“I had great exposure to leading scholars”

Cobus Van Rooyen has completed three courses at Birkbeck and has credited the College community with exposing him to a “vast amount of knowledge and experience”; and helping him to achieve chartered status. Today, he graduated with a PhD in Geography. This is his story.  

pic of Cobus Van Rooyen

Cobus Van Rooyen

I moved to the UK from Cape Town, South Africa in 2000 and considered undertaking further studies at a UK university. 

Given the fact that it’s very expensive to study full-time without an income, I was really happy to learn that Birkbeck offered part-time courses.  This allowed me to be employed while undertaking my studies.

The best part about studying was the fact that my peers were also in full-time employment and had a vast amount of knowledge and experience in our field of study to share.   

During my PhD research I also had great exposure to leading scholars and found much inspiration from their work.  The part-time PhD was immensely difficult but I am very grateful for my supervisor’s (Dr Joana Barros) support throughout this journey.  I definitely couldn’t have done it without her.  

Although the PhD process was less demanding than the MSc in terms of structure and short timeframes, it had its own challenges.   

Firstly, undertaking research in isolation is quite challenging and much self-motivation is required.  As a PhD researcher I also had to be very disciplined in how I planned my time to ensure I kept to the deadlines and targets I set for myself.     

I was offered a studentship for the first five years of my research. 

Beyond that, my research was also made quite affordable through the payment plan Birkbeck offers, whereby fees can be paid in instalments.  

While studying part-time, I was in full-time employment as a GIS consultant in multi-disciplinary engineering.

Eventually, my studies helped me achieve chartership and I currently function as Fellow and Chartered Geographer (GIS) (obtained from the Royal Geographical Society) and Chartered Scientist (obtained from the UK Science Council). 

What was most memorable from my time at Birkbeck was the opportunities it presented me with.

I had the opportunity to present my research at the Association of American Geographers (AAG) conference in Las Vegas and also to visit MIT for advice on the urban simulation model I was developing.  I was also asked to co-author a textbook chapter with a professor from another university. 

I would like to encourage every person, thinking of studying at Birkbeck, to most certainly do so.

I am very relieved that I was able to complete my research successfully but I will really miss Birkbeck immensely.  Birkbeck contributed greatly to both my personal and career growth and I will always be grateful for the opportunity I had to further my studies there. 

Further information: 

Study Geography at Birkbeck
Read more about Birkbeck’s international student community
Find out more about studying for a PhD at Birkbeck
Research at Birkbeck 

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Overcoming an initial language barrier 

Originally from Italy, Martina Innocenti chose to study an MSc in Childhood, Youth and International Development at Birkbeck because of the in-depth course content and the flexibility evening study afforded. From being incredibly worried that her language skills might hold her back academically, to winning multiple prizes for her dissertation, this is Martina’s story.  

pic of Martina Innocenti

Martina Innocenti

I kept saying to my tutor, ‘I’m not good enough to do a Master’s 

I moved to the UK one year before starting my Master’s. At the time, I couldn’t speak English well.  was taking language classes and working with early years children as Montessori early years educator. When I got accepted into Birkbeck, I was happy but I was also very worried about the language barrier, like I wasn’t good enough to do well in my studies because of it. I kept saying to my tutor, ‘I’m not good enough to do a Master’s – maybe mentally I’m ready to do it, but practically, I have this limitation.’ She encouraged me every step of the way, eventually suggesting that I convert to studying part-time rather than full-time, which made such a difference.  

Being a part-time student was amazing 

Being a part time student was amazing! It allowed me to continue working and gave me the vital time and space I needed to gain confidence in my English. I had time to really explore and deeply understand the specialist subjects I was learning about. It meant that I could actually enjoy the process of studying. 

My language proficiency did not represent my intellectual capability 

Now, when I consider that I was conducting evening interviews with youth in Peru, reviewing 50-page transcripts in Spanish then translating them to English and analysing data, all whilst working, it makes me feel quite proud. I was able to speak, work and think critically across two languages, neither of which were my native tongue, to gain very insightful data about something I’m passionate about. When I found out I won the Children, Youth and International Development prize for my dissertation, I couldn’t believe it! Then when I also won the Birkbeck Gender and Sexuality prize, I saw it as proof that my language proficiency did not represent my intellectual capability. 

