Mentoring on the Compass Project

Luke Williams is a part-time lecturer in Creative Writing, member of the Compass Project Steering Committee and mentor. In this blog, he speaks to Natasha Soobramanien about his involvement in the project.

A laptop with a sign that says 'we rise by helping others'

I’ve been involved in the Compass Project since it began in 2016. Right from the start we realised that if we wanted to offer scholarships to people from forced migrant backgrounds, we also needed to make sure those students received the support they might need to thrive at Birkbeck. Each student on the Compass Project has a mentor, an academic at Birkbeck who elects to support them through their studies.

Compass Project students face particular challenges in relation to British institutions: government policy is designed to create a hostile institutional environment for migrants, and educational institutions are no exception to this. But the university is also a place to gain and share knowledge, and to form friendships with others. Our job as mentors is to give Compass Project students practical and moral support so that they remain able to focus on the positive and rewarding aspects of student life, and the opportunities Birkbeck offers.

The mentoring role is a little like a personal tutor, but involves a lot more contact and communication, and flexibility. On average I speak to my mentee around three to four times a month. It could be a simple check-in, or a response to a request, like support with an essay, or help liaising with other departments or services. I’ve helped out with finding a laptop and looking for a place to live. In the current pandemic, this kind of contact is particularly necessary for students who might already feel quite isolated. I’d say this role has been the most challenging and rewarding aspect of my involvement in the Compass Project.

Before the Compass Project, I’d volunteered for several years at Akwaaba, a Hackney-based social centre for migrants, so I had some awareness of the stressful logistical, bureaucratic and emotional complexities faced by migrants. Getting involved with the Compass Project allowed me to find a way to align the advocacy, creative work, and activism I was involved in at Akwaaba, with my day job at Birkbeck.

Through my role as a mentor I have met some amazing people. I’ve enjoyed our conversations, and learned a lot. Everyone at Birkbeck knows that universities are in a precarious position right now, and that our roles as academics are increasingly co-opted by the marketisation of education. Getting involved in the Compass Project feels like a gesture of resistance against this deliberate erosion of what is truly valuable in the university, which is to say study – and the freedom to do this with others.

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

“Birkbeck was fantastic…I have been looking for opportunities to give something back”

In September, a 2017 recipient of the Compass Project Sanctuary Scholarship, Michael led a wellbeing workshop for mentors of the Compass Project. These mentors are academics at Birkbeck who volunteer to mentor a Compass scholar during their course.

Drawing on his past experiences as a mentee, Counselling student and person seeking asylum, here is what Michael had to say about the session.

Michael

Michael Darko

Why did you want to offer a wellbeing training workshop to Compass mentors?

My experience of being at Birkbeck was fantastic, I always felt valued there and since completing my course, I have been looking for opportunities to give something back. Drawing on my expertise as a student and in a caring role for many years, I chose to offer this workshop to mentors. Having had a superb mentor-mentee relationship, I wanted to offer this in support and appreciation of mentors’ commitment and sacrifice and importantly, share a mentee’s perspective through the workshop.

What did the workshop involve?

As the focus of the workshop was on wellbeing and self-care, I encouraged the use of a self-care ‘toolbox’ for academic mentors to support not only their mentees but themselves too. I started by giving a presentation on the complexities and challenges often faced by forced migrant students. This included the potential changes to their precarious statuses and how this might affect their university performance and health.

The second part of the workshop consisted of raising awareness of possible secondary stress responses that can affect mentors. I reflected on methods of self-care already in use by the mentors, offered practical breathing and stretching exercises and emphasised the importance of signposting to external support when necessary.

What did it feel like to be presenting to Birkbeck academics?

I felt proud presenting to Birkbeck academics. I expected to be nervous, and although I had not slept the previous night, I was surprisingly relaxed and confident about the workshop. I had a lot of support from the lovely Isabelle (Compass co-ordinator), who is always available, supportive and encouraging which helped a great deal with my confidence.

Leading the workshop was a personal goal that I accomplished. It reaffirmed that I am proud of who I am becoming and showed me that I should never be afraid of making mistakes and getting things done. Just do it and learn from the mistakes.

What are you up to now?

I am currently in my second year at Goldsmiths, University of London where I am studying BA Psychosocial Studies. Despite the volume of reading materials and the frequency of assignments, I am thoroughly enjoying the course and gaining some unimagined practical skills from my Research Methods module, a delightful surprise for someone who has a dislike for maths! Being aware of my individual learning style, which I identified during my time at Birkbeck, means that my engagement with the course contents is managed in a way that supports my development.

What is your favourite memory from your time at Birkbeck?

