Category Archives: Law

“Birkbeck opened the door to my new life”

Catherine Bourne’s life was changed when she witnessed the exploitation of human rights in Georgia. It led her to study MA Human Rights 33 years later and embark on a career change. This is her story. 

Catherine Bourne

The moment that changed my life 

It was 1989 and I was 18 years old, studying Foreign Languages at university and living in the city of Tbilisi, Georgia. I was participating in a peaceful demonstration for independence, but we were met with violent retaliations by the Soviet Army which left 21 people dead, mainly young women aged 16 and 18. Witnessing these events unfold in front of my eyes was when I first questioned the understanding and laws of human rights.   

10 years later, I moved to London to start a new life  

I give birth to a girl and a boy and then in 2005, I accepted a job in my son’s school, working with autistic children and supporting them. It felt so rewarding to be able to help them.  

In 2012, I filed for a divorce because of domestic violence 

This personal experience ignited something inside of me and it was a similar feeling I had back in 1989 at the demonstration: I felt I needed to do something and be an advocate for the rights of women and children. In 2019 I decided to take the leap and I was accepted to study MA Human Rights at Birkbeck. 

I was so scared to start studying again after 20 years 

My children were my biggest supporters and they encouraged me to persevere, even though I was frightened I wouldn’t be able to do it. I even ran away from the Library on my first day. 

The course was everything I could have hoped for 

I found the lectures so stimulating and especially enjoyed the module on the future globalization of human rights. I was pleased to make friends on the course who I still keep in touch with now. My application to the Birkbeck Hardship Fund also meant I was given a personal laptop which I’m so grateful for. 

Volunteering with Afghan mums  

I’m building up my confidence to work in the field of human rights, by volunteering every week with Afghan mums and assisting them with questions about living in the UK and teaching them English.  

I’m so excited for the future and embarking on a new career in human rights. I was uncertain about doing a degree aged 49 but Birkbeck offers the chance for everyone to study and change their lives, regardless of age, background or circumstance. For others who are my age and wondering if it is the right thing to do, I’d say go for it!  

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“It’s never too late to achieve your goals and ambitions and don’t let anything get in the way.”

Netty Yasin spent her life advocating for her daughters and her community, before deciding to pursue her life-long ambition of a legal career. This month she graduated from the Qualifying Law Degree (LLM); this is her #BBKgrad story.

Netty Yasin

Netty always had ambitions of a career in law, but life got in the way of her dream. She had intended to return to education once her two daughters (born 16 months apart) were in nursery, however when her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning difficulties and a speech and language disorder, Netty channelled her energy into ensuring her daughter was able to thrive.

When her daughter was of school age, she found that the independent special school she was attending was not helping her progress, so she took matters into her own hands. “I could not find a school that suited her complex needs, so I found an American programme that really resonated with me because it didn’t set unjustified limits on what she could achieve. I did it myself, set up a classroom for her in one of our bedrooms and I taught her all day everyday while my other daughter was at school and she started to make really amazing progress.”

After home-schooling her daughter for six years, Netty was able to secure funding from the local council that meant that she could hire people to take over the day-time teaching. She then set about finding a role for herself, taking on a series of volunteer roles and eventually a full-time position as a Special Education Needs and Disabilities advisor, a job which she describes as rewarding. However, for Netty, her love of the law was never far from her mind and it was a conversation with her eldest daughter that spurred her back on to the path she had always intended to take. “We were talking about careers, one of those deep mother-daughter chats, and I was encouraging her not to limit herself and to pursue her dreams… she turned to me and said well, why don’t you just take your own advice. It was a lightbulb moment!”

Although she describes Birkbeck as a welcoming place, she recalls the challenges of her first year, having to balance studying with full-time work, and caring for her daughter and her mother who has Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to that she felt nervous about starting education at that stage of her life. “I had the sense that maybe I had left it too late. In the beginning I was so insular and nervous.”

To get past this, Netty threw herself into university life wholeheartedly. She  spent the weekends on Birkbeck’s mooting programme, even after initially suffering from a bout of stage fright in a practice session, she went back again and again, eventually entering two competitions and achieving second place out of six teams in the sole team competition.

