Category Archives: Social Sciences History and Philosophy

“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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“Don’t call me El Chapo!”

Azucena Garcia Gutierrez has made it her mission to represent the very best of Mexican culture to the rest of the world. This is her #BBK Grad story.

This is a photo of Azucena Garcia Gutierrez

Growing up in Toluca, a city close to Mexico City with parents who didn’t graduate but who still provided for their small family has given Azucena a perspective on life which has her always returning to her humble beginnings.

With just one sibling, the two had spent practically all their lives side by side so when Azucena decided to leave Mexico to study MA Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck, it left her stunned and a little lost. Not surprisingly, her sister would go on to also study languages.

Seeing first-hand the misconceptions that prevail about Mexico was part of Azucena’s culture shock throughout her international travel: “People would shout out ‘El Chapo!’ They had a view of Mexico which concerned me. When I was growing up as a teenager, it was very safe. But I realise the situation with crime is bad now; but that is not the only thing we have to share with the world.”

At Birkbeck, she would make every effort to explain the best parts about Mexico: the diversity and richness of the country, wanting to show others “what Mexicans are made of.” She applauds Birkbeck for its encouragement of international community and the support of students who comprise that. Azucena is both a Chevening scholar and the winner of the Michel Blanc prize for best MA dissertation and credits both with supporting students, like her, from around the globe.

Whilst lamenting the fact that indigenous languages are dying out in Mexico, Azucena also recognises the value in being able to speak English, seeing this “open doors for so many, including myself.” It was just fifteen years ago, at the age of 18 years, that she made the decision to be an English language teacher. She had previously learnt English at secondary school and found it hard at first, especially since her first teacher was American and spoke very fast.

It’s that experience and understanding which now crosses over into her own teaching of English. She witnesses students who are challenged with learning English as their second language but is fervent in her teaching and reinforces the message that the hurdles of learning another language, especially English, must be overcome in order to reach one’s aspirations.

For her beloved home country of Mexico, this is a matter which is even more paramount. With the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently citing Mexico as the second most unequal country, education reform is a critical matter Azucena wishes to address. She says, “Education means hope for Mexico. When the people of a country are well educated, things will improve, it will shape better citizens and give them a thirst for knowledge which will contribute to a better country.”

Azucena returned to Mexico in February and is working on progressing her career in Education, using learnings from her time spent at Birkbeck and the contact with people of different mindsets to apply to her homeland in a meaningful way. She sees it as her duty to contribute to the education and social landscape in Mexico to improve the country’s academic and economic standing and in turn its international reputation.

Find out more about the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

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Crossing borders to explore new horizons

Carolyn Stillman travelled to the UK from the USA to complete a degree in Language Teaching/ Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) (MA) at Birkbeck, and used her time to travel and throw herself into a different way of life. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carolyn Stillman After having completed a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education in the USA, Carolyn decided that she wanted to expand her horizons and take on a Master’s in the UK. When looking around for options of where she could study, Birkbeck stood out as an ideal choice for what she needed because of the flexibility that evening study gave her.

“One of my room mates mostly worked nights so we would leave at the same time so I had time to see her during the day. I did not have classes on Fridays so I had more time if I wanted to travel over the weekend – one time we took a weekend trip to Ireland.

“Also, if I wanted to work on assignments, it was really helpful when I had the big essays due to have time during the day to research and get those finished.”

During her time in the UK, Carolyn faced the challenge of homesickness. “I was there with barely anybody, I had my boyfriend, but I had met him before I came to London and he lived in Newcastle, which is three hours away. If I wanted to see him, he would have to come down during the weekend or I would have to go up there. So, at first, when I came to London, I didn’t have anyone, I didn’t have my mum obviously, I didn’t have any of my friends and it was such a time difference so homesickness was my biggest challenge because it was just me by myself for the most part.”

Despite the difficulty she first had to adjusting to a new country, Carolyn was able to overcome her homesickness through a mix of time and building connections with people. “I met people on my course at Birkbeck that I was pretty close to and we would hang out, and I had my boyfriend. I had to get over the initial shock of being on my own in another country but I loved it either way, it was hard at first but I still loved it.”

She fondly recalls the small class sizes at Birkbeck which differed from the 100 person classes she experienced during her undergraduate degree. “It was really intimate, so we all got to build off of each other and do different activities and those were my favourite classes.”

When the pandemic hit, Carolyn was finishing up her classes and she recalls it being hard going from in-person to online learning, but she was grateful that all the online videos were easy to access.

Having completed her Master’s, Carolyn is back in the US where she has resumed her teaching career, a job which she hopes to continue now that she has the knowledge she gained from her course. “I have a couple of students at the moment and English isn’t their first language. The course has helped me a lot with coming up with different modifications to lessons.”

Carolyn also hopes to be able to travel more once the pandemic subsides and hopefully, one day, return to the UK to teach. In the meantime, she’s telling everyone she knows about Birkbeck: “I really enjoyed Birkbeck, I talk about it all the time! People are really interested in hearing about it whenever I bring it up and I don’t regret it at all, I loved my time in London.”

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Changing career paths: from working in criminal justice to lecturing at a university

Janet Omondi studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education from 2019 to 2020 as a tool to aid her career transition from working in the National Probation Service to lecturing at a university. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Janet Omondi’s story of what led her to study at Birkbeck showcases perseverance and courage after she underwent a complete career change a few years ago, taking the leap to pursue her passions of educating young people about health.

Janet first began her career as a Probation Service Officer for the National Probation Service after completing her first degree in BSc Business Computing. She held the position for seven years but in 2009, she was faced with no option but to give up her job to become a full-time carer for a family member. During this challenging and emotional time, Janet came to the decision that she wanted to change her career and follow her dream of lecturing about health at a university.

In 2012, she began studying BSc Health Promotion at the University of East London, followed by an MSc in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In 2016, she took up a teaching position as a Lecturer in Health Sciences at the University of East London. She came to study a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education at Birkbeck in 2019 to develop her skill set and knowledge further.

When asked about her experiences of studying at Birkbeck, Janet said: “I quickly developed rapport with my fellow students. I found sitting and learning with a cohort of people that were so passionate about the course too really inspiring. The best thing about Birkbeck is the diversity of students who come from all walks of life, which brings a rich wealth of viewpoints and perspectives, as well as the sharing of cultures and experiences.

“The pandemic hit the UK mid-way through my course, so I had to adjust to the new way of learning online quickly. At first I felt a bit apprehensive, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought, and my classmates and I didn’t experience much technical difficulty at all. The lecturers have been so dynamic, supportive and understanding throughout. Birkbeck responded remarkably well to the pandemic and the transition to online learning was seamless. I now feel very comfortable being on camera when I’m in an online lecture!”

In her spare time, as well as looking after her three children aged 10, 18 and 22, Janet is a Trustee of Riana Development Network, which promotes and delivers community programmes for young people in the UK and overseas. Janet provides crucial guidance by contributing to the charity’s culture, strategic focus, effectiveness and financial sustainability.

In the future, Janet aspires to continue learning and her words of encouragement to others are that “we should continue to learn in all aspects throughout our lives”.

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