staff, and administrative staff members.

What were your relationships like with staff and other students?

I loved the critical approach to study and work culture at Birkbeck. I found my fellow PhD students to be really smart, friendly and supportive – this was endearing. As if this was not enough,  both academic and non-academic staff were very approachable, attentive and supportive. I had a lot of academic staff who were not my PhD supervisors avail me with research insights and suggested various research material to read – as a goodwill gesture. This was priceless in my doctoral study journey!

Inevitably, I was sad to leave Birkbeck when my studies came to a conclusion,  to leave behind such a great community. Nonetheless, I am still happy that I have stayed in touch and maintained the various friendships and networks I had the privilege of forming while studying at Birkbeck. Indeed, “once a Birkbeckian forever a Birkbeckian”!

It was a great honour to forge  invaluable friendships and networks with students and staff members from diverse backgrounds. I consider Birkbeck to be one of the most diverse universities in the UK.

Did you use any of Birkbeck’s additional support and activities?

I had the opportunity to intuitively avail myself to various societies and student clubs at the University, including various PhD students` social groups. Birkbeck has a lot of societies and social groups with various activities.  So, I was always happy to retire from my studies to unpack my mind by joining fellow students for some good fun. I especially enjoyed playing football! As they say “all work and no play make Jack a dull boy”!

Can you tell us more about your research project?

The purpose of my research was to investigate and analyse the appropriateness of individual autonomy in the context of informed consent HIV testing requirements in Zambia, and sub-Saharan African countries by extension.

Tell us about your experience of living in the UK.

I really loved living in London. London is no doubt one of the greatest cities to live in. What I liked most about the city is the diversity of its population. Thus, I was privileged to meet many people from every part of the world who brought with them various rich cultures, including great cuisines! With such a profoundly rich experience I agreed with Robert Endleman (1963) who observed that human beings in terms of cultures “are vastly various and yet laughably alike”! I also loved English pub food! And the museums, wow! – museums were often my favourite place of respite whenever I needed to briefly divorce myself from the usual business of life and time-machine myself into the past to admire and converse with ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Persians, Africans, Americans, Europeans and Indians who had no internet! And behold, the British Museum is only about three minutes-walk from Birkbeck! London is also pregnant with breath-taking gothic cathedrals and other non-church buildings.

(I need to mention that there are much more things for one to see and enjoy in London than what I can enumerate – there is almost everything for everyone to see, smell, taste, hear, touch and enjoy. That`s the magic of London!)

However, living in London comes with its own downsides: especially the high costs of accommodation and transport. Food is surprisingly affordable!

Life after Birkbeck

Kasoka Kasoka at a United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) Session

It was sad saying goodbye to my community of friends and networks when my studies concluded. After completing my studies at Birkbeck, I was offered a scholarship by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Finland to study on an intensive postgraduate international human rights course at the Institute for Human Rights, Åbo Akademi University. Upon the completion of the course in Finland, I was an Intern at the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva, Switzerland. Later I worked as a Legal Intern at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva. The experiences and illuminations I gained from these intergovernmental organisations are invaluable! I am a strong believer, follower and advocate that,

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Currently, I am writing a research paper for journal publication, as I keenly continue to follow my career goals, and seek to contribute, no matter how tiny, to improving the wellbeing of our common humanity, without prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, as it has been said before as human beings, we are all as weak as the weakest link (other human being whose rights are not respected, protected and promoted) living among us in our society. My study at Birkbeck (through its critical review approach) and experience at the United Nations has made me see this reality clearer than never before.

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

I highly recommend Birkbeck, University of London! You will study at a university that is known for research excellence with renowned academics; you will study in a supportive environment, with quality teaching; at the end of your studies you will graduate with a prestigious University of London qualification, and not forgetting you will become a Birbeckian; and at the end of your studies you will not look at the world the same way!

As for me, studying for a PhD at Birkbeck is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life, and I am a very proud Birbeckian alma mater.

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Zhanna Chenenk: studying theatre at Birkbeck

Moscow native and former MA Text and Performance student, Zhanna Chenenk reflects on her year at Birkbeck.

