“I fell in love with Birkbeck the moment I began studying”

Patricia Bonifaz Carrillo arrived at Birkbeck without a formal qualification, but her desire and ambition to learn saw her complete the Higher Education Introductory Studies course and a BSc Business degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Patricia Bonifaz Carrillo on her graduation day

Patricia, mother of five, left Colombia for the UK 15 years ago, to be closer to her children and grandchildren. She began her Birkbeck journey back in 2016, when she undertook the Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) course (opting for the Business Studies pathway). Patricia became aware of the course because of Bridges to Birkbeck – an initiative in partnership with Haringey Council that aimed to meet the educational and career aspirations of residents in Tottenham. She found the course hugely enriching: “Enrolling on the HEIS course marked a new life for me, taking away the bad and sad memories I had. I studied alongside 19 peers from a rich variety of backgrounds and we all loved the experience of studying and getting to know one another.”

After completing the year-long HEIS course, Patricia enrolled onto the BSc Business degree in 2018, “I fell in love with Birkbeck, and I just thought, if others can do a degree, why can’t I? I felt much more confident in studying at degree level after the HEIS course, and the evening classes and part-time study option meant I could continue working and attend to family duties. I discovered that social inclusion and mobility are at the heart of Birkbeck’s philosophy, and are real facts, not words. I wanted to study business because it is the core activity around the world – everything has to be profitable.”

Patricia enjoyed all of her degree modules and she was very pleased to receive academic support for English and maths during one-to-one sessions throughout her degree. She explains, “I felt very supported at Birkbeck – the English support I received was excellent and really helped challenge me and improve my maths and English language skills. My course fulfilled my ambitions of learning about the economy, microeconomics and macroeceonomics, statistics, philosophy, governance, law for business, sociology, finance, business plans, psychology, research methods, marketing laws and understanding cyber-attacks prevention. The academic and administrative staff from the Department of Management were very caring, efficient and professional.”

She is hugely proud to have completed her degree this year, aged 69: “I’m so happy to have graduated, I never thought doing a degree in the UK was possible for me, and I’m the first in my family to have studied at degree level. I would encourage others to never doubt their skills and abilities, to not be afraid and to apply to study at Birkbeck to help them realise their dreams. The excellent reputation and relationship that Birkbeck has with the biggest employers and the support delivered to its students and alumni really enhances your skills and employability.”

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“During my time at Birkbeck I saw over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends – it was the best time of my life!”

Xiayan Zeng graduated last week with an MA in Screenwriting. She shares her #BBKgrad story in this interview.

Xiayan Zeng

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?
I was studying for my PhD in China and I felt something wasn’t right. I’d studied playwriting for ten years and I wanted to learn more. I decided I should spend my gap year studying screenwriting in the UK to experience different cultures and meet new people.

I chose Birkbeck because I had a great interview with Professor Paul Gallagher, Associate Lecturer in Screenwriting, which confirmed my decision to study at the College.

Did you enjoy having lectures in the evening?
Yes, I loved having the lectures in the evening because my thoughts are a lot clearer at night.

In the daytime, I read scripts and wrote my assignments. Occasionally I went to see a play in the West End and visited museums or galleries, or just enjoyed sightseeing around London.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?
After I finished my degree, I returned to China to finish my PhD and now I am a Lecturer in a university, teaching playwriting.

As an international student, what would you say were the differences for you in culture that you noticed?
The main problem was the language barrier. English is not my mother tongue, so I sometimes struggled writing in English. My classmates and professors noticed this and they helped me correct my mistakes in my assignments and speaking.

Another difficulty I had was explaining my culture. The difference between Eastern and Western culture is something I wrote about in my assignments. Sometimes my classmates and the professors wouldn’t understand, but later it became clearer when they’d ask questions: “Why did your character do this?”, “Why did your character solve the problem in this way?” I would explain my thoughts and then they’d give me advice and suggestions on how I should write so it would be clearer to the reader.

Thanks to Professor Paul Gallagher, Professor Barbara Cox and so many other professors, I’ve got to know more about screenwriting and the difference between screen and theatre. I had a great time chatting with professors about my assignments, which made my life in London wonderful.

How did you settle into life in the UK?
I had a student community of mostly Chinese students, but I also felt I should spend more time communicating with other people. I communicated with people who don’t only speak Chinese, often having a drink with my classmates after lectures, which helped me to fit into London life.

Do you have any advice that you would give to other international students coming to study at Birkbeck?
I think for the full-time students, you may feel that there are a lot of assignments, but when you spend your time and you concentrate on them, you will find that you will successfully finish them.

And, as for the language – just communicate with classmates and your professors and don’t be ashamed of getting things wrong; you will find that it won’t be a problem.

During my year at Birkbeck, I have seen over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends.

It has been only a year in Birkbeck, but I can say it is the best year I’ve ever experienced!

