“Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future”

Isabella Ghawi faced challenges during studying, including a brain tumour diagnosis, epilepsy and dyslexia. With the help of Birkbeck’s Disability Department and her steely determination, Isabella founded the Birkbeck Biological society and graduated in November with a BSc Biomedicine degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Isabella Ghawi

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I did a lot of research because I left school quite suddenly without A levels as I started to have epileptic seizures.  After a long time, I decided I wanted to go back to university and study to be a neurophysiologist after my experience of working in a hospital.

I was searching for a good access to university course and chose Birkbeck as it had the best one. Unlike all the other places I looked at, it taught actual science. I knew that I wouldn’t just come out with a piece of paper, but I’d actually come out with real knowledge. After undertaking the Higher Education Introductory Course I decided to continue at Birkbeck to study a BSc in Biomedicine.

Did you face any challenges during your time studying? How did you overcome them?

I had a huge challenge in my first year. I already had epilepsy from the age of 18 and I had dyslexia. On top of that in my first year of biomedicine, I was diagnosed with a most likely cancerous brain tumour which meant I had to have a serious operation.

I overcame it, with the help of my family, my church and the people around me, but also with the support of Birkbeck – I’m especially grateful for the help and support I received from Dick Rayne, Mark Pimm and Jackie Saunder and many others. It was a learning curve for all of us, as we implemented new changes that were best for me at the time. So, with the help of all those people, I was able to continue and not just able to continue, but to really excel and exceed my expectations despite many difficulties.

Did you receive any additional College support whilst at Birkbeck and if so, how did this help you?

Birkbeck staff were a huge driving force because they were very understanding and supportive. The lecturers and the administration staff really helped me to develop resilience within myself and I kept going because they were so supportive. I also received a lot of help from the disability team. I received extra training on my computer with programmes that helped me with my dyslexia. There were a lot of assistive technologies that I was given, as well as a support tutor who was great and again, a real emotional rock. I also received a note taker and had extra time in exams which was helpful. Unfortunately, in a couple of my exams I had seizures, which were quite distressing. As a result, towards the end of my studies my exams were split, and I did them in smaller chunks which was extremely helpful. By the time it got to the last year, we had figured out what worked best.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future. Before doing this degree, I didn’t think I would be able to do much, but it’s made me really open to new opportunities. I really hope to continue to work in research, which is something I’d never dreamed of. I had never really done any lab work before this degree, but by the end of three years I was leaving the lab sessions thinking that if I could go back to the lab every day for the rest of my life, I’d be a very happy person. So, I would really love to work in a scientific laboratory.

This degree has also made me think that maybe there could be other things out there that I would be good at that I haven’t experienced yet. Now I’m looking for a job, hopefully in research, to gain more experience and then perhaps go back and do a PhD when I have more experience in the field, because I feel I really need more hands-on experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I would say go for it and give it a try, you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. If you have any doubts or problems, there is so much help and support out there. I would also strongly suggest being open about your difficulties from the beginning with the staff.  If you do have a busy life and lot to cope with, for example if you have children, work commitments, health problems or caring commitments, the opportunity of doing part-time is well worth taking.

Studying at Birkbeck is a truly great experience, I would strongly recommend others go for it and give it a try. I don’t think you’d regret it, I certainly haven’t.

Further Information

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Struggle and Strife pave the way for Success

Demelza Honeyborne was born in Wales, taken to Liberia, West Africa aged 2 years old and survived a 10-year civil war, physical assault and years out of education to go on to recently graduate with a degree in Psychology. This is her #BBKgrad story.

The early years in Liberia, ongoing conflict and the battle to stay in education:

My mother was from Liberia. She and my Dad had separated, so she took me to her home country when I was just two years old. Liberia’s 10-year civil war started in 1990 when I was 13 years old and my mother died that same year. My father had left when I was about four, and I had no contact with him so I effectively became like an orphan during the war. Schools were closed due to the war for a few years- I can’t remember the length of closure…probably till 1996, but they reopened at points where there were cease fires so I missed a massive portion of my junior and senior schooling.

At 18 years old, I got pregnant with my twins and attempted school again. I would study during the day and work at a nightclub from the evening until 4am and then start all over again with classes at 8am. I did this for a year or so. I later got a day job which meant I had to go to night classes. My children were taken away from me by their dad’s parents when they were one as they deemed me unqualified to be a mother due to my circumstances (having no parents, being unmarried). However, I got them back when they turned five.  This meant I could work, study and stay off the streets.

A chance reunion with her father and return to the UK:

I had sent a letter to my old neighbourhood in Wales (I could only remember the first line of the address) to see if anyone knew where my dad might be. I didn’t think I’d have any luck but in 1999, the British Red Cross found my father and reconnected us, which is a totally miraculous happening on its own, hence I returned to the UK in 2000.

I worked for a year upon arriving to the UK- two jobs, seven days a week- until I saved enough money to bring my children over. A friend of mine, Brenda, had encouraged me to get back to study but I still had the mentality that I couldn’t dream and achieve. But I had a strong faith…I always remember my Mum would drop me off at Church when she was alive then would come back and get me.

