From one GCSE to a Master of Science degree

Shekira Malcolm had a five year plan which has landed her a ‘dream job.’

In 2013, Shekira Malcolm sat down and wrote a five year plan that would transform her from a 33 year old with one GCSE to a Master’s degree holder and enable her to have the career that she’d always wanted. Yesterday, Shekira celebrated achieving her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Birkbeck’s graduation ceremonies.

Difficulties during her teenage years meant that Shekira didn’t always pay attention to her education and as a result she left school with just one GCSE.

She went on to gain experience in HR in the public and private sectors and then worked for her husband’s business. But without any qualifications, Shekira always felt that she was at a disadvantage in terms of her career.

In 2013, Shekira started an Access to Social Sciences course at her local FE college, before studying history at undergraduate level and then going straight onto her full-time Master’s course at Birkbeck. She says: “It was hard work. I had several setbacks during my Master’s – including my teenage son being robbed at knifepoint twice, and having to care for my grandmother in the last months of her life.”

Shekira describes her postgraduate degree as a very different experience to her first, as at Birkbeck there were students of all ages, backgrounds, and with varied career histories – a diversity which Shekira really enjoyed. Although many of her classmates were working, Shekira stresses that they were not given an easy ride by the tutors. She says: “The academic level is high – luckily Birkbeck tutors understand that people are juggling university with other aspects of their life and also that many students haven’t been in formal education for several years, so there is support available.”

Shekira also credits her husband for helping her achieve her goals. “He’s had to take up some of the slack at home, so it has been a team effort. At first he was a bit unsure when I told him I was going to study for five years, but he really supported me and is very proud of me now.”

Shekira was the first person in her family to ever go to university, but having seen the satisfaction that studying has brought to their mum, her daughter has now also enrolled in a degree in economics and politics at Loughborough and her son, who is currently studying for his GCSEs, also plans to apply to university. Shekira says, “I was able to help my daughter with her application process and with getting to grips with university-level study. If I hadn’t been to university myself then I would have felt totally out of my depth trying to support her.”

Five years of hard work has paid off for Shekira, who is now the proud owner of not one but two degrees from the University of London. On top of this, gaining her Master’s degree gave Shekira the confidence to apply for jobs that she would never have considered before and in April she was offered her ‘dream job’ in the HR department of a local authority.

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Survival story: Jodie was diagnosed with cancer four times while studying

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer. Given a 23% chance of survival, Jodie was determined that she would get the degree she’d always dreamed of having.

For most Birkbeck graduates, receiving their degree represents the culmination of many months or years of hard work.

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Since then, Jodie has undergone four rounds of cancer and treatment, and will this month be celebrating not only her graduation, but 18 months cancer-free.

In 2012, Jodie had been working in HR for over two decades, and had a college diploma from her native Australia. However, she felt what she describes as a ‘burning passion to obtain this elusive piece of paper, in order to quiet that saboteur voice inside my head and prove to myself that I was as good as everyone else’.

Jodie, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, explains: “I was the single mother of two teenagers. I never had the time or finances to further educate myself before that – it was poured into the children’s education. Once I was finally able to, in late 2012, as my teenage daughter applied to universities, so did I.”

A few months later, in early 2013, Jodie’s application was forgotten about, as she was diagnosed with stage four cancer; cancer in the breast, liver, ovaries, lymph nodes and bone. She says: “As I lay on the sofa feeling ill from the chemotherapy treatment, an email popped into my inbox stating the university had accepted my application for the Master’s programme.

“What was I to do?  This meant so much to me, and was something I had wanted so badly for so long. I was finally being offered a position at university and the possibility of achieving a major goal – a dream – of mine. How can I do this, yet how can I not?!”

So, despite having no hair, feeling sick, and having cancer, Jodie pressed the button that said ‘accept’.

In October that same year, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and still in the middle of her treatment, Jodie arrived in London as a university student for the first time, for the first weekend workshop.

“I turned up with a gleam in my eye and pride in my heart. I had made it this far, been accepted, got through cancer and was sitting there in a real university lecture hall. The feeling was exhilarating.”

During that first weekend, Jodie met fellow students whose friendship and support was invaluable during that year.

Unfortunately, Jodie’s breast cancer returned before the second year commenced and she had to defer her studies for another double mastectomy and more treatment. Most of her friends continued their studies and went on to graduate without her. Disheartened to be left behind but still keen to complete the programme, she was in the process of enrolling once again the following year when she was diagnosed for a third time with breast cancer. Her studies were deferred again. It took her many months to recover from this round as a more radical double mastectomy was required, followed by weeks of radiotherapy. When she thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, her fourth diagnosis revealed she had liver cancer again.

