“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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“Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability meant I had the chance of getting a degree”

 

Godlisten Pallangyo received a limited education in his home country of Tanzania. Despite not having an abundance of resources at his disposal in his early life, he demonstrated a will to finish school and study politics at university.

Born into a poor family in rural Tanzania, Godlisten was limited by the lack of resources available to students who were not able to afford to pay for their education. At the end of the school day and at the weekend, Godlisten would help his parents with farming their land.

Despite these challenges, Godlisten passed primary and secondary school. However, when it came time to progress to A-Levels his family could not afford to pay for his education. He went out and supported himself financially so he could complete his studies, while also supporting his younger brother at school.  Unfortunately, Godlisten did not get the grades needed to get a place at a university in Tanzania, but he never gave up hope of getting a university education.

Ten years later, Godlisten was living and working in the UK with ambitions to study politics. He said; “I became interested in politics from an early age, as growing up in Tanzania, I wanted to learn more about how decisions were made both at global and national levels.”

Even though Godlisten’s grades would have disqualified him from some university courses, Birkbeck’s inclusive policy meant that his application was assessed on future potential, not just past attainment. He commented: “I think it is very important for universities to recognise the potential in students rather than just looking at grades as many people don’t get the same opportunities as others educationally and so don’t achieve the right grades to progress. Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability through set assignments meant I had the chance of getting a degree, something which I never thought I would achieve.”

When he first started at Birkbeck it had been ten years since he had written his last essay so his first assignment was a challenge. He recalled: “I was not used to reading long articles and books as I am quite slow at reading and it took me a while to get used to it. Learning how to structure an essay and develop an argument, when you come from an education system that just teaches you to listen and repeat information rather than think creatively was definitely a challenge!”

Godlisten found support from his lecturers and tutors who were able to help students from non-conventional educational backgrounds and was aided by the flexibility afforded to students through evening teaching, which he said allowed him to “plan my time well ahead of each term in order to ensure I attended all my lectures and complete my assignments on time.”

For Godlisten, taking the step into higher education was a worthwhile one that will hopefully see him fulfil his ambition of influencing political change in Tanzania. His parting words of advice for anyone unsure about returning to education: “If you’re thinking about getting a degree I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It may seem like just another three years of reading long books but I gained so much more than just writing essays and achieving good grades. I got to meet people I would never otherwise have met, increase my confidence and broaden my thinking.”

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Turning a hatred of education into a passion

In their early life Phoebe Ewles-Bergeron associated education with self-loathing and suffering, but after a challenging journey they were able to develop their love for studying history at Birkbeck.

I always hated school. Education was not joyful or positive in my opinion. It was confusing, frustrating and seemingly endless – but I’ve always loved history. When I was four years old my mother found me in the sitting room trying to “excavate” the carpet after watching one too many episodes of Time Team. I was intelligent and curious about the world around me but in a system that labelled me as an underachiever. When I was six I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Nothing at school seemed to work and soon I believed that my bad grades represented me. I got only Ds so I must be stupid. I could not wait for it to end.

As if that was not enough as a teenager my health started to fail. I was extremely fatigued, experiencing blackouts and had extreme, immobilising chronic pain. No doctor could give a diagnosis. What we now know as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTs) made my life worse by the day and the previously bad grades worsened. Frustration led to depression and anxiety. But luckily my love of history remained a constant.

When I considered the possibility of university Birkbeck appealed immediately. My PoTs systems are less prominent in the evening so attending classes would be much more realistic at that time of the day. Plus the College heavily promoted diversity. I saw testimonials from people like myself who were finally achieving with the help from teachers and administrators who supported and accepted them.

The only issue was that my A-level grades would most likely not be high enough to make me eligible for a degree. On paper I was far from a hopeful prospect – what saved me was the interview. I was able to explain my circumstances and talk about what I loved about history and archaeology. I was allowed to be myself and I walked out of Birkbeck with an unconditional offer. They saw past my bad grades from school but recognised that I was a young individual who loved knowledge and wanted to learn.

Birkbeck was efficient at getting me the help I needed through the Disabled Student Allowance. Teachers knew about my conditions and often offered me extra help when needed. In 2017 my physical and mental health declined and I had to request a leave of absence, the support and understanding that every member of the department had for me was truly exceptional.

I left for a year and a half, worked on improving my PoTS condition, worked on my cosplay hobby, and had surgery. But I was apprehensive about returning to Birkbeck.