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I was looking for an MA in theatre. I was intrigued by the Text and Performance course thanks to its mix of academic and practical disciplines with the bonus of being able to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).

Could you tell us about moving to London?

When I was sixteen I moved from my parents’ house in a small town close to Saint-Petersburg in Russia. That was a very stressful experience; a big city, a different culture, a huge distance (2000 kilometres) between myself and my family. Before coming to Birkbeck I had moved and travelled a lot and lived in many different cities, but it is still very hard to start from scratch in a new place. I arrived just before the course began and spent around a month searching for the right accommodation. I encountered many different people which was an interesting introduction to London life.

How was it coming to study at Birkbeck at first?

Before I applied for the course I met with a Birkbeck representative in Moscow to clarify some issues and later, when I was in London she took me on a tour of the campus and RADA. I liked the arts building as there is no logic to the room locations and you can easily find an empty space for a rehearsal.

Have you encountered any difficulties? How is the British system different from your country’s? Have you been to study skills sessions?

It was hard getting used to the British system, and once you’ve learned to cope with it, the year is over. Writing in a different language is a challenge in itself, but in addition this you are writing in many different ways; academic and narrative style, essays, scripts and portfolios. You even have to perform on stage in English – but I finally feel very comfortable using it. Now I feel it in my body. My program involved constant switching between practice and academic lessons and I wish I had more time to perfect everything.

What is it like living in London?

It took time getting used to London. Sometimes I loved it. I enjoyed wandering through the jungle of a city with my sketch book, but sometimes it was very oppressive. To escape these feelings, I travelled to new places like Berlin or Paris or Palestine, or even within the UK. I especially liked going to Brighton, Liverpool and Manchester! Most recently I discovered the Yorkshire Sculpture Park! The transport in London is also tricky to get used to and although I loved the poeticism of night buses, I hated using them during the day. Ultimately, opinions of cities are always built out of the opportunities that they give, and the connections you make. Not just the bricks and mortar which make it up.

Have you made friends on your course?

My course was international, so I’ve gained many connections across the world over the year. I participated in workshops and took on internships, so I’ve been able to build up my professional contacts to build a career upon.  London has been good to me. Whilst here I’ve met people who I have connected easily with. And even if some of them leave the UK soon I know that I have gained a wealth of friendships. I found my tribe here.

What has been your highlight of your time in London and at Birkbeck?

I would say that it has been good for me to review some of my personal values. Some of the things which were once important to me suddenly became very small. The same with my relationships; I revised all of them. I started to draw and take photos again. And I started writing. I found my experiences in London coming back to me in Berlin, when my friend asked me write a short story for his magazine. Thanks to the development of my language skills I was able to do this in in one morning and drew a picture to accompany it.

Can you tell us a little more about your dissertation?

I chose a practical path for my dissertation. For this I did a presentation – a 30-minute production and an 8000-word analytical portfolio. I chose to focus on women’s choices and the freedom to shape yourself as an artist. I have really enjoyed it, because I have had time to focus on one thing that I find interesting. It has also allowed me to make mistakes in the safety of an academic framework. I’m happy that I have had time to make these mistakes as they have taught me valuable lessons.

What are you doing since you completed your studies at Birkbeck?

I took on a thorough research tasks for my performance and now I have material to extend the performance into a trilogy. But, for now I am applying to take part in festivals for emerging directors with the presentation I created as a part of my dissertation. As for my other plans, details of these can be found in newspapers.

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Julie Andrea Sánchez: A Columbian student in London

Meeting Birkbeck ambassadors at an open day convinced Julie Andrea Sánchez Fula that studying for a Masters in the UK was not an unreachable dream. After being selected for an International Merit Scholarship the Colombian student completed an MSc International Business and Development at Birkbeck in 2018/19.

I decided to study at Birkbeck because my friends who live in London recommended the College for its excellent teaching. When I first came to London I attended an open day where I had the opportunity to speak with some students. Up until then, I did not think I would be able to do a Masters, but the students showed me that it was not an impossible dream.

