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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Pitch perfect: How Birkbeck helped Marisa reach her graduation goals

Marisa Ewers, graduating this week with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football, juggled her studies with a professional football career, playing midfield for Birmingham City Women’s FC.

For the past 12 years Marisa Ewers has been playing football at a professional level, and for the past two, she’s combined this full-on career with an MSc in Sports Management and the Business of Football at Birkbeck, University of London.

She started playing football as a child, joining her local boys’ team in Hamburg, Germany. But after being told she was no longer allowed to play with the boys when she turned 13, she found a girls’ team down the road in Altona. As she got older, she continued playing for the various German National Youth Teams (Under 15s, Under 17s, Under 19s and Under 23s) and for Hamburger SV, quickly moving from the second team to the first team aged 17.

Now playing midfield for Birmingham City Women’s FC, she is highly adept at taking on new challenges but she acknowledges it has been hard work undertaking her studies at the same time as her rigorous training schedule. “You are being asked to show a lot of commitment,” she said, “but I would always recommend female footballers to do something else, alongside playing football, to prepare yourself for after your sporting career.”

Travelling from Birmingham to London two or three times a week for lectures, she says, could be especially gruelling, but her tutors were very understanding of her multiple commitments. “Evening courses are a great thing for players who want to study alongside their carer. Studying Sport Management helps in particular, as you are surrounded by people who understand the effort you put in.”

Hailing from Germany, the master’s held an extra challenge for Marisa in that she had to complete her assignments and follow lectures in a second language. “But now I can look back and say ‘yeah you actually have a master’s degree in a different language’” she says, “and I think that this is great for my CV and it will help me for my career after football.”

And what might she look for in her career after football? “In an ideal world I see myself working within a professional football club,” she says. “Team management and scouting are areas that sound interesting to me and I‘ve already gained some experience in these departments.”

Are you a woman interested in studying at Birkbeck’s Sports Business Centre? Find out about the Edwards Scholarship for Women in Sport.

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Pioneer Programme supporting entrepreneurial students at Birkbeck kicks off with a bang

Students on the Pioneer programme began the journey to develop their entrepreneurial skills with an inspiring session on Innovation and left feeling energised and motivated for the year ahead.

On Saturday 17 November, nearly 200 Birkbeck students started their journey on the Pioneer programme, a 7-part course that develops their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge and culminates with a Pitch and Celebration Evening in June 2019.

The programme, in partnership with Santander Universities, began with an inspiring and energetic session on Innovation from serial innovator and entrepreneur Julie Holmes, who motivated the students to pursue their ideas and turn them into reality. In between science-experiment style fireworks and top tips for starting a business, Julie kicked off the Pioneer programme with a bang and prepared the audience for a brilliant programme ahead.

Students also heard from Ambi Mistry at Creative Entrepreneurs, a movement that brings together the resources, roles models and networks creative people need to turn their ideas into successful businesses. Ambi delivered an invaluable networking session to encourage students to collaborate and think outside the box when it comes to making connections for their business ideas.

Jenna Davies, Programme Manager for Pioneer said, “Pioneer offers a fantastic platform for students who have a business idea or who are keen to develop entrepreneurial skills. Julie and Ambi have started this year’s programme in incredible fashion; the students were genuinely buzzing when they left the building.”

Baldeep Hothi, Programme Coordinator added, “The students will benefit immensely from Pioneer and it’s clear that they have already gained so much from this first session. Santander’s support has made this happen and we can’t wait to continue the journey in the coming months.”

Pioneer continues in December followed by a monthly workshop on a range of topics including Lean Business, Start-up Marketing, Funding, Pitching and more.

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