Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

A cap, gown and hijab teach tolerance and triumph

BA Politics graduate, Soumaya Z, moved to the UK from France to escape discrimination and overcome barriers to her education as a young, Muslim woman. Now she’s hoping to encourage others, like her, to pursue their ambitions. Here’s her #BBKstory.  

Photo of graduate, Soumaya Z

Family values, discrimination and the will to persevere 

At just twenty-years-old, Soumaya possesses the insights and wisdom of a person much older. It’s hardly surprising when you listen to her recall stories of her grandparents migrating from North Africa plus the lessons both her parents and grandparents have taught her along the way. Soumaya shares that her grandmother had made the move from Algeria to France and was forced to give up on her education in order to support her family. Despite this, she still reinforced in Soumaya the values of learning and was so proud of her granddaughter for her recent academic accomplishments. Her parents, too, sacrificed their education when Soumaya was born and always sought to push her beyond the limits, to always dream and aim high. 

Soumaya credits those values with inspiring her to pursue her studies. However, despite being home-schooled by her parents, reading and writing at four-years-old, and completing the first year of her undergraduate degree in France aged just sixteen, Soumaya soon realised that the politics of her native country were counterintuitive to her progress and ambitions. 

She says, “As a Muslim (in France), it’s impossible to find a job, access education or do simple activities when you wear a hijab and it’s difficult even if you are just practicing your religion, praying or fasting. Hijabs and other Islamic clothes are also not allowed in schools and I faced Islamophobia when I was at school.  It was really hard. When I had exams for my French baccalaureate, I was insulted by a woman in the school talking negatively about my hijab. Alongside that, there is a lack of opportunities for Muslim women. I feel that I have a brighter future here in the UK.” 

Tolerance 

Fortunate to be able to make the move to London just two years ago, the advice of her English tutor helped her to apply through the clearing system, with sights set firmly on Birkbeck to complete the second and third years of her undergraduate degree. 

Soumaya had to navigate a whole new academic system, alongside mastering a language which was not her mother tongue. There was also the added challenge of the pandemic and the ensuing isolation throughout her degree, though she applauds Birkbeck’s online programme for both her lectures and to be able to still meet with peers in the virtual world.  

With the obstacles to education now behind her, she is hopeful that others around the world can cease the “close-mindedness” and “change their mindsets to assimilate more people into their societies.” She reflects on the benefits of more tolerant and inclusive policies as not only improving the opportunities for Muslim women, but also women, in general, and other marginalised peoples. 

Triumph 

With one degree firmly under her belt, Soumaya is is aiming to complete a master’s degree programme and is already considering a doctorate. 

She reflects, “As a French student, it was a challenge to adapt to a new environment, country and language. However, I met incredible professors at Birkbeck who are committed to their work, as well as classmates from all over the world who made my university experience invaluable. In France, it would have been impossible to achieve what I achieved at Birkbeck, because of the adversity I suffered as a Muslim woman. Now two years later I have completed my bachelor’s in politics with an upper second-class degree at just 19 years old. 

“I really hope that sharing my personal experience will help other students to understand that they are not alone in their academic journey and that despite their differences they can go beyond the limits and attain their goals, without forgetting who they are, their identity.”

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Graduate launches a teaching career at 59

Nick Townsend graduates this week with a BA in History after returning to education in his 50s. We spoke to Nicholas about how he balanced his studies with work, and what he would say to someone considering a degree later in life. #BBKgrad

Before Nick embarked on his degree at Birkbeck he was an advocate for education, at every stage of life, and he put this into practice with his work with Unite, a British trade union organisation that seeks to serve the rights of workers. “I volunteered at the Heathrow branch where we have 300 members who are mainly London black cab drivers and Heathrow airport staff. We helped them with queries or issues, computer literacy, and ran Spanish classes members who were looking to move abroad.”

Driven by a lifelong love of history and access to a Unite union member’s discount of 10% off each semester, Nick decided to take the leap into higher education in 2017 to learn more on the topic. He recalls the first time he set foot into the marbled halls of Senate House, as like “a Hollywood film moment, when the camera zooms back in and I thought to myself, what have I got myself in to? It really was quite an intimidating process.”