Study goals in sight and enrolment at Birkbeck:

Transport for London, which is my employer, offers free courses; and working full-time with kids meant it was difficult to study outside of work, so I enrolled onto one of the courses. I did my GCSE English and passed with a B grade. The following year I did my Math GCSE and passed with a C. That was around 2014 -2016. During this time, I became a Station Supervisor which meant a change to my shift pattern. I then enrolled at West Kensington and Chelsea college in 2016 and studied Access to Psychology while working at night.

This then led me to join Birkbeck where I studied BSc Psychology and achieved a 2:1 degree whilst still working full-time, including night shifts. My professors were all super-amazing especially Gillian Forester who is super-awesome. It was very difficult but rewarding to know that at my age (43 years old), I could still achieve my dreams. Birkbeck is amazing!

I am currently doing my master’s in Health and Clinical Psychology with Birkbeck. My aim is to go into counselling and volunteer in helping people who have experienced traumatic situations as myself. During the war I was subjected to the trauma of sexual assault which became a norm. There was a war and being alive was most important, with the belief that once I had another day it was okay. I was a survivor.

Counselling and a mission to help others:

I have had different forms of counselling and I have spoken at length to trusted friends and my pastors, so I believe I can better manage my trauma and live a productive life. However, not many of my friends or those who experience similar situations can. Additionally, before coming to the UK, counselling wouldn’t have been something I would use.  As most Liberians even today still believe, to admit any mental illness is a sign of weakness and you can’t tell the world you are hurting, or you will appear weak and a failure. Additionally, people in deprived counties like Liberia do not have access to counselling facilities, so once I qualify, I want to look into offering virtual counselling or volunteering overseas, perhaps attached to a charity.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Study Psychology at Birkbeck.
Learn more about the Health and Clinical Psychological Sciences Master’s degree.

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Using an educational neuroscience approach to improve maths and science achievement in primary school

Safina Akram, MA Creative Writing student, shares her experience of attending Birkbeck academic Dr Iroise Dumontheil’s lecture, that took place as part of the lecture series celebrating 100 years of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil

I recently chose to spend my evenings at Birkbeck trying something different. I’d heard about Birkbeck’s 100th anniversary lecture series, celebrating 100 years of the College being part of the University of London.  And being a Birkbeck student on an MA Creative Writing course, I thought, why not?  It’ll be fun, something different and you never know I might learn something.

I entered the Clore building, to be greeted by the traditional lecture room.  George Birkbeck – what would you think of your Birkbeck now?  I wonder.  What would you think of me coming through these doors?  And what would you think of this lecture series?

The topic, you ask? ‘Using an educational neuroscience approach to improve maths and science achievement in primary school’ by Dr Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck.  Quite a mouthful and yet in one hour, this topic will be justified, explained and I would walk out of this room having been enlightened on what it was all about.

The lecture began, and it was interesting to hear how the series of lectures came about, that each school chose its speaker and the topic.  Dr Iroise Dumontheil was an articulate, informed and mesmerising speaker.  She had grace and elegance, and I was enthralled by the way her hands moved.  They conveyed her passion for her topic and we, her audience, were in safe hands, as step by step, we were led through her research.

The research took a ‘A stop and think approach.’  It’s interesting that neuroscience is working to understand how our minds work and what it is we can do to change the way we think.  Dr Dumontheil spoke about humans having a rational side and an intuitive side and the difference between the two.  She also talked about how the study was spread over different schools in the UK, the inclusion of children from lower socio-economic groups and the number of schools that took part. I took it all in, for it was captivating that research too is like a story.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil's lecture

The questions came from different parts of the room.  The inevitable cross examination of the sample size was there at the end.  This was followed by a question about the data.  Why such an impact on Year 5 and Year 6 children?  This is what education is about, ultimately, questions and answers.

We left the lecture hall and gathered around the table decked with drinks and snacks. I found myself conveniently next to someone, and so we began talking.  She was an alumna, a grandmother, who like me had commuted to Birkbeck that day.  We talked about the lecture, ate a few crisps, she told me how she too had been a student here.  She explained the impact it had made to her life, and how she had been interested in this lecture because she has grandchildren and wanted to understand what the research indicated.  I remember looking around, as people mingled and talked, from such diverse backgrounds, with their unique histories, here they were, in this space.

Reflecting now, I enjoyed the experience, I appreciated the opportunity of learning about something I hadn’t studied.  I liked hearing the stories of others, the people on the stage, and the ones in the audience too.  It led me to booking a place on the other 100th anniversary lectures, hearing from speakers Sir Ed Davey, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on the climate emergency; Baroness Helena Kennedy QC on the rule of law, I remember her passion and how it was infectious, for at the end of that lecture I too wanted to be like her; and Professor Dame Marina Warner, Re-imagining Place, Re-weaving Story, one word is all I have, inspiring, I dream of being a writer like you.

George, I do believe, you would be rather pleased, if you could see your Birkbeck now.

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