She remembers: “I was becoming a broken record at the university admissions department. ‘Sorry, I have cancer, can I please defer?’ That piece of paper felt like it was getting further and further away from reality for me.”

It was in October 2017, while still on chemotherapy that Jodie says she: “threw caution to the wind and re-enrolled for my final year, determined to remain cancer free and complete my Master’s. That piece of paper was like a shiny beacon in my world. I wanted it, I had to have it, I was determined.”

The reality of studying while on chemotherapy was tough. Jodie describes it, saying: “the chemo was addling my mind, making me tired. Plus, I was now working on this alone at home, with no more comrades in arms like my first year. I was distance-learning, logging in remotely to listen to lectures and study at hours that suited me (and the doctors’ schedule). Sitting exams was the toughest part for me as my memory was not what it used to be at all, and then there was the research and writing of the dissertation. I am absolutely sure all of my girlfriends and family were just as pleased and relieved as I was the day I mailed in my dissertation paper.”

When Jodie received her ‘confirmation of award’ letter from Birkbeck it was a moment of intense emotion. She says:  “To me, the piece of paper represents survival. It represents crossing that finishing line and being given the gold medal – for everything I’ve been through in the past six years, and for being alive. That piece of paper means believing in myself, in achieving my goals and that I CAN do anything. That piece of paper is success.”

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Combining postgraduate study with raising six children

Bioinformatics graduate Rudo Supple returned to education after spending 15 years out of the workplace while she raised her children.

After 15 years spent raising her six children, Rudo Supple felt ready for a new challenge. Having studied Economics and Japanese as an undergraduate, Rudo couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe she’d made the wrong choice about what to study at A-level, and decided to look into going back to university to study science.

She initially applied to study medical statistics at Birkbeck, but while looking up information on the types of career that medical statistics graduates went onto she came across the term ‘bioinformatics’. She recalls: “I had never even heard of bioinformatics, but then I discovered that Birkbeck offered a Master’s in it and when I looked at the course content I realised that this was the right programme for me.”

Despite having no background in either biological sciences or computer science, Rudo enrolled on the MSc Bioinformatics with Systems Biology after talking to the course admissions tutor.

“When I started the course my aim was just to pass. I wanted to challenge myself academically after so many years without an academic challenge but I really didn’t know whether I would be able to keep up with the subject material without having prior knowledge.

“It was incredibly daunting to come back into education after so long. Even the one area that I was vaguely familiar with from my undergraduate studies – statistics – had changed enormously, and whereas I had been used to looking things up in tables, we were now running them through computational models.”

While many part-time students at Birkbeck are combining their study with work and therefore need to study in the evenings, for Rudo, who was commuting to Birkbeck from Oxford, it made sense to follow the daytime modules from the full-time programme and study from 2pm-5pm – which meant that she could be back in Oxford for the children’s bedtimes.

Rudo’s children were initially sceptical about the idea of her going to university – something they saw as ‘for young people’ and which was only a few years away for her eldest son himself. “I think that now my kids just see study as ‘what mum does’. I’m pleased to have modelled for them the idea that your education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university as a young person – that there’s no time limit on learning.”

After receiving a merit in her first module, the doubts about whether she’d be able to complete the programme slowly began to recede for Rudo. She says: “You pass one module, then another, and after a while you realise that it’s not going too badly. But at the end of the first year, when my tutor said that I could potentially get a distinction I just laughed. I had an excellent supervisor for my project and in the end I did go on to get a distinction overall.”

Not only did Rudo begin to believe that she was capable of passing the course at Birkbeck, she began thinking about a PhD as well. She says: “Commuting to Birkbeck two afternoons a week was manageable but I knew that it would be easier for me if I could do my PhD closer to where I live. The academic standard at Birkbeck was so high that I knew that if I was good enough to do a PhD there, then I would be good enough to do one at Oxford, and so that is where I applied.”

Now in the first year of her PhD at Oxford, Rudo has no regrets about taking a chance on a brand new subject at Birkbeck. She says: “I’m so grateful to all of the tutors and my supervisors at Birkbeck. They never minded when I asked a thousand questions about everything – and actually liked it when students asked questions as it showed how engaged we were with the subject matter.

“I couldn’t have done it without the help of my husband, mother and friends who looked after the kids at weekends and evenings when I was studying. They all knew how important this was to me and supported me throughout.

“In my dissertation I wrote inside the cover page that you should follow your dreams. If you have support – from a good university and from your family – then nothing is too outrageous and you should follow your most fantastic dreams – there is no limit. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved.”

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Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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