Despite the initial adjustment to life as a student, father and volunteer with a day job, he was able to establish a whole new routine which meant that three months in he was used to his busy schedule. He cites his prior responsibilities as part of the reason why he chose Birkbeck in the first place, “I couldn’t study during the day and Birkbeck had an extensive evening learning programme that was perfect for me.”

As an avid reader and writer in his spare time, Nicholas had no trouble adapting to the rigorous reading schedule, however he did struggle slightly with punctuation and grammar which he was able to address quickly after his tutors pointed him towards the Study Skills support available at the College.

Nicholas enjoyed delving into discussions about colonialisation and what effect it has had around the globe in his seminars and being able to share his opinions and views with his fellow students who were diverse and brought “a whole range of ideas” to the table. One aspect he particularly enjoyed was the Healing, Health and Modernity in African History module and the perspectives it offered on the effects of western medicine being imposed on indigenous cultures Dr Hilary Sapire, Reader in Modern History in the Department of History, Classics & Archaeology, who he says, “made the subject very interesting as she brought her own life experiences as a South African to her teaching of the subject.”

In his final year, Nick was able to explore his interest in social history and wrote his dissertation on the impact of Jamaican music on British culture from 1962-1983. He hopes that topics like these will become more commonplace in discussions of British history and that the subject will become more accessible in the media.

In the future Nick is open to further study, but in the short term he is hoping to begin a career in teaching at a secondary school where he can hopefully inspire young people to engage with the past.

When Nick reflects on how he achieved his academic ambition he boils it down to “time management and tenacity” and would say to someone doing the same to “not be too shy to speak in class, it’s the hardest thing to express what you want to say but it’s what you are there to do. Ultimately, if you don’t try, you will never know.”

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“I flew to the other side of the world to study at Birkbeck, leaving my family and children behind”

Shernette Edwards-Rowe left her home and family in Jamaica to pursue her life-long dream of studying in the UK. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Shernette Edwards-Rowe on her graduation day

Shernette’s fascination with England started from a young age. She was drawn to the UK for its history, architecture and fashion, and in 2006, during her first degree, she visited London to see it all for herself.

That was when her love affair for London truly began. She came back as often as she could, every few years, and made it her mission to study in the city one day; “we model the British education system in Jamaica so I know how high a standard the British education system is and I wanted to experience it for myself.”

Shernette’s career path has not always been straight-forward. She undertook her first degree in business administration in Jamaica. Despite being encouraged by her teachers and peers at school to become a counsellor, at the time she felt it wasn’t for her. She worked in business for a few years, but soon decided she desperately needed a career change and a job where she was directly helping others. This led her to enrol onto a BA Counselling course at Northern Caribbean University in Jamaica in her late twenties, where she studied for four years. When she finished her Counselling degree, Shernette began working in a school with children up to aged 12. She has worked in a number of different schools ever since.

Her desire to undertake a Master’s degree in England and expand her career opportunities never went away so when the opportunity for her to study in London came in 2019 she took the plunge and flew across the world to London, leaving her two boys (now aged 10 and 7) and her husband behind.

Shernette Edwards-Rowe with her family on her graduation day

A year and a half later, Shernette reflects on her experiences of being at Birkbeck and in London, “I’m so glad I pursued my life-long dream of studying in the UK. I’m really proud I fulfilled my dream, but I did face more challenges than I expected, including several illnesses and the anxieties that came with the global pandemic and being away from my family. My academic tutor offered me tremendous guidance and support which I am hugely grateful for.

“My son recently said to me how proud he was of me battling my illnesses and never giving up. This really melted my heart and made me so happy. I wanted to show my children that whatever dreams they have, they can accomplish them with hard work and perseverance.”

Shernette moved back to Jamaica when the borders re-opened in May 2020, getting the first flight home to Jamaica to be back with her family and finish her degree remotely. She cites the degree as really opening her horizons and giving her the confidence to work with older children. She is now searching for a job in a secondary school and is excited for what the future holds.

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