You see, I am transgender. Non-binary to be precise. It was life-changing: depression gone, anxiety gone, and confidence up. My life was full of colour and potential. I was happy. But what would be the reaction of staff that I had come to respect? I should never have doubted it. The reaction was kindness. I still have my old gender marker on the official documentation as I’m still afraid of discrimination. But every member of staff I have talked to has been understanding; I was genuinely surprised. What surprised me, even more, was that my grades shot up. I went from an average of a 2:2 to receiving firsts. I truly believe that this change would not have been possible without the understanding and support of the university.

The best part of my experience at Birkbeck is that it has allowed me to flourish academically. As I studied History and Archaeology the course structure let me pick the topics that intrigued me the most. I got to learn both historical and archaeological approaches. I went on digs at the famous Must Farm and later Despotiko in the Cyclades. I finally decided that my interests lay in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and I finished my four years at Birkbeck with a dissertation on that very subject. Education was no longer an annoying fact of life. It was addictive.

When I began my first year I still loathed education; I still associated it with suffering and self-hate. I am now in my first year of the MA in Classical Civilization and the complete opposite is true. I am confident in my abilities and intellect. Instead of fearing teachers who called me lazy, I now have teachers that encourage me to pursue further study. I have a disability plan that allows me to play to my strengths. I will never be able to thank Birkbeck enough for managing to transform a decade’s worth of hatred for learning into a passion, one that I hope will continue for many years to come.

I recognise that I am an odd individual; transgender, multiple disabilities and learning conditions. But I have found a place to be accepted at Birkbeck, to be understood. And I hope that any prospective or new student reading this, who is like me, who has struggled for years in a system that was not made for people like us, will consider Birkbeck as a gateway to great things.

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Raising your professional profile alongside developing your work

This article was contributed by Bryony Merritt, Communications Manager and Astrea member.

Speakers Hester Gartrell and Camilla Mount

On Tuesday 27 August, Dr Camilla Mount (Head of Access) and Hester Gartrell (Senior Access Officer) from Birkbeck’s (relatively) new Access and Engagement Directorate delivered an insightful and thought-provoking session to Astrea members on how to raise your professional profile alongside developing your work.

The group were first asked to have a go at defining profile-raising, with everyone in agreement that it is – or should be: “Promoting your knowledge, expertise and experience to better serve how you would like to be perceived and to enable your professional ambitions.” The second part of this – ‘enabling your professional ambitions’ is a part that I had probably overlooked in my own thoughts around profile-raising and it was useful to consider how part of the process should be about setting boundaries with colleagues so that you don’t inadvertently end up becoming a ‘yes woman’ and over-stretching yourself, leaving no time for your own development.

Both presenters spoke of the challenges they’d faced in developing and raising their own profile. In Milly’s case this was returning from a year’s maternity leave to a brand new role in a brand new team and the steps she took to ensure that she was able to quickly re-establish the relationships she had built before going on leave, ensure people understood her new role, raise her own confidence in her expertise, as well as ensuring that the ‘working parent’ facet of her identity was incorporated into how she presented herself professionally.

Hester spoke about the practical challenges of working at the Stratford campus, where she is physically distant from many colleagues, as well as the political challenges that are involved with raising the profile of her work in Stratford across the Bloomsbury campus. She spoke of how she was able to identify elements of her own identity which helped her to build connections at a local level in Stratford. These included family connections to the area which she foregrounded in describing her local links, to build a profile that went beyond her identity as a Birkbeck staff member. Another element both presenters highlighted was that profile-raising needs to be considered as an internal aim, as well as externally. Hester described how she was aware that some people within the College had negative perceptions about the Stratford campus and that to counter this her attitude would be one of ‘relentless enthusiasm’, both internally and externally. Having worked with Hester on some of her projects I can say this approach seems to have paid off, and that I have noticed a real ‘buzz’ around Stratford work again since she took up post. Tools for internal profile-raising that have proved useful for Milly and Hester include social media, networking events and staff networks (like Astrea!) and informational interviews (taking someone for a coffee to gain a better understanding of what they do and ensuring they understand how you could work together to the benefit of both parties).

Ultimately, successful profile-raising will not just bring you or your team recognition. It will also help you to get buy-in for your projects from senior management or external partners, enable you to tap into other people’s expertise and to build up your own. Approached strategically and with a clear objective, profile-raising will help you to get where you want to be in your career.

Thanks to Hester and Milly for such an inspiring and motivating session!

Find out more about Astrea, Birkbeck’s network for women working in professional service roles.

Follow Milly on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Follow Hester on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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