Author Archives: Katrinah Best

A cap, gown and hijab teach tolerance and triumph

BA Politics graduate, Soumaya Z, moved to the UK from France to escape discrimination and overcome barriers to her education as a young, Muslim woman. Now she’s hoping to encourage others, like her, to pursue their ambitions. Here’s her #BBKstory.  

Photo of graduate, Soumaya Z

Family values, discrimination and the will to persevere 

At just twenty-years-old, Soumaya possesses the insights and wisdom of a person much older. It’s hardly surprising when you listen to her recall stories of her grandparents migrating from North Africa plus the lessons both her parents and grandparents have taught her along the way. Soumaya shares that her grandmother had made the move from Algeria to France and was forced to give up on her education in order to support her family. Despite this, she still reinforced in Soumaya the values of learning and was so proud of her granddaughter for her recent academic accomplishments. Her parents, too, sacrificed their education when Soumaya was born and always sought to push her beyond the limits, to always dream and aim high. 

Soumaya credits those values with inspiring her to pursue her studies. However, despite being home-schooled by her parents, reading and writing at four-years-old, and completing the first year of her undergraduate degree in France aged just sixteen, Soumaya soon realised that the politics of her native country were counterintuitive to her progress and ambitions. 

She says, “As a Muslim (in France), it’s impossible to find a job, access education or do simple activities when you wear a hijab and it’s difficult even if you are just practicing your religion, praying or fasting. Hijabs and other Islamic clothes are also not allowed in schools and I faced Islamophobia when I was at school.  It was really hard. When I had exams for my French baccalaureate, I was insulted by a woman in the school talking negatively about my hijab. Alongside that, there is a lack of opportunities for Muslim women. I feel that I have a brighter future here in the UK.” 


Fortunate to be able to make the move to London just two years ago, the advice of her English tutor helped her to apply through the clearing system, with sights set firmly on Birkbeck to complete the second and third years of her undergraduate degree. 

Soumaya had to navigate a whole new academic system, alongside mastering a language which was not her mother tongue. There was also the added challenge of the pandemic and the ensuing isolation throughout her degree, though she applauds Birkbeck’s online programme for both her lectures and to be able to still meet with peers in the virtual world.  

With the obstacles to education now behind her, she is hopeful that others around the world can cease the “close-mindedness” and “change their mindsets to assimilate more people into their societies.” She reflects on the benefits of more tolerant and inclusive policies as not only improving the opportunities for Muslim women, but also women, in general, and other marginalised peoples. 


With one degree firmly under her belt, Soumaya is is aiming to complete a master’s degree programme and is already considering a doctorate. 

She reflects, “As a French student, it was a challenge to adapt to a new environment, country and language. However, I met incredible professors at Birkbeck who are committed to their work, as well as classmates from all over the world who made my university experience invaluable. In France, it would have been impossible to achieve what I achieved at Birkbeck, because of the adversity I suffered as a Muslim woman. Now two years later I have completed my bachelor’s in politics with an upper second-class degree at just 19 years old. 

“I really hope that sharing my personal experience will help other students to understand that they are not alone in their academic journey and that despite their differences they can go beyond the limits and attain their goals, without forgetting who they are, their identity.”

Further information 


International students visit Cambridge, Centre of Knowledge – both useful and ‘useless’!  

Birkbeck international students enjoyed an excursion to the beautiful historic university city of Cambridge on two dates in August and September. Both days included a guided walking tour, chauffeured river punting and a visit to a famous Cambridge pub.

International students on day trip to Cambridge

As befits a day out with university students in a university town, the first day out to Cambridge was quite an education. Apart from historical facts shared by tour-guide Andrew, including why Henry VIII wields a table leg instead of a golden sceptre at Trinity College; and through some fun conversations en route, the group also learned the correct pronunciation of ‘Côte d’Ivoire’, the origin of ‘soccer’, how to make Chinese dumplings and a really quick and simple way to count cattle which, in case you’re wondering, is to count the legs and divide by four. 

