Discovering the self-belief that never was

Oliver Victorio, inspired by his time at the House of Commons, overcame a number of obstacles, including; disability, financial hardship and lack of confidence to begin a degree at Birkbeck. This week he graduated with a BA Politics, Philosophy and History and the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize, this is his #BBKgrad story.  

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

The Journey to Birkbeck: From the Corridors of Power to the Classroom of Politics

Before attending Birkbeck, I was an MP attendant in the House of Commons, which is parliamentary parlance for being the odd jobs person for MPs’ needs. It had been a memorable time that made me hungry to want to progress my career, although I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do, I did know that I would need a degree to get it.  So, when the voluntary redundancy was offered, I took it to begin a new journey.

After taking on a few more jobs, I eventually I applied for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and History and was delighted when I was invited for an interview. I was elated to receive an ‘unconditional offer’, and immediately shared the glorious news with my wife, the one person who had been there throughout the entire journey. Three years later I would find myself with a first-class degree and the recipient of the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize for achieving excellence despite circumstances of hardship – a fitting description of my entire journey.

The First Year: Dim Lights, Dyslexia and Distinctions

Getting back into intense study would take some getting used to. I found understanding what I was reading was the first major obstacle for me – it would often take me hours to get through one assigned reading.  It was only later in the first term that I would discover, due to Birkbeck’s prompting and immense support, for which I am grateful, that I had dyslexia and dyscalculia, despite my intelligence.

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

This explained my earlier struggles with learning at school and my mixed results, all of which contributed to my lack of confidence – and eventual withdrawal from the educational system. I remember it would take me an enormous amount of time to just read through the required reading, let alone essay writing.

Once I realised this, I attended a lot of study skills workshops, and disability support, and I found these to be pivotal to my success. One thing about Birkbeck that I have found to be exceptional, alongside their teaching, was the enormous amount of support that is available, both in terms of the plethora of support workshops, but also from the teaching staff.

What’s more, at the time, I lived in a basement studio flat, too small to accommodate a family, with very little room to study. It was difficult to find time to study in the daytime with a then three-year-old to care for, so I would wake up at 5am to squeeze in a few hours of study in my dimly lit bathroom while the house was quiet. I endured this back-breaking situation for the entire first year of study.

Yet, despite this, all my perseverance with reading, deep thinking and re-writing paid off – I struck gold with my very first essay, attaining a distinction mark for the Study of Politics. I was so astonished. In my second essay, I got another distinction mark and more in the second term. I was absolutely stunned – I simply could not believe it. It was unreal that, after all these years of struggle, I was even capable of that.

The Final Year: My Best Results Ever

My final year brought more struggles. The COVID-19 pandemic had begun, which required me to juggle homeworking and home-schooling but that didn’t stop me, I would continue to achieve a distinction in my coursework! I was absolutely awestruck. I still am. It just never seemed that such a thing was even remotely possible for me, given my learning difficulties, and my struggles with confidence and communication over the years.

Final Thoughts

My entire experience at Birkbeck, with the phenomenal network of support – teaching staff, study skills tutors, personal tutors, disability support, administrative staff, and library staff – were absolutely vital in making my success a reality. Despite all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I had faced, from being accepted onto the degree, to getting through it, I feel like I am finally on the path that I should have been on many years before.

A new life is now a real possibility, where I can provide for my family and steer them away from the life that I had experienced. Birkbeck has made this possible. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton eloquently put, I was ‘standing on the shoulders of Giants’. I am forever indebted and will never forget. A new journey now awaits- one that I have been searching for all my life.

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Location, location, location

An epiphany led to Natalie Pulfer selling up her house, moving to London and embarking on a two year MA Arts Policy and Management degree at Birkbeck. This is her #BBKgrad story.

This is a photo of graduand Natalie Pulfer

Natalie Pulfer

Natalie Pulfer is no stranger to the performing arts world having previously performed at the Royal Albert Hall with a background in local theatre. Yet, she put all of her creative ambitions aside to become a social worker and for the past 20 years has worked within the field, with specific responsibilities for children’s services.

Three years ago, she recalls waking up one day deciding that it was time to revisit her passion and look at ways of getting back into the Arts. She says, “I’m originally from Suffolk and I decided to sell my house, up sticks and move to London with the pure aim of getting back into the Arts somehow and this course seemed to be the best way that I could do it. I literally sold the house in April/May (2017), moved to London in September and started the MA in October. It really just all fell into place.”

The last time she had pursued academic study was in 2015, as part of continuous development for her social work career, but she relays that the Master’s was on a totally different level in terms of the approach and acquiring knowledge. To adapt to the challenge, she credits embracing the task ahead and being open to the support needed to overcome this as well as learning from others enrolled on her course in terms of easing back into learning.

Peer support was quite crucial to Natalie’s study path though she was conscious of her age and recognized that she was one of the “older ones”. However, she says she wasn’t acutely aware of this: “Everyone else was in their twenties and early thirties whereas I was in my mid to late thirties but I see that was also to do with the course I’d chosen to do. You tend to have to get into the Arts at a younger age. It was good to get those people around me with their energy. I quite enjoyed that.”

The flexibility of the Birkbeck learning model was also noted as pivotal to her study success and whilst she was working all day until 5pm and then having to go off to study at 6pm, she shares that she might have gone in lectures tired but never left tired. She would be doing 9am-9pm days, getting home at 10pm but shares, “The energy that you got from it was just great. You didn’t feel that you couldn’t engage and that was down to the tutors, really. They brought a lot of energy to it.”