Netty Yasin throwing up her capNext, she took hold of her fear of public speaking and made her debut at the Bloomsbury Theatre in the play, Othello on Trial, as part of a week of events for the School of Law’s 25th anniversary celebrations. Also, through her Birkbeck contacts she even spent some time volunteering with the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, an experience that she describes as ‘profound’, and took up the opportunity to have career coaching sessions that boosted her resolve in her future plans.

In her second year, Birkbeck’s careers service Birkbeck Futures put her in contact with Aspiring Solicitors, a leading diversity platform that helped her get commercial legal work experience at American Express and Sky while she was studying.

When asked about her favourite modules, Netty exclaims, “I am the nerd who enjoyed everything!”, even taking the time to voluntarily audit other modules in an effort to soak in as much as she could.

For many 2020 was defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, however for Netty, it was an unexpected illness that further tested her resilience. “In February 2020, I was hospitalised after suffering a sudden terrible headache and lost vision; it was really terrifying.” With doctors unable to provide a diagnosis, she suffered debilitating headaches for six months, while still being determined to finish her course. “I worked when I could, even if that meant waking up at 2:30am and working for four hours, taking a nap and then getting up with my daughter. I just did what I could to get through it and then, in a completely unexpected scenario, I got my highest ever mark in one of my exams.” In the end Netty surpassed her own expectations and achieved a distinction overall.

With her illness now behind her and her Master’s degree in hand, Netty is looking forward to qualifying as a commercial solicitor. This summer she’ll be completing a summer vacation scheme at a global law firm with the hope of obtaining a sponsored training contract at the end of it.

Undeterred by her age or circumstances, Netty believes that pursuing her ambitions came at the right time in her life and in closing reflects, “I can look my daughters in the eye and say I am doing what I am telling them, it’s never too late to achieve your goals and ambitions and don’t let anything get in the way.”

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“A year into my degree I fell pregnant and experienced numerous complications during and after my pregnancy – the support I received from Birkbeck was second to none.”

Ella Michalski graduated this month with an LLB Law degree after becoming pregnant with twins during her degree and her daughters experiencing many health complications. Ella persevered with her degree throughout this traumatic time, even studying from hospital. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Ella Michalski with her family on her graduation day

Ella Michalski with her family on her graduation day

I spent my teenage years in the care system with a local authority. When I entered my early twenties I was desperate to travel, so I used my savings from various hospitality and retail jobs I’d had to travel around the world. I returned from travelling aged 25. I had an amazing few years but I was ready to return to normality again and wanted to settle in one place.

My late twenties soon came around and I decided I wanted to enter higher education to pave and develop my career, but I wanted to find a way of studying that meant I could keep my daytime commitment of working in retail. I knew I wanted to study law, with criminal justice being a huge interest of mine.

I came across Birkbeck after friends recommended it to me – studying in the evenings provided the perfect solution. I signed up for a Birkbeck open day, and after attending I just knew Birkbeck was where I wanted to go. It had a real feel, straightaway, of a strong student community. Despite having no previous legal experience, I took a deep breath and enrolled onto the LLB Law degree.

A year into my degree, when I was aged 29, I became pregnant. Unfortunately, I experienced numerous complications during my pregnancy, and at 12 weeks into my pregnancy I was told with near-certainty I would lose my twins. I spent 14 weeks on bedrest in hospital. The Wellbeing Team at Birkbeck were so supportive with finding me alternative ways to study in hospital, and despite being in such a traumatic situation, studying really helped give me escapism from my difficult reality at that time.

When I gave birth, my twins were born with chronic lung disease. They spent three months in intensive care, with multiple medical difficulties whilst they were there. I spent my days visiting the hospital in the day and studying in the evening. Knowing that I could tell my daughters about how I studied for a degree kept me going as I knew how proud of me they’d be one day.

When my daughters were finally discharged from hospital, they were on oxygen 24-hours-a-day for a whole year. Despite their severe health needs during this time, I continued with my degree. It was certainly hard but Birkbeck ensured I had the support in place, and with my strong network of family and friends I was able to persevere and eventually complete my degree.

