Camden Scholarship brings a fresh start and legal opportunities on the horizon

Birkbeck has supported disadvantaged, low-income Camden residents with full scholarships to progress their studies for the past few years. One of the programme’s students discusses her new lease of life following family woes and the lack of confidence she struggled with for years.

This is an image of a female student

Helen recently started her studies at Birkbeck on the LLB Law programme, with the full cost of her course funded by the Camden Scholarship, available to two Camden residents each year who have already applied for their undergraduate courses at Birkbeck and who fulfil a number of criteria.

If you’d asked Helen a few years ago if she could have envisaged being a student on a law programme, she most likely would have replied with an emphatic ‘No’, given that she had to shelve her education after becoming pregnant while at university previously in her late teens. Any chance of education was further compounded with her ensuing role as caregiver and home provider, her strict upbringing and the observance of cultural norms.

As a child, Helen was obedient, respectful and quiet. She recalls always feeling anxious and conscious of her culture’s perceptions of the place of a woman. This created certain limitations on what she perceived as a reality for her future and she delicately reflects on her childhood as ‘difficult’.

She says, “Since becoming a parent and with life in general, my anxiety has become progressively worse. I believe this is linked to my childhood as I’ve gone through a lot of things. My upbringing taught me that women are subordinate and I’ve seen personally how women are oppressed. Over time, it’s left me feeling that I’m not good enough. I always knew I had potential but I always find myself experiencing barriers. I put it down to the anxiety…I realise I’ve had this my whole life.”

It wasn’t until her early thirties that Helen would endeavour to resume her education.  She attempted to complete a statement for university five years prior to the Camden scholarship application. However, family life got in the way and she once again felt discouraged and “let got of the dream”. Helen then applied for a number of apprenticeships but was unsuccessful; and then an email came through with information about the Camden scholarship.

She decided to take a chance and put the application in April 2020, giving it her all. She still had her reservations, concerned she couldn’t complete the course with a family. But she called on the advice of people who had done the course and they assured her she would be okay. She shares, “I’m so glad I did. I realise I’m determined and made the right decision. At first I thought the timing of my life- leaving it too late- would make it impossible. Then I realised, it’s me who has been stopping myself and I needed to change my mindset.”

Following a successful application, an invitation to interview and the positive outcome, she reflects on the jubilance of hearing the good news: “I felt ecstatic, like a weight had been lifted. I was so happy, like I had a new lease of life given to me, a second chance that I didn’t even think I deserved. It’s just a dream.”

Now in her late 30s, she still feels the oppression of her past: “Sometimes you revert back to how you were as a child. Regardless of your achievements in life, you revisit your past. I’ve struggled with that my whole life.”

But the course has given Helen a fresh start and she observes a change in herself with increased confidence. She is particularly thankful for Birkbeck in helping her adapt to the academic world, especially since she’s been out of education for many years. Being around people who come with different perspectives has given her the ability to balance work and family life and has given her networking and learning resources. She adds, “Birkbeck really motivates people to think of different areas, exposes you to a wide range of careers and expands the possibilities.”

Now she’s looking ahead to the next five years and feels lucky and blessed: “I’m so happy that I even attempted to apply. I’m really grateful for this opportunity. I hope this is seen by people and someone’s life changes by seeing this.”

Helen is now planning to advance her legal studies and hopes to practice in the field of Law. Her encouraging words to others: “It’s never too late. Take small steps and follow your dreams.”

The Camden scholarship 2021/22 is now open for applications. Birkbeck’s funding support for Camden residents and other groups, administered by the Access and Engagement team, can be found here. The work of the Access and Engagement team at Birkbeck supports those from groups who are underrepresented in higher education in their university journey through resources about accessing university and free learning opportunities. This includes mature learners without a first degree, those with non-traditional qualifications and forced migrants.

DID YOU KNOW? Camden is home to the largest student population in London (2011 Census); with over half educated to degree-level- 5th highest in England and Wales.

