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Birkbeck students celebrate LGBT+ History Month: Allies are Welcome!

As the experiences and achievements of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender + community are observed throughout February, MSc International Marketing Student, Wojciech Zaluski, looks at progress and speaks to Birkbeck LGBTQ+ officer Megan Massey and MSc Marketing student Daniel Knight to ask for their viewpoint on matters, including a look at the role that university life plays in supporting them.

Photo of two people touching hands to represent LGBT+ History Month

In recent years the situation of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer + (LGBTQ+) has improved a lot in the UK. In 2014 same-sex marriage was officially allowed. Since 2020 we have also seen a successful roll-out of PrEP, available for free through the NHS, a drug that is key to reducing HIV transmissions. If you live in London, you will be aware how strongly the city promotes and supports tolerance towards the LGBTQ+ community. Everywhere you go you can spot awareness campaigns promoting inclusivity and acceptance.

London is also the host of the annual Pride festival, put on hold during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each year thousands of Londoners (2019 Pride attracted over 1.5 million people) and visitors cheer all day in a parade where they can embrace their non-heteronormative identity in public. The city, during this period, becomes filled with events, parties and gatherings focused on and appreciating love in its different forms. And yes, London Pride is coming back to London in 2022!

We are also seeing, more and more, how the corporate world has become vocal in its appreciation for the LGBTQ+ community. For example McKinsey & Company is promoting their initiative “Proud Leaders Europe,” “created to support talented individuals from across Europe, who self-identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community”.

Q&A with Megan Massey, Birkbeck LGBTQ+ officer

What is the function of a LGBTQ+ officer at Birkbeck?
The goal of all elected Liberation Officers is to improve the student experience at Birkbeck, with a LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer+) officer focusing their efforts on advocating for LGBTQ+ students, representing them in meetings with the College, and helping to foster a community.

What kind of events can LGBTQ+ students expect at Birkbeck?
Events range from hangouts and film screenings to pub crawls and museum visits.  Of course, for the LGBTQ+ network, Pride is also an important event in the calendar. Hopefully Birkbeck students will be able to walk at London Pride once again in 2022!

Why do you think universities should provide a program for LGBTQ+ students? Do you think that we live in a post-heteronormative world?
Higher education should be for everybody, and so it is important that universities provide resources that reflect this. The fact that we do not yet live in a post-heteronormative world means that LGBTQ+ students, and other marginalised students, face barriers that they will have to overcome in order to have access to higher education.

What barriers and challenges does the LGBTQ+ community still face? How can the academic world answer those problems?
There are many barriers and challenges faced by the LGBTQ+ community, and attitudes to LGBTQ+ people vary across the globe. There are many countries which still criminalise consensual gay sex and relationships, meaning that LGBTQ+ people face imprisonment. In countries like the UK, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2014, there is still work to be done to improve the legal standing of LGBTQ+ people. For example, the UK government does not legally recognise non-binary identities.

Aside from the law, LGBTQ+ people in every country still face social challenges and are at risk of experiencing violence and persecution. The academic world can seek to educate around LGBTQ+ topics, but does not have all the answers. Many LGBTQ+ people, especially those most at risk, will not have access to discussions that take place in universities, despite the fact that their voices are deeply important to the conversation. In order for the academic world to do a better job of advocating for LGBTQ+ people, they need to place an emphasis on accessibility.

From your experience, meeting LGBTQ+ students at Birkbeck, what did you learn that surprised you? What kind of support do you think they need? Did those meetings change you?  Where do you find strength and motivation to be actively engaging in helping and educating the student community about the problems of the LGBTQ+ community? 
I was surprised by how many students have been unsure whether or not they are welcome in the LGBTQ+ community. I think that is one aspect where many students need support, in feeling that they are welcome and accepted in the academic space. As an LGBTQ+ person myself, it is a privilege to be able to help the student community in any way. I feel grateful to the students who have had the courage to reach out to me with their questions or concerns.

London is a very diverse city with official city support for Pride and other campaigns promoting tolerance and inclusivity, similarly we are seeing the corporate world embracing LGBTQ+ inclusivity. Do you think that LGBTQ+ people are safe in London? If not, why do you think so?
This is a difficult question due to the interpretation of ‘safe’, but I do think that LGBTQ+ people are safe in London, to a certain extent. London is a fairly safe city, the whole world considered, and so LGBTQ+ people living here may feel safer than they would elsewhere. However, since LGBTQ+ are, as a marginalised group, at a higher risk of experiencing discrimination and hate crimes, personal safety is something that most queer people have to be very aware of.

In addition to this, since LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience poverty and homelessness, this is a factor which must be considered. Likewise, it is impossible to ignore the relevance of race (and other identity factors) in discussions of safety. For this reason, a more in-depth, intersectional approach would be needed to adequately address the question of whether or not LGBTQ+ people are safe in London (or, indeed, if anybody is ‘safe’ anywhere).

What do you advise LGBTQ+ students who need psychological help? Do you know where they can seek support and help?
Birkbeck’s Mental Health Advisory Service provides a range of help for students. More information can be found here.

