“Without Birkbeck’s disability service, I wouldn’t have finished my degree”

Ryan Wilson recently graduated with a First in BSc Economic and Social Policy, after overcoming a number of adversities, including leaving school with no qualifications and becoming seriously ill after a drug trial went wrong. Here is his #BBKgrad story.

Ryan Wilson

Ryan was born and raised in Islington and describes his background as “working class and economically deprived”. He came out of school with no GCSEs. In a bid to earn money, he took part in a drug trial in 2006 which went catastrophically wrong. Suffering multiple organ failures, as well as loosing parts of his fingers and toes, Ryan now faces his legs being amputated in the future. Ryan explains, “I felt at the time my whole life had been wiped away from me, and I’m still not over it and to be honest never fully will be. I had planned for years to become a plumber and could no longer pursue this career path due to my injuries.”

A few years later, in 2012, Ryan had a son. He describes this as a pivotal moment: “I just wanted to prove to my son that anyone can change their life circumstance if they try hard enough. I believe everyone has potential, just for a lot of people its untapped. I’d been wanting to study economics for a number of years but hadn’t had the confidence to and being a student was a different world to the one I knew. I started researching how to become an economist and saw I had to get GCSEs, A Levels and a degree. So, in 2012, I started studying for my GCSEs. I managed to obtain an A* in English and a B in Maths so I progressed onto study Economics A Level. I’d never studied so much in my life but my hard graft meant I achieved an A. I had the most amazing teacher, who encouraged me to apply to Birkbeck, saying that they’d consider my application.”

In 2016, Ryan started his part-time BSc Economic and Social Policy degree, alongside working as an independent prison monitor, ensuring the decency of prisons and humane treatment of prisoners. He explains: “I had textbooks glued to me throughout my degree and entered a wormhole of reading. I worked so hard and loved the lectures – my favourite modules were Economics and Public Policy, and Macroeconomic Theory and Policy. I struggled in my second year with studying for my degree and overcoming some personal hurdles, but the support I received from the disability team and the mental health service really increased my confidence and drive to succeed. Mark Pimm, the Disability Service Manager, gave me hope in a sea of uncertainty. He encouraged me not to quit and without him and his team, I wouldn’t have completed my degree.”

Ryan graduated in November, winning the prize for the best final year Economics and Social Policy student. Describing his future plans, he says, “I want to work in politics and next week I’ve got an interview for my dream job in the civil service, working for the Department of International Trade. I’m busy writing a book about my life journey and how policy impacts the lives of people. In the future, I want to get into motivational speaking because I want to help others and be a voice for the under-represented groups that I’m part of.”

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“Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future”

Isabella Ghawi faced challenges during studying, including a brain tumour diagnosis, epilepsy and dyslexia. With the help of Birkbeck’s Disability Department and her steely determination, Isabella founded the Birkbeck Biological society and graduated in November with a BSc Biomedicine degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Isabella Ghawi

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I did a lot of research because I left school quite suddenly without A levels as I started to have epileptic seizures.  After a long time, I decided I wanted to go back to university and study to be a neurophysiologist after my experience of working in a hospital.

I was searching for a good access to university course and chose Birkbeck as it had the best one. Unlike all the other places I looked at, it taught actual science. I knew that I wouldn’t just come out with a piece of paper, but I’d actually come out with real knowledge. After undertaking the Higher Education Introductory Course I decided to continue at Birkbeck to study a BSc in Biomedicine.

Did you face any challenges during your time studying? How did you overcome them?

I had a huge challenge in my first year. I already had epilepsy from the age of 18 and I had dyslexia. On top of that in my first year of biomedicine, I was diagnosed with a most likely cancerous brain tumour which meant I had to have a serious operation.

I overcame it, with the help of my family, my church and the people around me, but also with the support of Birkbeck – I’m especially grateful for the help and support I received from Dick Rayne, Mark Pimm and Jackie Saunder and many others. It was a learning curve for all of us, as we implemented new changes that were best for me at the time. So, with the help of all those people, I was able to continue and not just able to continue, but to really excel and exceed my expectations despite many difficulties.

Did you receive any additional College support whilst at Birkbeck and if so, how did this help you?