I felt like a proper researcher! 

I’m so thankful that I had the opportunity to do my master’s over two years, and Birkbeck’s approach to structuring my course options was brilliant. I had room to grow at the pace I needed to become fully knowledgeable about my area of study and approach my dissertation with the attention, intensity and critical thinking it deserved. I felt like a proper researcher! Having a part-time structure to do all my literature reviews, data collection and analysis, and write the dissertation was empowering; I felt like I was able to give my best. 

It was all just a matter of confidence 

I realised through my Birkbeck journey that I’m a competent and multi-skilled professional, it was all just a matter of confidence. It took a while, and multiple strategies, to build this confidence. For instance, I made an effort to see my classmates in non-academic settings, so I could get more comfortable with listening to and speaking English. I also reached out for help whenever I could, asking my friends, housemates and tutors to review my writing style and feedback wherever possible. And I shared my thoughts and frustrations with my dissertation supervisor, who was a source of great inspiration and support. In the end, my determination combined with the support I got, meant that my dissertation was a uniquely valuable intersectional contribution to literature and research about Latin American working children.  

Further Information:

Find out more about studying MSc Children, Youth and International Development 

Find out more about being an International Student at Birkbeck  

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“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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“Because of Birkbeck I’m living my dream as a writer”

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid has just graduated from MA Creative Writing and is now pursuing her dream of becoming a writer, having just landed a book deal. This is her story. 

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid

This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life 

I took the decision to quit my full-time job and go self-employed after finishing my degree at Birkbeck and securing a two-book publishing deal. My days are now filled with writing, reading and going to fancy coffee shops. It’s amazing!  

I started the Master’s degree 16 years after my undergraduate degree 

My first degree was in Writing and Media Studies at Middlesex University. Even after graduating back then I knew I wanted to do a Master’s in Creative Writing, but the timing wasn’t quite right because I chose to move to Dubai in my twenties. I lived there for 7 years, working for magazines and government in communications. I met my husband in Dubai and we returned to the UK to have children. After my second child was born, I had that niggling feeling in the back of my mind – I knew I still wanted to pursue my childhood dream of being an author. That’s when I applied for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation to help fund my studies at Birkbeck; which I was thrilled to be awarded. 

Life was incredibly hectic  

I balanced studying part-time at Birkbeck with a full-time job in Communications at Barnardo’s and raising my two children, now aged 7 and 5. I also live an hour and a half away from Birkbeck in Essex, so I worked in Barnardo’s head office in Bloomsbury on the same days I had in-person lectures. 

Rejection after rejection 

I had written my book before starting at Birkbeck, but I was growing increasingly frustrated because I kept being turned down by literary agents and couldn’t work out why. When I reached out to my Birkbeck tutor for advice, she said I needed to reduce the word count by nearly half so we reduced it by 60,000 words, cutting down subplots and characters. I pitched it again to agents and secured a two-book publishing deal straight away!  

Tasneem Abdur-Rashid with her mother and sister

At school, I was the kid who bunked off school to go to the local library 

I had three library cards, and even that wasn’t enough! I was a real bookworm and read a huge number of books growing up. What struck me was that none of the book characters were ever like me. As a Bengali woman born and raised in London, I couldn’t relate to anyone in young adult books, because my life was so different. 

My book is the book I wish I had when I was a young girl growing up 

Representation matters, and I want people like me to pick up my book and find characters they can relate to. My debut rom-com, Finding Mr Perfectly Fine, is being published this summer. It is about a 29-year-old Bengali, Muslim woman from London, trying to find a husband because of parental pressure to be married by 30. The inspiration for the main character comes from a mixture of people I know, but I think the story transcends culture because finding a partner is a universal challenge. 

Birkbeck is special because everyone is there to make it count 

It’s a close-knit community, filled with ambitious people. Regular creative writing workshops, where students submitted pieces of work that was critiqued by everyone else, were life-changing. I received so much support and praise for my work, which is when I realised that I could make a career out of writing. We continue to meet every couple of months as a group to share our work and successes, which is so valuable.  

If I had to describe Birkbeck in three words, I would say it is supportive, empowering, and flexible. I would encourage anyone considering studying at Birkbeck to go for it, it might change your life, like it has mine. 

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