Outside of university, if a student (or anyone) is dealing with life-ending thoughts and needs urgent care, they can go to Accident and Emergency, or contact their local crisis team. If they need to talk to somebody over the phone or online, on a one-off basis, there are several charities which provide this service. If they are looking for therapy or counselling, they can self-refer through their GP to be put on a waiting list for a free NHS service.

What would you advise for people who don’t identify as queer or LGBTQ+ and would want to learn more to understand problems and issues that their LGBTQ+ students face?
There is a great deal that a person can learn online, but of course it’s great to speak to LGBTQ+ people in person too—allies are welcome to join the LGBTQ+ Network!

Interview with Daniel Knight, MSc Marketing student

Do you see any difference between how LGBTQ+ issues were addressed when you were studying to get your undergraduate degree and now at Birkbeck?
I did my undergraduate studies between 2004 and 2007. And there wasn’t much of a LGBTQ+ society then. I wasn’t very active in the community, I’d only just come out, so I was working out how to interact with the people around me. It was not easy to find and connect with other LGBTQ+ students. Thankfully, there is more of a presence now at Birkbeck than in the past.

I was interested to see what it looks like at Birkbeck… if it’s more visible and easier to connect. I visited the Freshers’ Fair to find out. As a result, I joined the Birkbeck LGBTQ+ online group. I think social presence is very important.

Do you feel the UK has moved forward in terms of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people in recent years? If not, why do you think that is?
I think the UK is more inclusive and accepting. I experienced very little homophobia in my life. That may relate to the fact that I am not flamboyant and it’s not obvious that I am gay.  That may be why. People in my life were always very accepting and inclusive and they wanted to know about my relationships. I think it became more acceptable to talk about your relationships. I am also aware I am working in healthcare, surrounded by professional people. It may be very different for people working in a different kind of environment. My experience may not be someone else’s.

I’d say as a teenager, when I was in secondary school, I don’t think it was accepted. I think that in the UK there was a switch into the pro-movement, probably in the early 2000, before you got into 2010. When I was at secondary school I wouldn’t have come out, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that, whereas now, I believe teenagers do feel comfortable, and obviously that’s great in that regard, that the desire to come out would now be more positively received than before.

With reference to my work environment, if I experienced homophobia in my office, it would be taken very seriously, and the person would certainly be investigated, but I work for the healthcare regulator, they take equality and diversity seriously.

Did you experience homophobia in your life or work life? What would you advise to LGBTQ+ students who are starting their career in that regard; how to handle homophobia at work or in their personal life?
I think, for them, it should be easier. We are in a different place now- homophobia isn’t accepted. If there is an experience like that, they should look for their HR department, or if it’s a university there is a department that deals with that. I think there are support structures in place now that enable people to feel supported. If they experience homophobia, they should be able to raise it, people will help them. This would not have been the case in the past. My advice would be to talk to people in the organisation who can support you. And look for that support, look for like-minded people, join the LGBTQ+ society at Birkbeck, and you’ll find a lot of like-minded people, and allies as well. Don’t put up with homophobia in any form.

In your own company do you observe that there is a will to create a safe environment for the LGBTQ+ community? Or is it a non-issue?
As part of the new EDI (Equality, Diversity, Inclusion) strategy they have created lots of different groups, among them an LGBTQ+ group, within our organisation. People can go there and talk about their experience and if there is anything that is not quite right in the organisation.

Were you able to make any connections with the LGBTQ+ community at Birkbeck? How do you think universities should address inclusivity and the safety of LGBTQ+ students
Being part of the LGBTQ+ group is important, and for that group to be able to discuss policies with the university on how they can support Birkbeck communities. If the university can demonstrate the changes that have been achieved, that is a good way to show that there is progress for the LGBTQ+ community. They could also do more in terms of events and lectures, I suppose to express different views in the community. Just to show it is taken seriously, you could put information in the weekly bulletins from Birkbeck, to have inclusion there about what has been done, for people to be involved more and find out more. The main thing would be that they have support in place should people have issues, making clear what they can do if they have issues, regarding LGBTQ+ issues.

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Six Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

By Shweta Menon, final year undergraduate Marketing student 

Photo of Shweta Menon

With the dark nights of winter, a lot of us experience our mood getting gloomier. This feeling is so common that there’s even a name for it: ‘winter blues’.

Many people may only experience a mild version of winter blues while others can have a more severe type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). The lack of sunlight due to shorter days disturbs our body clock and hormone levels, which affects our mood and compels us to hit the snooze button a million times. If, like most people, you can’t cozy up under the duvet til the sun comes out, try these tips to beat the winter blues.