Natalie studied her course over two years, on a part-time basis and whilst the experience was hugely beneficial; with her recently taking on some production work for an online festival and some further work with a production company, she notes that it wasn’t without its challenges. In her second year, she was diagnosed with dyslexia but found the College extremely supportive with adapting the study approach and providing technical equipment.

To anyone considering study at Birkbeck, she offers the following words of encouragement, “Just do it and don’t think about the barriers.” She adds that her social work career might have deterred her from applying elsewhere but Birkbeck identified her previous management skills and arts experience and was also able to draw on her knowledge of policy from her social work; which were all considered as part of her application.

As to the best part of studying in London, it’s clear she’s in no doubt the move from Suffolk to London was for the best. She says, “For the Arts, I think learning your craft in London is key because you have access to the theatres, arts projects and arts communities and that made a massive difference.”

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Virtual Beatles in London tour

La Young Jackson, Liason Officer (International) shares details of a virtual Beatles tour of London that Birkbeck students enjoyed earlier this year.

Beatles Tour London

Beatles Tour London

In July we had two special virtual tours exploring the history of The Beatles in London. Our guide Andrew has presented his Beatles London Walking Tour to international students for many years, but this year due to COVID-19 was the first time he did them online as a virtual experience.

Andrew prefers to call himself a Beatles fan rather than an expert, but he impressed students with his knowledge both of the ‘Fab Four’, and of London. ‘The Beatles are my favourite group, and London is my favourite city, so taking students on the tour is always a huge pleasure’ he says. ‘Most people know that the Beatles came from Liverpool, but in fact, during their time together as a band, they all lived in London, and all their records were recorded here, at the famous Abbey Road Studios. Two of the Beatles, Paul and Ringo, were married in London – no not to each other, to their wives!’

Leading the tour online presented both challenges and opportunities. ‘I wanted to create the feeling that we’re really taking a walk through London together, so I filmed not just the places with Beatles history, but also the walking segments in-between, using these as an opportunity to chat with attendees and answer questions, just as I would on a real tour. But being online made it easier to present video clips and audio, which can be quite difficult on busy London streets’.

Andrew presented the tours as Part 1 & Part 2 on separate days, such is the wealth of locations in London connected to the Beatles’ professional and personal lives. Both tours finished at Abbey Road studios, with its iconic traffic crossing. Students expressed a high level of satisfaction with both events and praised Andrew’s friendly and knowledgeable presentation.

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“My disability does not have to halt my career options in the way I thought they would”

After an accident left Esther Adegoke with a disability she sought to complete her studies in Politics at Birkbeck. Last week, she graduated with a First.

Esther doesn’t recall exactly what sparked her interests in studying politics. Just that her sisters who had studied politics at AS level would come home and discuss topics from their classes, topics that piqued her interest more than any of the GSCE subjects she was studying at the time.

After completing her A levels she opted for a degree in Politics at the University of Leicester. In the beginning of her third year she was involved in an accident that left her using a wheelchair and in need of a full-time care team, meaning she could no longer study in Leicester.  Determined to continue her degree, Esther looked for options in her home city of London where she came across Birkbeck, “what gave Birkbeck the winning edge for me was the evening classes, it was more practical having lectures at 6pm because it fit my routine as opposed to morning lectures and seminars.”

At Birkbeck, Esther found new topics that sparked her interests in Politics further and in different ways. “My favourite course, funnily enough wasn’t a module taken under the politics department but actually the psychosocial department called, ‘racism and antisemitism’. I found it interesting because it did something unique in that it challenged us to investigate the commonalities and differences between anti-black racism and antisemitism. Of course, I had seen instances of the two racisms being studied separately, but never together.”

Fortunately, Esther had the support of her family and friends who were pivotal in helping her complete her work.  “My mum accompanied me to every lecture and seminar I attended and my sisters often read my essays.” The College’s Disability team were also instrumental in allowing her to complete her course. She recalled: “My disability officer Mark Pimm and scribe Yvonne Plotwright were a massive support to me. Mark went above and beyond to ensure that my points were taken seriously and Yvonne was extremely thorough in her note-taking, ensuring I didn’t miss any vital information from my lectures and seminars.”

The accident left her unable to speak for long periods of time before her voice became exhausted so she used EyeGaze to help her craft her essays. EyeGaze is software that enables the individual’s eye to control the mouse and keyboard of a computer. She explained: “I took to it rather quickly, I used to use it recreationally and even then I was told the hours I would spend on it were unheard of. Without Eye Gaze I wouldn’t have been able to complete my degree. “

Now Esther has graduated with a First Class degree, recognition for all of her determination and resilience. She says of her achievement, “It felt amazing, I was over the moon with my result and without sounding arrogant it was even more rewarding because I knew I deserved it. I worked so hard for it so it was special to know my hard work had actually paid off.”

Unsure of what she will do next, Esther still feels positive about her future. “My experience at Birkbeck with the assistance of Eye Gaze has really given me the confidence to say that my disability does not have to halt my career options in a way I previously thought they would. I have often said that I have no plans to return to study after my undergraduate degree but never say never; at least I know it’s a case of if I want to go back as opposed to I can’t.”

Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics said: “Here at the Department of Politics, we are all so proud of what Esther has achieved and honoured to have been able to help her in her studies. She’s not only been a model student but an inspiration to us all. We also want to say a big thank you to everyone around her, especially the disabilities office and her family and friends who supported her along the way.”

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