Tag Archives: #BBKgrad

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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Changing careers: from coffee shop manager to finance administrator

When Alba DeCarlo left school at 18 she never imagined she would get a degree. Despite that statement, this week she graduates from Birkbeck with a degree in BSc Business and has changed careers from a coffee shop manager to a Finance and Administrator lead for NBC Universal. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Alba with her sister Anna

Alba DeCarlo (R) with her sister Anna Rita DeCarlo (L) who is also graduating this year with a degree in BSc Marketing.

Alba first came to the UK from Italy aged 19, with very little English. She found a job as a waitress and eventually worked her way up to being the manager of a coffee shop from the ages of 21 to 25. While she enjoyed the social atmosphere and physicality of her job, Alba began to feel in need of a change. “I needed to escape the industry, just do something different. Then my mum said, ‘Why don’t you just go to university?’ I had not considered it an option for me but after doing some research I found Birkbeck.”

Since she could not give up work to study, Alba found Birkbeck’s evening model perfect for her: “It was the only university I applied for, so I put all my eggs in one basket!” Luckily Alba was accepted on to the business course that she hoped would expand her career options: “I wanted to study business because I had already gained skills working as a manager but I needed the theory. I wanted to know how businesses are created and run, so that maybe one day I could open my own.” She was so enthused by Birkbeck’s offer that Alba convinced her younger sister to start a marketing degree in the same year.

Alba found the opportunity to study again an enriching experience, “I learned how important it is to socialise and meet people, because before Birkbeck all I did was work, so most of my friends were from there. At Birkbeck I was able to meet people and go to the library and have access to books, everything was just right there for me.” She also benefitted from technology support from the College which enabled her to get a free laptop to use for her studies.

Like many students who come to the College, Alba encountered challenges along the way. SheAlba DeCarlo changed jobs a number of times to adapt to studying, even taking jobs abroad at times to earn enough money. In her final year, she decided to go back to working in a coffee shop and was eventually promoted to the Operational Training Manager of a number of premises. After a year she found out she was pregnant. Not discouraged by this, Alba did the maths and decided that she would still be able to complete her degree without pausing her studies. “I was lucky in a sense because I gave birth during the pandemic when classes and exams were held online which meant I could do everything at home and study – albeit while being very tired!”

True to form, Alba made the leap closer to her business ambitions to a job as a Finance and Administrator lead at NBC Universal before she had even graduated. She started out in the company as a Catering and Event Manager and because of her eye for numbers was eventually asked by the Account Manager to become an Administrator. “The degree has helped me get into finance, and I think it will help me get to where I want to be in the future.”

This week she celebrates completing this phase of her journey and looks forward to learning more and continuing to grow in her field.

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“Learning doesn’t stop in the classroom when you go to university in London”

Alin Dinçman joined Birkbeck through Clearing and coming from Turkey she found studying in London really broadened her horizons. This week she graduates with a BSc in Computing.

Alin Dinçman watching a show at the Royal Albert Hall

London is full of surprises: there’s always something that can excite and amaze you in every corner. There’s beauty to be found in every part of the city, with each season eliciting a different feeling. Birkbeck’s lectures are in the evening, so I had my daytimes free to take advantage of everything London has to offer. I made friends quickly with other people my age on my course, and we ended up spending most days together; taking long walks through London, going to operas and plays, visiting free museums and travelling to different cities in the UK, like Oxford. Going to shows in the Royal Albert Hall was one of my favourite things to do – I felt like I was travelling back in time.

Alin Dinçman visiting Wales

It was amazing to study and have my lectures in Bloomsbury; a place that has shaped literature and culture. I loved spotting the blue plaques of notable men and women – when I saw that Charles Dickens, my favourite author, once lived in the area I was so excited. Learning doesn’t stop in the classroom when you go to university in London – the culture and history is so rich, you really broaden your horizons.

Before joining Birkbeck, I’d already been living in London for a couple of years. Coming to London felt like a dream at first – I’d always wanted to study in the UK because of its renowned education system. My family and I moved to the UK from Turkey, and I studied fast track A-Levels, having to adapt quickly to a very different education system. I applied to Birkbeck through Clearing, which was a very smooth, friendly process. Birkbeck really cares about potential students, and I felt like I was entering a big family. The primary reasons I chose Birkbeck were its location, its University of London membership and its fascinating history – Birkbeck is celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2023.

I didn’t actually have much of a culture shock when we arrived in London, except for noticing more bicycles! Because I grew up living in different cities in Turkey, and I also experienced living in Naples, Italy, for two years in secondary school, I was quite used to adapting to different cities and cultures. I don’t think London is difficult to adapt to though as an international student: it’s a very cosmopolitan city and you see people from all over the world at every turn. I wasn’t fazed when my family moved back to Turkey in my second year of university, and I moved into a homestay.

Alin Dinçman in front of Tower Bridge, London

I had to return to Turkey halfway through my studies because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn’t face any challenges when I studied abroad virtually during the pandemic, and I never felt I was receiving less support – the international office and lecturers were amazing and incredibly supportive. I really felt that Birkbeck always put the safety of its students first during the pandemic which I’m grateful for.

I feel very happy to have graduated from my BSc Computing degree with a First-Class Honours. I achieved what I aimed for – it’s an amazing feeling. My advice to other students would be to socialise with people on your course, and to ask lecturers questions. I would also encourage international students to use Studiosity for their assignments – it’s an amazing service Birkbeck offers, especially if your first language isn’t English.

I am now working as a software engineer in a fintech company in Istanbul. I aim to pursue a career full of creativity, that enables me to work in global companies and travel as much as I can. I hope to live in London again in the future!

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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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