Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

“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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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.”

Further information 

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