For the second excursion, after the first one quickly sold out, students were overjoyed to see the weather was even better this time round! After a walking tour of the city, students enjoyed a leisurely chauffeured punting tour along the Backs, with the iconic views of Kings College and other beautiful college buildings. Students had free time to explore Cambridge, then reconvened at the historic Eagle pub for drinks before heading back to London.   

international students enjoying a day out in Cambridge

Once again, students said how much they enjoyed seeing more of the UK and getting to meet fellow students. 

International students being shown around the city of cambridge

Both excursions provided a great way to meet other students, discover the UK and to accumulate some useful, and sometimes ‘useless’ knowledge! 


International Students’ Day Trips to Oxford

In the second part of a series of blogs looking back at excursions held for international students earlier in the summer, we share two special days out to the historic city.

international students day trip to oxford

On 24  July, Birkbeck’s international students visited Oxford with tour guide, Andrew, taking them on a guided walking tour of the beautiful and ancient university city. He explained its long history, showed its most famous buildings and told some intriguing stories, including the strange and sometimes treacherous world of college tortoise racing!  Afterwards, students enjoyed a relaxing chauffeured punting tour of the River Cherwell, and then had a few hours free time for exploring, eating, shopping and chilling out.

international students trip to Oxford in July



Another scheduled day out to Oxford, later in the month, brought a typical British weather system; with umbrellas at the ready!
international students holding umbrellasDespite the frequent downpours of rain, the students’ spirits were not dampened. As our guide Andrew pointed out, ‘there’s no bad weather in England, just wrong clothes’. He led another interesting and entertaining walking tour of the city, pointing out the beautiful historic sights of Oxford and explaining its darker historical links to the slave trade.    

international students enjoying tea and coffee

Due to the rain, the group abandoned plans to go punting on the river and instead visited the beautiful Grand Café, the oldest coffee shop in the UK, which dates from 1650. After enjoying coffee, tea and cakes, the sun came out again for a few hours of free time to explore the city. 


Birkbeck says ‘au revoir’ to international students at an exquisite French afternoon tea party

In celebration of our international students, who bring a glorious array of experiences and diversity to the College, and in advance of next week’s International Student Day, we’re looking back over the past summer of events and excursions in a series of blog posts. Here, we share the delicious and stylish afternoon tea enjoyed by outgoing international students at the end of last term.

international students afternoon tea

The exquisite Mariage Frères Tea Rooms in London’s Covent Garden was the location and the special guests were Birkbeck’s international students, enjoying the final international student event of the academic year, providing another chance to socialise and make friends, especially for those students about to finish their studies and move on to new pastures. 

After a welcoming glass of French champagne and iced Japanese tea hosted in the Mariage Frères reception room and museum, Professor Kevin Ibeh, Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), started proceedings with heartfelt congratulations to the students for enduring this unprecedented time of pandemic and thanked La Young Jackson (Registry Services) for organising this and so many other ‘delightful events’.  He encouraged students to be proud of their achievements and of their university, and to stay close to the institution in their lifelong futures as Birkbeck alumni.  
international students afternoon tea

Host Julien of Mariage Frères gave a brief and interesting introduction to the history of the company, founded in Paris in 1864 and still the quintessential French high quality tea emporium.  He introduced the company’s concept of ‘travelling the world through tea’ especially with their signature Marco Polo tea blend.  He introduced items from the small museum collection and demonstrated in his beautiful French accent the correct pronunciation of ‘Mariage Frères’ – it’s not easy! 

afternoon tea for international students

Then it was down to the serious business of scoffing cakes and savoury treats and drinking delicious teas in the beautiful surroundings of this historic 19th century building.  In case you’re wondering how a French afternoon tea differs from an English one, the answer is perhaps not so surprising – the French food offerings were simply more stylish, exquisite and, well, trés chic!  Each savoury and cake was a small mouth-watering work of art.   

Both students and staff in attendance agreed that the French afternoon tea party was a truly wonderful experience and everybody left feeling happy and very full.  

Thanks go to all of the wonderful students for making the event such a joyous occasion.  For those of you embarking on the lifelong journey as Birkbeck alumni, please remember as the saying goes – “this is not ‘goodbye’, it is merely ‘au revoir’”.