I was also excited by the prospect of studying with London professionals who are working during the day and studying in the evening, it was certainly the right choice for me.

When it was time to start my course and move to London I opted to live in a university hall of residence because I was keen to meet students from other universities and different cultures.

I searched for accommodation online and eventually found Wood Green Hall through Birkbeck’s website. The hall is located about 25 minutes from Birkbeck and five minutes from Wood Green tube station – perfect for me as I wanted to be in North London because it is so convenient!

Meals cooked by Julia

In April, I moved to a house 3 minutes away from my accommodation and shared a house with two people and a cat.

Settling in

When I started at Birkbeck, I attended the One World Festival week. I think this orientation week is very important for international students.

Initially, I had difficulties in writing essays and referencing. The English method for academic writing is different from the Colombian where the essays are mainly free writing style. I was able to improve as I attended study skills sessions, mainly for writing and sessions for English language support.

Life in London  

Living in a big city like London can be overwhelming but also great because there are so many things to do. What I like the most is meeting people from around the world and taking advantage of the free activities that the city offers such as dance classes and going to museums and parks.

Julia on the London underground

The public transport is well organised and the tube is fast. However, I think for me it’s easier to navigate public transport in the north and the centre of London. Uber and taxis are really expensive, so I never use them.

My expenses could be divided into three main parts, food, accommodation and transport. The costs of going out to restaurants and my accommodation were four times higher than in Columbia, so I had to budget carefully. I discovered that the cost of meat and vegetables in the supermarket is similar to my country, so I decided to learn how to cook.

Julia with friends from Birkbeck

It has not been easy to make many friends at Birkbeck or in London. It could be because everyone is busy working or studying.  However, I made a good friend in my classmate Aya, who is originally from Morocco.  Although we are from different countries we have found many things in common such as our backgrounds, life experiences and humour.  Other classmates I have are from Indonesia, Taiwan, Laos, and Greece.

Extracurricular activities

In my first term at Birkbeck, I joined Student Central and tried archery, judo and dancing. As I like dancing a lot I decided to keep attending the free classes that I found in London.

I found many free activities like tours and workshops in London. I remember joining a tour of Bloomsbury where the university’s main campus is and one at the Houses of Parliament. I also attended a few workshops on career development and networking.

Future plans

My immediate plans after my course at Birkbeck include an internship in London and further study towards a qualification in accounting. After my internship, I would like to work in the financial sector, hopefully in Microfinance or Fintech.

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“Studying in London gave me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before”

Hitomi Imamura, an international student who was awarded an international merit scholarship from Japan, tells us about studying for the MSc Education, Power and Social Change at Birkbeck and how she has made the most of her time studying in London.

After a long career in Japan, I wanted to follow my childhood dream to study abroad and make friends from all over the world. I chose London because it is a multicultural city and the best place to study with international students. I decided to apply for Birkbeck because it is famous for its evening classes and it is an environment where I could study with students who had varied lifestyles and careers.

Also, I was interested in the MSc Education, Power and Social Change as I had worked in education in Japan for many years and could not find this type of subject at other universities. The atmosphere around Birkbeck is ideal, surrounded by other universities, parks, amenities, and many university libraries. I enjoyed London life even though the cost of living is high. There are many things to do in your free time as it is such a large and historic city.

I found some things quite difficult to start with including a huge amount of reading assignments and the obvious language barrier. There were a lot of assignments to finish at the same time over a short period. It was very stressful so I had to take care of myself but it was also very rewarding. I used some of the study skills sessions provided by the university which gave me useful information on how to improve my writing.

I joined some events specially provided for international students such as the University tour and Parliament tour. They were very interesting. I became a member of the Japan Society of Birkbeck and taught Japanese to the students. The students appreciated my contribution and I received a Birkbeck Student Union award in 2019 for an outstanding contribution to club and societies.

I could meet caring tutors and nice classmates from all over the world and they helped me when I was struggling with my study.  We were able to support each other without considering the differences in the ages and nationalities of my classmates.