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“It took two pregnancies, a fierce fight against cancer and finally a pandemic, but I made it, I graduated!”

Carmen Cinque graduated last week with a BA Modern Languages degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carmen Cinque with her family

When I enrolled on the first year of my course in 2015, I was pregnant. With my first daughter due to be born in the middle of the academic year I knew that studying would be no easy task. I was also working full time as a bookkeeper for a restaurant. However, I was highly motivated and eager to start my course – finally, at 36, after many professional and personal experiences, I was about to start studying to obtain my first degree.

My daughter was born at the beginning of January. I continued to study and complete assessments and exams thanks to the understanding and availability of lecturers and the support of my husband and sister. I even sat a German exam with my daughter in the room while I was breastfeeding! Everything was going well, but suddenly in spring, I started to feel very, very tired and unable to concentrate.

My doctor thought it was just the difficulty of reconciling everyday activities with caring for a little girl, and at first, I agreed with her. However, I did feel there was something more. So, after a lot of analysis, stress, frustration and many dead-end diagnoses, at the beginning of August 2016, I met a doctor who urged me to have a biopsy. I was given a horrible diagnosis: I had a rare form of pregnancy-related cancer called choriocarcinoma. My world crushed, my family and I had to deal with a long treatment and all its devastating side effects. I had to put my degree on hold. Chemotherapy did not allow me to take care of my daughter alone, let alone studying. I don’t deny – it was hard, but luckily in March 2017, I was cured. Still very weak, but cancer free.

I had doubts as to whether to start studying again or to drop out; I was scared and fragile. My husband, however, did not allow me to give up. In September I started my second year at Birkbeck and this turned out to be a great choice. It was the best way to pick up my life where I left it. Everything started to go well again. In November I fell pregnant, which wasn’t a surprise as we always wanted a second child – only it came a little earlier than expected! Oscar was born on 30 June this year – a week after my last exam and during the pandemic.

Beside learning a new language (German) and deepening my understanding of Portuguese, my experience at Birkbeck widened my horizons professionally and personally. It gave me the motivation to try and change my career path, and I plan to start a qualification soon to become an interpreter, thanks to my degree qualification and the knowledge I gained whilst studying.

2020 is a peculiar year, but the birth of my second child and graduation make it an exceptional year for me! I am so happy and proud of my achievements. It was not always an easy path but not trying is the biggest mistake to make in life and I am very grateful to the professors, my family, and my dear friends for the support I have received in this amazing journey. Studying at Birkbeck was a wonderful experience, a privilege and an important achievement in a phase so full of positive and negative events in my life.

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“I gave birth to my daughter two days after submitting my final project”

Daniella Kroni has graduated this week with a MSc in Human Resource Management. Daniella completed her Master’s whilst being pregnant, caring for a one-year-old child and working full-time.

Daniella Kroni

Daniella started an MSc in Human Resource Management in 2017, her first foray back into higher education since graduating from Royal Holloway with a degree in Management with Human Resources in 2012. No stranger to juggling the demands of a busy life, having balanced a 90-minute commute, her studies, a part-time job and a 6-month internship while an undergraduate student, Daniella faced exceptional circumstances as a postgraduate student with Birkbeck.

Daniella was working full-time as a Human Resource Adviser and wanted to gain further qualifications to progress with her career. After weighing up several options, she felt Birkbeck held the most appeal because of its international renown and leading academics, along with its flexibility concerning students and their circumstances.

Like many Birkbeck students, Daniella had to manage the rigours of a postgraduate course with family and work commitments. However, she had even more exceptional circumstances to manage. Having completed her first year with a one-year-old child to care for, her second year coincided with her second pregnancy.  What followed was several months of hard work and dedication – it is no mean feat to be in the library for hours on end while heavily pregnant feeling tired and exhausted.

Having a strong support network as a student is always valuable and Daniella counted on support from a range of people. Her husband dropped her off at the library to avoid her taking the tube carrying textbooks and a laptop, and her mother helped with childcare and the school run. Daniella’s studies were sponsored by her employer and her colleagues took a real interest in her studies. Daniella found the College to be very accommodating, with her personal tutor offering her friendly support and encouragement throughout her studies and pregnancy, giving her the chance to take extensions and submit mitigating circumstances.

Ultimately, though, it was Daniella’s determination and commitment that ensured she was able complete her studies. It became a source of pride for her that she never gave up. Using her weekends and taking annual leave to complete essays, revision, and projects, she didn’t miss any deadlines or re-sit exams. It is a testament to Daniella that she refused the offer of mitigating circumstances and extensions, to the point of completing her final project just two days before happily giving birth to her second child.

Rightfully proud of her achievements, seizing the opportunity and remembering what motivated her to study were paramount in completing this marvelous feat. Following her studies, Daniella has secured a position with one of the world’s leading healthcare providers. It is a reminder of the opportunities that Birkbeck can provide and the fantastic students who work so hard to make the most of them.

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