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.

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Celebrating Women in STEM

Today Birkbeck celebrates the women working in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields as part of a campaign led by Media Planet, and supported by organisations such as the Institute of Engineering and Technology and The Women’s Network.

Across the STEM industries, women make up only 12.8% of the workforce in the UK, and encouraging more women into these fields is vital to address skills shortages in the UK economy, as well as to ensure there is a diversity of voices in the field.

As Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Birkbeck Knowledge Lab puts it: “Since technology and science are shaping our societies at an ever increasing pace, it is important that the people who are making decisions on where to focus and how to prioritise innovation funding are representative of all our society globally.”

We spoke to women working in various STEM fields in Birkbeck about why they chose their careers, what excites them about their work and why it’s important for STEM disciplines to be diverse and representative.

Alexandra Poulouvassilis: Why is it important that STEM fields are diverse?

Jessica Swainston and Iroise Dumontheil: What excites you about working in STEM? 

Tingting Han: Why did you choose a career in Computer Science?

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