My dissertation theme was related to the important Japanese primary school education reform going through 2020. I interviewed 5 Japanese education experts and one American expert that included the former State-Minister of Japanese Education. I found that many changes are happening in Japan because of globalisation through my research. I’m very glad I came to Birkbeck, and think it is important to see my own country from overseas. It gives me a new perspective on important issues that I may have overlooked before studying abroad.

I aim to continue to PhD level study as I would like to continue my research after graduating from the master’s course. Birkbeck has enabled me to improve my ability to study and conduct research at a high level so I can progress on to the next stage.

I am satisfied that I completed my master’s degree and met the challenge I set for myself to make my life more positive. Unfortunately, the number of Japanese foreign students is currently decreasing. However, I feel it would be good if more Japanese people studied abroad and exercised their global citizenship as I did at Birkbeck. For me, that is a great personal achievement. I would like to thank all the course tutors and various administrative staff for making my time at Birkbeck such a worthwhile and enjoyable experience.

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Mariyeh Mushtaq: Life in London as an international student

Mariyeh Mushtaq was awarded the Great India scholarship to study MA Gender, Sexuality and Culture at Birkbeck. She was also selected as one of the recipients of the Birkbeck/International Student House Accommodation scholarship.  In this blog, Mariyeh shares what it was like settling into life at Birkbeck.

I decided to apply to Birkbeck because of the range of courses it offers, particularly in the field of women’s and gender studies. One of the main reasons I chose this university was the ample financial support it offers to international students in the form of scholarships, bursaries and fee-waivers.

As an international student applying for an MA at Birkbeck, I was intentional about applying for a scholarship. I came across the Birkbeck/ISH Scholarship when I was searching for accommodation on the Birkbeck website and was directed to the International Students House website, where I learnt about this partnership and the criteria for application and selection.

Being a Birkbeck/ISH Scholar has truly facilitated my learning and growth in a much broader and holistic way. I do not have to worry about of the financial implications of living in London and at ISH I have met fellow scholars and residents from all over the world that I have been able to forge meaningful relationships with, both academically and culturally. As a student of social sciences and humanities, I feel learning about other students’ cultural experiences has enabled me to open my mind to new possibilities and approaches in my own research.

There are so many great things about staying at ISH. Firstly, it is located in the vicinity of Bloomsbury area so it is only a short walk from the Birkbeck campus, and the beautiful Regents Park is only a three-minute walk away. But ISH is more than just a student accommodation, it is an international community of people and it actively facilitates interaction and cooperation among its residents through regular events and activities. Throughout the school year, I regularly attended ISH events, where I had the opportunity to interact with fellow residents and enjoy delicious food! I organised film screenings and discussions which provided a common space for students from different academic backgrounds to come together, share their opinions and hear from others. At the annual garden party, I got an opportunity to meet Her Royal Highness Princess Anne and exchange a few words about my stay at ISH and my studies at Birkbeck. I was also involved in filming a video about ISH which was screened at the event and later shared on the ISH website.

Getting used to an entirely different system of teaching and learning was a bit stressful in the beginning. I was a little apprehensive about the readings and the lectures in general.  My course tutors helped familiarize me with the process and reassured me through my frequent in-person meetings with them. Birkbeck organises regular study-skills workshops; ranging from academic writing skills to coping with student life in London. Attending these proved extremely helpful in terms of coping with my workload and gave me the confidence to conduct my own research. The library induction familiarized me with the relevant sections of the library and put me in touch with my subject librarian for guidance and support.

Coming to London as an international student was my first time abroad. Before travelling to London, I was anxious about many things as most international students are. Immediately after arriving here I met so many different people. It was a little overwhelming at first, but given the homely vibe of ISH, I was able to overcome my anxiety and start interacting with everyone quite quickly. London is a big and busy city, similar to home. Even so, dealing with the culture shock was difficult because it was a sudden change, from the food to the overall life here.

Having spent a year in London, I’d advise prospective international students to spend more time with their family before leaving their home country, and look forward to meeting and making a new family before you go!

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