Reflecting on my Birkbeck experience as a whole, it’s provided me with skills that I didn’t even know existed and given me so much more than I ever anticipated. The skills I’ve gained will stay with me forever and go far beyond just academic skills. My degree has propelled my confidence – it’s made me believe in myself a million more times more than I ever thought possible. When I was able to attend lectures in person, I found the teaching incredible. The lectures were always so informative and inclusive with students in the room, and questions were really encouraged. I’d describe the learning experience at Birkbeck as gentle and encouraging. I particularly enjoyed group work – I found it brought people together and the Library facilities were brilliant as we could book group areas easily to work together.

Thankfully, my daughters are now well and thriving. In the future, I plan to pursue a career in criminal justice. I’m hoping to volunteer for the Innocence Project soon, which aims to free innocent people from incarceration. I also enjoy being an ambassador for the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, which provided invaluable support for my family and I through our challenging times.

I’d 100% recommend studying at Birkbeck to anyone – the level of education, flexibility and support I received was second to none.

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“There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’”

Former television presenter and journalist Gavin Campbell grew up in a house full of books, jazz, and intellectual discussion, and credits his parents for instilling his love of learning. His successful TV career brought him into contact with various aspects of the law, sparking an interest in human rights, criminal law, and in particular the uses and abuses of custody. He chose to pursue this further by undertaking an LLB at Birkbeck, which he graduated from this week aged 73, and in a new career as a paralegal.

He follows in his mother’s footsteps, who, despite leaving school at 14, was able to pursue her own scholarly interests later in life, gaining a BA from the Open University in her eighties. His father, having been seriously wounded at Dunkirk, spent much time in military hospitals studying, with a particular interest in the early Greek and Roman periods.

He says: “I think it was my parents’ attitudes to learning – to never be afraid to question that to think that one might be able to achieve something – that made me believe I could.”

He left Drama School to pursue acting work, before training as a journalist and joining the BBC’s current affairs unit, working on That’s Life, and other features and current affairs programmes. However it was his work as an investigative reporter which brought him into frequent contact with various aspects of the law and accelerated his interest in the subject.

“A short documentary that I reported on following the suicide of a young teenager at a Young Offender’s Institution, gave me an insight into and a further interest in the use of custody in the UK,” he remembers,  “an interest which has deepened and led to an undergraduate dissertation on Restorative Justice for my LLB at Birkbeck.”

“Although a tough regime in terms of the reading and essay writing, preparing for and attending lectures and seminars, I loved the subject and was hugely encouraged by some remarkable teachers.”

His advice for an older person who may be worried about starting university and whether they can make a go of it, he says, is simple and straightforward: “everyone has talent, and talent will out; it’s just a question of finding the right outlet for it. Ask yourself why you want to study. Finding the right subject  – something that fascinates you and you really have a need to find out about and explore  – is essential if you are going to be able to enjoy it and sustain the effort required over three or four years.”

“Everyone finds some aspects of study difficult, so don’t expect that there won’t be times when you think ‘I can’t get this’ – there will be. But don’t ever be afraid to ask for help – your Personal Tutor, the academic teaching the subject, your fellow students. There are always solutions; it’s just a question of getting help and advice to find them.”

“Lastly, and really importantly, make sure that you have the support of your family in undertaking a degree. Discuss it with them first, explaining what it is, why it’s so important to you to undertake it and what the likely and possible demands it may make on the family life are. Honesty is the very best policy here. A united, agreed start is the best start to studying.”

He is doubtful about whether he could have finished the degree without “the kindness, encouragement, help and support from the Birkbeck teaching and administrative staff,” who he says were central to his studies. “The inclusive and open atmosphere of Birkbeck and the sense of ‘you can’ is, I believe, perhaps the most important aspect of studying here. Never once was I told that I couldn’t, or that it would be too difficult. On the contrary, at every turn I was encouraged to continue, to work hard, to feel able to approach staff with a difficulty and seek a solution – and never to lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’”.

He is now working for a firm of solicitors with a practice focused on immigration, personal injury, public law and human rights, which he combined with his studies at Birkbeck. He is currently working on the Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry, where his firm represents many of the bereaved survivors and relatives of the 72 victims of the tragic fire.

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