Turning a hatred of education into a passion

In their early life Phoebe Ewles-Bergeron associated education with self-loathing and suffering, but after a challenging journey they were able to develop their love for studying history at Birkbeck.

I always hated school. Education was not joyful or positive in my opinion. It was confusing, frustrating and seemingly endless – but I’ve always loved history. When I was four years old my mother found me in the sitting room trying to “excavate” the carpet after watching one too many episodes of Time Team. I was intelligent and curious about the world around me but in a system that labelled me as an underachiever. When I was six I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Nothing at school seemed to work and soon I believed that my bad grades represented me. I got only Ds so I must be stupid. I could not wait for it to end.

As if that was not enough as a teenager my health started to fail. I was extremely fatigued, experiencing blackouts and had extreme, immobilising chronic pain. No doctor could give a diagnosis. What we now know as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTs) made my life worse by the day and the previously bad grades worsened. Frustration led to depression and anxiety. But luckily my love of history remained a constant.

When I considered the possibility of university Birkbeck appealed immediately. My PoTs systems are less prominent in the evening so attending classes would be much more realistic at that time of the day. Plus the College heavily promoted diversity. I saw testimonials from people like myself who were finally achieving with the help from teachers and administrators who supported and accepted them.

The only issue was that my A-level grades would most likely not be high enough to make me eligible for a degree. On paper I was far from a hopeful prospect – what saved me was the interview. I was able to explain my circumstances and talk about what I loved about history and archaeology. I was allowed to be myself and I walked out of Birkbeck with an unconditional offer. They saw past my bad grades from school but recognised that I was a young individual who loved knowledge and wanted to learn.

Birkbeck was efficient at getting me the help I needed through the Disabled Student Allowance. Teachers knew about my conditions and often offered me extra help when needed. In 2017 my physical and mental health declined and I had to request a leave of absence, the support and understanding that every member of the department had for me was truly exceptional.

I left for a year and a half, worked on improving my PoTS condition, worked on my cosplay hobby, and had surgery. But I was apprehensive about returning to Birkbeck.

You see, I am transgender. Non-binary to be precise. It was life-changing: depression gone, anxiety gone, and confidence up. My life was full of colour and potential. I was happy. But what would be the reaction of staff that I had come to respect? I should never have doubted it. The reaction was kindness. I still have my old gender marker on the official documentation as I’m still afraid of discrimination. But every member of staff I have talked to has been understanding; I was genuinely surprised. What surprised me, even more, was that my grades shot up. I went from an average of a 2:2 to receiving firsts. I truly believe that this change would not have been possible without the understanding and support of the university.

The best part of my experience at Birkbeck is that it has allowed me to flourish academically. As I studied History and Archaeology the course structure let me pick the topics that intrigued me the most. I got to learn both historical and archaeological approaches. I went on digs at the famous Must Farm and later Despotiko in the Cyclades. I finally decided that my interests lay in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and I finished my four years at Birkbeck with a dissertation on that very subject. Education was no longer an annoying fact of life. It was addictive.

When I began my first year I still loathed education; I still associated it with suffering and self-hate. I am now in my first year of the MA in Classical Civilization and the complete opposite is true. I am confident in my abilities and intellect. Instead of fearing teachers who called me lazy, I now have teachers that encourage me to pursue further study. I have a disability plan that allows me to play to my strengths. I will never be able to thank Birkbeck enough for managing to transform a decade’s worth of hatred for learning into a passion, one that I hope will continue for many years to come.

I recognise that I am an odd individual; transgender, multiple disabilities and learning conditions. But I have found a place to be accepted at Birkbeck, to be understood. And I hope that any prospective or new student reading this, who is like me, who has struggled for years in a system that was not made for people like us, will consider Birkbeck as a gateway to great things.

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One thought on “Turning a hatred of education into a passion

  1. You are fabulous – definitely not odd – and you will go far. It was lovely to see you Tuesday, and now having read your story I am even more pleased for you that you received your extra honour. You go girl, Sue xx

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