*The student’s name has been changed owing to sensitive family matters.

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , ,

Bringing his own dose of magic to the field of Law

Tomas McCabe is a recent prize-winner in the inaugural British Inter University Commercial Awareness Competition 2020. BIUCAC was established to provide opportunities for non-Russell Group students to develop commercial awareness and to highlight the talent at respective law schools. Contestants receive support with enhancing their CVs and win one of twelve prizes at top City law firms. Tomas won the prize offered by Simmons & Simmons and in this blog, he shares his path to success, a smart mix of the conventional with the unconventional, including a 10-year career as a magician.

This is a photo of Law student Tomas McCabe

Tell us about your course, what you’re studying and how you came to study at Birkbeck?
I am in my second year of the LLB course. My job for a long time has been as a magician, however I decided last summer (2019) that I would love to study a law degree around that work. I’ve always been interested in law and have considered studying it for a long time, and when I finally decided to go for it, Birkbeck’s evening structure allowed me to study it conveniently as well as giving me a University of London degree.

What’s your view on the opportunities available to Law students once they graduate?
I have researched a lot about the opportunities for law students after they graduate. While there are some fantastic opportunities, it is a very competitive industry and a majority of students will never get the chance to work as a barrister or solicitor simply because everyone wants to. However, with a good degree behind you and a lot of extra volunteer work, competitions and experience on your CV, it seems you stand a better chance. Thankfully, as I learnt in BIUCAC, the city law firms traditional tendency to hire from Oxbridge and Russell Group universities is being steadily improved to give more students a chance at obtaining the top positions.

What are your career plans following your course?
I have been awarded work experience at two law firms- Simmons & Simmons and CANDEY. Following my placements there, I will have a much better idea where exactly I would like to take my law career. Currently, I am simply trying to take advantage of every opportunity and keep doors open.

How has Birkbeck supported you with those plans?
Birkbeck has supported me in numerous ways. As I mentioned, I much prefer the evening scheduled work as it frees up my day to do my own combination of studying, legal research and other work to support life in London. I have jumped at opportunities presented to students, including this one (BIUCAC), representing Birkbeck at the Landmark Property Moot Competition and applying for some volunteer work. I think students themselves, however, need to do a bit more research into what needs to be done early on in order to build experience and stand out at the time when you are applying for jobs.

Tell us how you came to hear of the competition and how you went about applying?
I heard of the competition through an email sent to students. Initially I wasn’t sure about taking part as I hadn’t really thought about commercial awareness or why I might need it. As it was multiple choice, I decided to give the first few rounds a go. By the time I got to the interviews and presentations stages, I was sucked in and loved it.

How do you see competitions like this helping students, especially non-Russell Group students?
The most obvious answer here is that anything that can make your CV stand out, against the hundreds applying for the same job as you, is important. After all, most – if not all – will have a law degree. That aside, this competition has built my commercial awareness a lot and from doing my research I now realise how important this is. Also, the opportunity to network with graduate recruiters, trainees and more senior lawyers from the top firms in London – magic circle included – was brilliant. Finalists also got a Just Eat voucher!

What were your thoughts on winning 3rd place- an incredible achievement?
To say I was shocked would be an understatement. However, as the competition moved through the rounds and I became more invested in it, I decided soon enough that if I was going to do it, I should do it right. I put in the time and effort for the finals and was really pleased with my achievement. However, the whole way through I was aware of the standard of the other students and didn’t believe I could place third from over 4100 entrants. I’m really happy with myself for doing so though.

Any final takeaways from the competition?
My main takeaways from the competition are: degree class is becoming more important to the top firms than the university you study at, so never think you can’t compete with the best. And also, take every opportunity you can. At worst it’ll cost you a few hours, at best it could get you your dream job.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
More about Birkbeck’s School of Law

Share
. Reply . Category: College, Law . Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Share
. Reply . Category: Law . Tags: , , , ,