“By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me”

Former ballet dancer Katie Willis completed an MA in Creative Writing and was due to graduate with her peers this week. In this blog, she shares her experience of studying at Birkbeck while dealing with illness and her plans for the future.

I am very excited to graduate from my MA in Creative Writing as this is my first degree.

I am a mature student and I’ve had no previous experience of university-level study as I followed a vocational path – I was a ballet dancer before my illness took hold. It is a huge achievement for me to be graduating.

If you want to write about a sick body you have to be comfortable with living inside of it. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and a rare form of cancer. I had to balance university with regular hospital appointments and the side effects of taking chemotherapy and other drugs. On occasions that felt overwhelming.

I faced quite a few physical challenges. I had to be very disciplined on a daily basis, managing the limited energy that I had. The travelling to and from university was physically demanding on a sick body. I had to rest up on the days preceding and the days following my lectures in order to be well enough to attend. I was sad that I was not always able to participate in social events with other students, but I always held on to the important part that it was such a joy and privilege to be able to attend university in the first place.

Throughout my studies I had the support of a close group of fellow students who were aware of my physical challenges. I had two friends who always offered to carry my bags and books to and from and class.

Creative Writing at Birkbeck

I began the MA writing stories which were mostly about magical realism but then in the second semester I took Julia Bell’s Creative Non-Fiction module and I realised that I was interested in writing about the self, using my experience as a dancer. I slowly learned to embrace my quirkiness which allowed me to write to my strengths.

I realised that my writing is poetic and kinetic, and I wanted to write about the body: the sick body and the dancing body, and the place where those two bodies meet. Similarly, I am interested in the place where fiction meets non-fiction meets poetry. I want to meld the genres in my own way but also reflect the shape of the body on the page.

I no longer try to write outside of myself or to become the writer that I’m not. I found my own voice on the course and also found the courage to write in it.

By the end of the course, Birkbeck felt like a second home to me, on a level with being in a hospital, which has felt like a second home for many years.

As awful as the current situation is, there is some sense of community in nationwide lockdown. If you have lived with a physical disability that has left you housebound for a huge chunk of your life that is a very personal and isolating form of lockdown.

It is quite extraordinary to look at the world now and see everyone else under a similar lockdown and huge organisations and bodies rapidly making adaptations in the way they function and impart knowledge. Such adaptations would have made a huge difference to me in the many years when I was housebound.

It is sad that our graduation ceremony is having to be postponed probably until November, but I plan to relish the anticipation of it, so it will be all the more exciting when it occurs.

Looking ahead

I was invited to continue my studies at Birkbeck and am currently doing the MFA in Creative Writing under the guidance of Toby Litt.

Ultimately, I want to publish a collection of short stories. I am currently writing a collection of short stories about bones. I’m taking specific bones from the body and using the power of incantation I’m writing the stories that these bones hold and, in the process, shaping a new body that is neither a sick body nor a dancing body, but something else. Something strong and mobile.

I’d also like to share what I have learned on the course. It would be great if I could take creative writing into hospitals and offer it to patients who have had surgery, or are undergoing chemotherapy treatments, to help them as I think it is an outlet when you are going through life changing moments.

If you are mature student, if you have a disability, if you have cancer, if you have been housebound for many years, if you have something which makes you feel like an outsider just go for it. It may just change your life!

 

 

 

 

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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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Finding the balance between work and study

Sports Management 2017 graduate Bethan Taylor reflects on her time at Birkbeck and shares her top tips on how to find a balance between your job and your studies.

Image: Anna Rachel Photography

I studied MSc Sports Management at Birkbeck from 2015-2017, taking a special interest in women in endurance sport. I’m a civil servant working in the Ministry of Justice, and I also write for a range of publications including my own blog A Pretty Place To Play which features my new podcast The Mental Health Podcast. When I’m not working or writing, I like to run and am currently training for my first ultra-marathon – 56 miles from London to Brighton next year.

There are lots of reasons why I decided to go back and study for an MSc – I’d been working in financial services for around five years and while I loved my job, I wasn’t finding it that intellectually stimulating. At the same time, I’d become really involved in running and was writing for various print and digital publications on the topic of women in sport, which really peaked my curiosity. I decided that I wanted to be able to talk with authority on the social issues in sport, and in my mind, the best way to do that was through postgraduate study.

The whole experience at Birkbeck was amazing! I loved that I was able to study an academically rigorous and challenging course while still progressing my career. The academics I worked with in Birkbeck Sports Business Centre were really open and supportive, encouraging us to question everything and to challenge each other, which I really enjoyed.

Being able to work while I studied meant I could pay my course fees without worrying about debt. Academically, it was great studying over two years – it meant that I could really take advantage of everything Birkbeck had to offer, simply because I was there longer! It also meant I had more time to think about what I wanted to research for my dissertation, which meant I got to dig deep into issues that really fascinated me.

There were challenges, of course, one of the biggest being that I felt like I was constantly saying no to social events and letting people down. That was really hard. Thankfully my friends and family were all really supportive and totally understood when I had to decline a dinner invite again, or sloped off home after one drink to study!

Between working and training for a marathon and a couple of half marathons my time at Birkbeck was pretty busy, and it did mean that I didn’t get involved in any societies or clubs. However, I did have a mentor and she was fabulous – it was great to be able to sit down with someone and discuss my career and direction really frankly.

I think it’s really important for people in the sports/fitness industry to really understand the unique nature of their business, as well as the social issues that surround people’s engagement in sport (my area of interest). Courses like the MSc Sports Management are helping to develop a new generation of professional sports administrators, as well as the academics who’ll be thinking about how we can challenge ourselves and develop the industry in the future.

I think education is a life-long pursuit, and I was really lucky to have great role models in my parents who both studied while working throughout my childhood (in fact my Dad was also at Birkbeck last year!). Learning new things helps to boost your creativity, enhances your problem-solving skills and challenges your perceptions – it makes life a lot more interesting! I also believe that life shouldn’t be all about work, you need some challenges that are just for you, whether that’s studying for an MSc in a subject that fascinates you or running a marathon (or both!).

If you’re thinking of studying at Birkbeck, don’t question whether you can do it, as you absolutely can! You’ll need to be super organised both at work and with your studies, and there will be some sacrifices, but it’ll be worth it in the end.

Before you start your course it’s worth chatting to your employer about flexible working – I always kept my boss in the loop with my timetable so she knew why I was bolting out the door at 5pm. Also make sure you talk to your friends and family, as you will need their support and understanding because there will be times when things feel tough.

When I was studying, being organised was essential! You cannot over-plan when it comes to studying while working. Make sure you leave lots of contingency time, just in case something kicks off at work or you get sick.

Looking back on my time at Birkbeck, I can honestly say it’s one of the best places in the world to study sports management – but beyond that, there’s so much more! Studying while working is a great way to demonstrate to employers a whole range of desirable skills, like time management, organisation and dedication. It really illustrates how dedicated you are to your subject – you have to really want to do something if you’re going to sit through three hours of lectures after a full day at work! Beyond that, I’ve had the opportunity to carry out brand new research on a topic that hasn’t been explored much in-depth before, and I think this contribution to my subject really sets me apart.

Looking forward, I would love to become an expert in my field, specifically focusing on women in sport. The dream is to be cited as an ‘expert’ in a Runner’s World investigation. In the meantime, I am working on building my experience and thinking hard about a PhD (possibly at Birkbeck…).

Further information

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