Setting an example: mother and son graduate in the same year

When Miroslava Ezel’s teenage son started browsing university prospectuses, she couldn’t resist taking a look as well.

Miroslava Ezel had always wanted to study Mathematics, but prioritising work and family life meant plans for further study were put on hold. Still, while encouraging her son to apply to university, she couldn’t resist taking a look for herself.

Then she stumbled across Birkbeck. “The evening study model appealed to me as I could fit studying around my work and family life,” she explained. “I also felt it would help me meet people a similar age to me – it did, but in reality I’m friends with people of all ages on my course, so I needn’t have worried.”

Miroslava began studying the BSc Accounting at Birkbeck’s Stratford campus, which was conveniently located near her home in Southeast London. She attended academic writing workshops on campus to develop her skills and prepare for full time study. “Coming back to the classroom after a break and as a speaker of English as a second language, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to write an academic essay,” she explains. “I love Maths, so I applied to study accounting, but I became really interested in microeconomics and macroeconomics, so in my second year I transferred to BSc Accounting with Finance.

“I had some fantastic lecturers, like Dr Ike Ndu, who teaches Financial Economics – we loved Ike! Another lecturer also told us “we are not here to fail you, we are here to help you” during exam term, which was really reassuring. I think it’s really important to see your lecturers as people who are there to support you and help you do well.”

Graduating with a first, Miroslava admits to being very strict with herself and prioritising her studies, and with two students in the family at the same time, it was easier to stay on track. She also credits the friends she made through her course for helping her succeed: “We would be great motivators for each other – we knew what we wanted to get out of the experience and we pushed each other to do our best.” She admits that the first day of a new course can be daunting, but has now made friends for life at Birkbeck.

Miroslava’s confidence grew so much through her studies that, before finishing her degree, she had switched careers from retail to banking. Her son graduated from his degree in Law in July, although she had to rush back from the celebrations to sit one of her final exams in the evening!

For Miroslava, studying at Birkbeck has fulfilled a lifelong dream: “I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I never knew before what I was capable of, especially in a second language. When I got here, I realised that age is not a limit: all that matters is knowledge, drive and your desire to prove yourself.”

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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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The Booker at Birkbeck: Atonement

Ian McEwan, the best-selling author of over twenty books, came to Birkbeck to discuss the process of adapting a novel into a film with Atonement screenwriter Christopher Hampton and Birkbeck Lecturer Dr Agnes Woolley.  

L-R: Christopher Hampton, Agnes Woolley, Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan joined Birkbeck’s students, alumni and wider community to discuss his Booker Prize shortlisted book, Atonement, alongside screenwriter Christopher Hampton, with whom he adapted the title for the big screen. The discussion was mediated by Dr Agnes Woolley, Lecturer in Transnational Literature and Migration Cultures at Birkbeck. Focusing on the collaboration between the writers, they discussed the process of adapting a book for cinema, and the unique challenges and opportunities this brings to storytelling.

Atonement is set in three time periods; 1935 England, Second World War England and France, and present day England. It hinges on the fateful mistake of upper-class Briony, who as a child witnesses – and misinterprets – a series of events which lead her to falsely accuse her family’s housekeeper, Robbie, of raping her cousin, Lola.

“Sometimes powerfully in people’s lives,” explained McEwan, “believing is seeing. It’s part of the reason the police no longer rely on identifications from line-ups. Memory is very malleable.”

Robbie, who is truthfully in love and beginning a relationship with Briony’s sister, Cecila, is imprisoned; and the lives of all three are irreparably damaged by the lie. Following his release, Robbie joins the army, and is seemingly able to reunite with Cecilia prior to fighting in the war. In 1940, Briony visits Cecilia to atone for her actions, while Robbie is home, on leave from the army. Cecilia and Robbie both refuse to forgive Briony, who nonetheless tells them she will try to put things right.

McEwan, an accomplished screenwriter himself, turned down the job of adapting the title for film declaring himself “in a long term sulk” about the process following a particularly excruciating previous experience. This decision, he says, was vindicated when Hampton came on board, who himself said he had become enthralled with the novel while reading it on holiday: “I scarcely left my hotel.”