I genuinely had many pleasant moments, but my best memory is the help I received when I hit rock bottom. I became homeless in the winter and came close to leaving my course. I felt like everything was stacking up against me, then I made a phone call to Naureen, the Compass Project Officer at the time, who worked her magic to help me find a place to stay. Because of that help, I completed my course, without which I would not be where I am today.

Another favourite memory is of the support and safe space provided by my mentor, Ben. When Bail 201 came into effect, I was threatened with losing my freedom to study. I remember going to visit Ben, who calmly created a safe space where I could start taking apart the problem at hand and focusing on what I could do. I remember this moment fondly because I received so much support from him, my lecturer Anne and the Compass team. I tackled the Home Office in court about their ‘no study’ decision with no legal representation and won. This was an astounding moment and because of the level of support I had from Birkbeck, I was able to face the Home Office, not feeling alone or scared.

 

 

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

“Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student”

The Compass Project has been successfully supporting students from forced migrant backgrounds into higher education since 2016; read what two Compass scholars have to say about the impact it has had on their lives.

Hana* joined Birkbeck in 2020 to start an LLB Law degree:
“My passion for human rights and immigration law has grown and I know I want to be a human rights lawyer in the future. For me, the Compass Project hasn’t just been an opportunity to study, it’s been an opportunity to change my life.

People coming from forced migrant backgrounds know what it means to have nothing and know how challenging life can get. Now we have the opportunity to work hard and achieve our potential. I don’t have all the words to say thank you. My advice for future Compass students is to make sure you are clear about your passions and what you want to achieve. Find the courage within yourself as you will only have regrets if you don’t. It doesn’t matter about where you come from, just about where you go. I am now at Birkbeck, studying a great course and meeting amazing people.”

Two people reading a book together to represent Compass students

Grace* joined Birkbeck in 2018 and recently completed a CertHE in Psychodynamic Counselling and Skills in a Psychosocial Framework:

“Psychodynamic Counselling was of particular interest to me because I have always wanted to help others and the theory and practical skills I gained in class also helped me with my own personal trauma. I am glad that I have now been able to turn the helping aspect of my personality into a qualification. Without the Compass Project, I would never have seen myself as a university student. Even with everything I have been through, one of the biggest barriers I faced prior to studying was my own self-doubt. However, the support I received from those on the Compass Project team and other Birkbeck staff took that self-doubt away.”

* Names have been changed

Share
. Read all 2 comments . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Birkbeck welcomes Compass Scholars, 2020-2021

This year we welcomed 20 new scholars as part of the Compass Project, a scheme that helps refugees and asylum seekers access higher education in the UK. In this blog, Isabelle Habib, Senior Access Officer, Forced Migrants shares how the new students were introduced to Birkbeck and student life in London. 

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building

Compass Scholars outside of the Malet Street building.

Over the summer, Compass said goodbye to its 2019-20 cohort of students, after what was a demanding but very successful year for the programme. Many of the students have now moved onto other opportunities within higher education or are embarking on work or volunteering placements. We are also pleased that a few of the students have been able to continue their studies at Birkbeck this term through the support of external sponsorship.

The Compass Project is now entering its fourth year at Birkbeck and we are delighted to welcome a new cohort of students this term, that’s 75 students and counting! After a rigorous application and selection process over the summer, the new scholars successfully enrolled and began their courses with us in October. They have already portrayed a great commitment to their studies by attending a variety of orientation activities. These activities have included a two-part induction on online learning where students were invited to participate in a mock seminar and an introduction to the wellbeing and disabilities services.

The scholars will be supported this year by the Compass Project team within the Access and Engagement Department and by academic mentors who were assigned to them in September. Mentors also participated in a start of term workshop that was coordinated by a compass alum, Michael, who delivered training on how to support students who come from forced migrant backgrounds during their studies. This workshop was very successful, and we are grateful to have students with such talent and commitment to compass amongst our alumni.

In addition to online activities, on the 9 October, the Compass Scholars were invited to visit the Birkbeck campus. During this visit, they were introduced to the facilities at Birkbeck and had the chance to meet one another as well as the Compass Coordinator, Isabelle, in person.

During the day, the students received a warm welcome address from Professor Stewart Motha, Dean of Law. Then they got the opportunity to get to know the Bloomsbury area a little better on a walking tour that was delivered by Dr Leslie Topp, Head of the Compass Steering Committee. They also heard from current Compass students about their experiences at Birkbeck. The students offered their top tips and guidance on settling in this term.

Overall, the day was a huge success and the students left feeling confident about beginning their studies and even more excited about embarking on this new journey with us. We wish them the very best of luck this year!!!

Share
. 1 comment . Category: College . Tags: , , , , ,

Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

Share
. Reply . Category: Arts, Business Economics and Informatics, Law, Science, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,