Birkbeck staff were a huge driving force because they were very understanding and supportive. The lecturers and the administration staff really helped me to develop resilience within myself and I kept going because they were so supportive. I also received a lot of help from the disability team. I received extra training on my computer with programmes that helped me with my dyslexia. There were a lot of assistive technologies that I was given, as well as a support tutor who was great and again, a real emotional rock. I also received a note taker and had extra time in exams which was helpful. Unfortunately, in a couple of my exams I had seizures, which were quite distressing. As a result, towards the end of my studies my exams were split, and I did them in smaller chunks which was extremely helpful. By the time it got to the last year, we had figured out what worked best.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future. Before doing this degree, I didn’t think I would be able to do much, but it’s made me really open to new opportunities. I really hope to continue to work in research, which is something I’d never dreamed of. I had never really done any lab work before this degree, but by the end of three years I was leaving the lab sessions thinking that if I could go back to the lab every day for the rest of my life, I’d be a very happy person. So, I would really love to work in a scientific laboratory.

This degree has also made me think that maybe there could be other things out there that I would be good at that I haven’t experienced yet. Now I’m looking for a job, hopefully in research, to gain more experience and then perhaps go back and do a PhD when I have more experience in the field, because I feel I really need more hands-on experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I would say go for it and give it a try, you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. If you have any doubts or problems, there is so much help and support out there. I would also strongly suggest being open about your difficulties from the beginning with the staff.  If you do have a busy life and lot to cope with, for example if you have children, work commitments, health problems or caring commitments, the opportunity of doing part-time is well worth taking.

Studying at Birkbeck is a truly great experience, I would strongly recommend others go for it and give it a try. I don’t think you’d regret it, I certainly haven’t.

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“I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock”

Carolyne Megan graduated last month with an MA in Digital Media Design after caring for her late mother throughout her degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carolyne Megan – © Photo by Joel, Peter Dyers Photographic Studio

I had a thriving career at University College London (UCL), working as a Web/Graphics and E-learning Technologist in Psychology and Language Sciences. I loved my professional career very much. Then in 2013, my father had cancer, so I left UCL to help my disabled mother care for him in his last months.

After my father died in August 2013, I applied to work at Imperial College London in the same role as UCL, but in their ICT department. I was extremely lucky as I was offered a job, and started in October 2013, as I was grief-stricken. After I started at Imperial, I was responsible for keeping my frail elderly mother supported in her home with carers. My main concern was to keep my grieving mother safe in her home and looked after by external social care.

In 2014, I paid for myself to do a Postgraduate Certificate in Web Design and Development at Birkbeck. I had a fantastic time, embracing new skills for my web portfolio. I built a great rapport with fellow students and then later attended the graduation ceremony at Senate House in 2016.

During 2013-2015, my mother’s situation deteriorated, and she was not coping well after my father died so I made a decision to leave Imperial in December 2015. In 2016, I sought low paid temporary Learning Technology jobs and by July 2016, I had reached a crisis with my mother. She was unable to look after herself, so her social worker and I facilitated a move to a good care home that was local to her.

It was an extremely painful process to endure in the summer of 2016, as I had to move my mother’s belongings and clothes into cases and take them from a five-bed detached house to one room in a care home. I was heartbroken for her. I promised her that I would spend three days every month in Sussex visiting her. So that became my routine. I sold her house, auctioned her possessions, gave her clothes to charities, her beloved book collection to refuse collectors as book sellers weren’t interested. It was painful process to go through.

My mother took a few months to settle in the home. She had an IQ of 140, despite being disabled by botched surgery and very frail. After she had settled, I applied for a job at UCL, in the libraries team, which was perfect as I have a love of books! My job involved processing new stock before sending the books to Main Library.

In 2017, I was approached by the Birkbeck School of Arts administrator, to notify me that there was a new MA in Digital Media Design. I was told that my credits from my previous course would enable me to do less modules to get the full MA. I really couldn’t afford it as I was on low pay. But my mother gave me a wonderful gift. She told me that she felt that I had given up my career to care for both her and my late father, and she wanted to pay the fees, so I could continue to ‘stretch my brain’ as she called it.

I wasn’t sure if I had it in me to do an MA, but I jumped at the chance to try. I asked my supervisor if I could do my dissertation in 2018, instead of 2019, and he allowed me to do this. With hindsight this was the best decision I made. I received a Merit for my dissertation and I dedicated it to my mother and gave her a copy of the book. She passed it round to all her visitors and it was full of coffee stains and blotches. She told me she was very proud and we were both emotional.

In February 2019, she was admitted to hospital with a blocked bowel and we were told that she was probably going to pass away. She was such a fighter and was sent back to the care home to be in a palliative care room. She was now unable to get out of bed and had to be turned every two hours. Her life was not really a life. She picked up and managed to carry on until July 2019. She overheard someone say that she was never getting out of the bed, so she stopped her fluids, food and medication and died after two weeks at the age of 95.

I miss her every single day, but I am glad she did not have to live in the year of the pandemic, as we would not have been able to have seen one another.

I dedicate my MA to my late mother, who was my rock.

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