The ending of Atonement, wherein the reader learns that Briony is the author of the preceding story – and that Cecilia and Robbie were in fact never able to reunite before their premature deaths – was an “overwhelming” challenge from a screenwriting perspective. “Part of the success of the film,” said Hampton, “was that after going through a lot of labyrinths [to tackle this], what we ended up with was much more simple.”

He remembered one possibility they explored involved Vanessa Redgrave, who plays 77 year old Briony, appearing throughout the film observing her ‘characters’ and narrating different parts; but in the end they kept the three-part structure of the book, with the final section seeing Briony’s older self, a successful writer whose health is in decline, explain that the fictionalisation was her atonement: it finally allowed the lovers to be together.

McEwan noted that “the breadth of the imagination in the adaption” was complemented by the “fidelity to the source material.” He added that while he wouldn’t dare to intervene with the filming, there is a certain “chaos” to film sets, and where things are filmed out of sequence, the author can be useful as they “always know what’s going on in the psychology of a character’s head.”

McEwan is one of the most adapted novelists working today, a testament to “how well his novels work as dramas,” according to Hampton. “Even Atonement, which is a very ruminative novel, is very dramatic.”

Before the event, McEwan attended a prize-giving for a creative writing competition at Birkbeck, and kindly presented the awards to the winner: Richard Roper for his short story The Carousel of Progress; and the runners-up, Matthew Bates (Another Language) and Marienna Pope-Weidemann (Dandelion).

The Booker Prize has been the UK’s leading literary award for over 50 years. Every autumn, Birkbeck hosts an evening with a Booker Prize nominee, which gives students, staff and alumni the opportunity to hear from, and pose questions to, a celebrated writer.

Find out about Birkbeck’s previous Booker events, with authors including Ali Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro and Hilary Mantel. 

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Breaking through the ceiling: BSc Business and Management at Birkbeck

Jeremy Galea came to Birkbeck to further his career. Last week, he graduated with the Best Project prize in the Department of Management.

When I was growing up, there wasn’t much emphasis on education at home, but I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I failed my last year of school in Australia and got a job straight away. I did everything from cleaning supermarkets to polishing stainless steel; being a hard worker was my way of escape.

After moving to the UK to start a junior project management role, I started to worry about hitting a ceiling. I was really into my career and very ambitious, but I could only get so far with no formal qualifications. I’d done courses along the way, but never tackled anything as big as university study.

I chose Birkbeck because it was the only university that would allow me to continue working while studying in the evening. The first two years were tough; I didn’t have access to Student Finance, so I worked seven days a week to fund my studies. Working 70 hour weeks and then studying on top meant sacrificing other areas of my life, but coming into lectures and meeting people who were in the same struggle motivated me to keep going.

I’ve always been able to put on a confident front, but Birkbeck really gave me that self-belief – my ambition is higher now than when I started. I never submitted an assignment in high school – my first university assignment was a 70!

I was just about to finish my second year at Birkbeck when I got my current role in the senior operations management team in the NHS. Drawing on my experience of my course really helped me in the interview, as did the confidence I’d gained along the way.

When it came to choosing a topic for my research project, my seminar teacher gave me some great advice: you don’t get extra points for a ‘sexy’ title! It’s best to write about what you know.

I chose to research whether outsourced organisations or in-house provide better non-clinical support services to the NHS. Having worked in operations for over ten years, I knew my subject matter pretty well. Basing my project on my work has taught me so much; it’s had an effect on how I think and I’m already directing things in a different way than I would have done before. In large organisations, management don’t know what it’s like on the front line and the front line has tunnel vision, so it was fascinating speaking to people across my organisation.

I was lucky to have the support of my line managers at work and of Dr Marion Frenz, my supervisor. In the end, I didn’t come to a definitive answer in my project, but that didn’t stop me from doing well as loads of information on management and relationships still came out of it.

My advice to students undertaking a project would be to start early: it can be hard when your nerves get in the way and you’re juggling work as well, but the quality won’t be there unless you allow yourself time.

If you’re in work, Birkbeck is the place to study to further your career. You can learn so much from other people’s life experience on campus. Undertaking a work-based project gets your name out there within your organisation – even if you work in a coffee shop there’s a business model there that you can learn from.

At school it felt like you were either naturally talented or dumb and there was no in-between, but now I believe that if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. There’s nothing negative about further education; you learn how to analyse, research and make up your own mind. The world opens up to you once you’ve had that experience.

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