  1. Get loads of sunlight: Push yourself to go outdoors and soak in the little bit of daylight that’s available even if it’s cold outside. Exposing yourself to daylight helps improve your serotonin levels. And if like most of us you are occupied during the day hours with work, studies and other activities get yourself a SAD lamp or sunlight lamp to stimulate daylight. Also, if you are stuck indoors because of work or other commitments try and sit close to a window to help you get that extra dose of sunshine.
  2. Eat yourself happy: While the cold, dark weather may tempt you to indulge in a hot bowl of mac and cheese everyday it is important to remember to eat well. Sugar and carbohydrates may make you feel happy and satisfied in the moment but eventually will lead to your blood sugar crashing. So why not make yourself a nice warm bowl of winter vegetable soup or chilli to warm up your day?
  3. Get active: Sitting at home binging your favourite Netflix programmes under your blanket might seem relaxing but will end up making you feel bluer than you already are in the long run. Research shows that exercising helps your body to release the feel-good hormone serotonin. Even if it’s just a 10 minute yoga routine or a short walk in the park do get yourself moving. Not only does this improve your mood but also helps you maintain a healthy waistline.
  4. Listen to happy music: Swap your winter ballads for something more peppy and fun. The music you listen to has an impact on your mood. Why not put on some Lizzo for your next commute to work or university?
  5. Schedule something to look forward to in your calendar: January can feel like the longest month of the year! So instead of slogging through it, schedule some time to meet your friends and family, check out the exhibition you wanted to go to or the latest movie that’s out in the theatre. This can help give you something to look forward to and feel happy about despite the cold, miserable weather outside.
  6. Be kind to yourself: When feeling blue and down it can be hard to find motivation to do any of the above things. One day you might be motivated to exercise or meet friends while on other days you might just want to curl up on your couch and watch telly, and both are 100% okay to do. It is important to not go hard on yourself and listen to your body and mind and take things at your pace.

While you can’t make the season any brighter or warmer you can definitely do little things to give you a fuzzy, warm feeling inside 🙂

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Overcoming mathematical anxiety with customised support

evaszatmariDo you have a fear of mathematics?  Have you always avoided percentages? Do you want to run away when you see algebraic expressions?  If you think it is time to conquer your maths demons, then Eva Szatmari can help.  Eva works for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics, and enables you to customise your learning and go at your speed through her one-to-one sessions. She tells us how she can help you solve your maths and stats knowledge and support you in your studies.

Eva, what do you do?
I help students learn mathematics and statistics, working one-to-one. When he/she comes into my office, I always start by asking what would they like to work on. In this way, I am tailoring the session to the individual student need.

I also run workshops in which I try to make sure that everyone in the class is able to follow the teaching, so no one is left behind.  I make sure I create an atmosphere where students feel safe to ask questions that they think might be too simplistic in their usual lectures. Birkbeck students have very busy lives so I have made video tutorials available online including instruction on Boolean logic, the binary number system and various scientific calculator tutorials so students can access my help wherever they are. More details of this can be found here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your role and the kind of support you offer?
Students who have maths anxiety often have previous life experiences that discourage them from ever wanting to learn maths again.  Suddenly on some degree courses, they are forced to come back to maths to ensure they complete their course.  I would like to prove to them that maths is enjoyable, rewarding, and accessible to anyone.  Therefore my challenge is forensic – to detect the right mode and language for communicating to each student.  I make sure I create an encouraging environment where students can ask even the most basic maths or statistics questions.

Why is it important to offer a customised approach to learning?
The School of BEI recognises that customised approach to learning is important and it adds to the experience a student can have at Birkbeck.  We want to give every student the necessary support to excel in their studies. This ties into Birkbeck’s central mission to offer flexible education to meet the widely varying needs of our students and to help them fulfill their potential and their ambitions.

Have you seen this approach make a practical difference?
Definitely yes!  I would like to give you two examples of students I helped.  One of them had severe maths anxiety and approached me for some extra tutorials not believing he would understand it.  He had no maths experience because of disruptive schooling.  We started with the basics, and gradually he got really to like maths and he enjoys the course he was on more because he no longer feared the relevant sessions.  He went on to pass his maths exam which was part of his course.

I am not here only for the weakest students, but to help anyone at whatever level.  In another example, a student came to see me needing a 1st Class Honours degree to get on her chosen Masters and I am happy and proud that she got accepted for Oxbridge to do what she wanted.

It has repeatedly been shown that there is a correlation between better numeracy skills, and better life chances – the higher your mathematical abilities, the higher your job prospects and your earning potential.

Why is this customised learning approach unique?
There are many initiatives out there which provide support for literacy skills, but considerably fewer that develop numeracy skills. This is particularly true at university level. This customised learning approach makes a real difference to improving the confidence and mathematical skills of students. This means they may achieve more in their courses than they would otherwise and often they surprise themselves at what they can do.

Birkbeck is in itself unique when compared to most other universities for two particular reasons. A significant proportion of students are already in full-time employment, or they are hoping to use the skills they learn at Birkbeck to change their existing careers. There is a particular need for additional numeracy support in the School of BEI, where mathematics may feature significantly in a course or module, but where many students join from a different academic discipline, or from a professional environment where they have not used formal mathematics in the same way.

Finally, how can BEI students at Birkbeck get in touch with you if they want to work with you?
They can email me on e.szatmari@bbk.ac.uk to book a one-on-one session. These normally last about an hour. They can also see the BEI Workshop Timetable on my staff web page for module specific workshops.

The sessions I run are completely confidential, and it’s important that students know there’s no need to be embarrassed about asking for assistance – it’s what I’m here for. It’s worth any student who is unsure about a particular aspect of mathematics coming, especially with exams on the horizon!

 

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