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

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Learn more about the Health and Clinical Psychological Sciences Master’s degree.

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A place for new beginnings

Rajivan Rajamohan’s Birkbeck journey was fraught with personal challenges that brought him to the brink of giving up on his MSc in Economics. However, through will, self-care and support from friends and staff, last week he graduated. Here is his #BBKgrad story.

Rajivan Rajamohan

Rajivan Rajamohan

After completing a BA in Accounting and Finance from the University of Essex, Rajivan set about making his ambition to become an economist happen. The first step on his way to achieving his dream was completing a Graduate Diploma in Economics (GDE) to get him onto an MSc in his chosen area of study.

In 2016, Rajivan left his Wealth Management role at a bank in the City to begin his MSc at Birkbeck. Like many Birkbeck students, Rajivan felt the physical and mental demands of working full-time in a professionally demanding role while studying a subject that he didn’t have much previous experience in, “I had to work harder to fill the missing gaps in my knowledge, considerably more and quicker than most of my peers as my MSc was funded by myself with my full-time role as a Waiter for Nando’s”, he says. But that didn’t stop him diving headfirst into other commitments, taking the time to volunteer at Great Ormond Street Hospital and for Birkbeck’s Academic Panel on behalf of the Student Union, which earned him the ‘Birkbeck Colours and Honours Award’ in 2018.

It was during his GDE that Rajivan realised that the stress of exams was affecting him more than other students, with a fellow student urging him to seek help. Eventually Rajivan was diagnosed with the mental health condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which he discovered was triggered by exams. He explained, “While undertaking my GCSE exams at the age of 16, I went through unexpected and substantial trauma during the year of my final GCSE exams, which was not correctly diagnosed as PTSD for eight years. Due to the extremely delayed diagnosis, my PTSD was untreated and served to exacerbate the original trauma and exam-related anxiety.” Rajivan was able to begin treatment for his PTSD in the summer of 2016.

Being at Birkbeck meant that Rajivan could access disability support to help him with managing his rigorous and technically challenging exams for the first time in his academic studies, as well as receiving support from fellow students and lecturers who urged him to keep going with his degree, despite the challenges he faced.

Unfortunately, Rajivan suffered a further setback when he lost his creditworthiness due to a mistake made by a bank, meaning he could no longer work in that field, a huge blow as he had previously held roles in the financial sector. He said, “I am currently still seeking legal representation to take further legal advice and actions to rectify this error.”

Yet, now having completed his MSc, after three years, Rajivan can proudly declare that he has done it! “The support, kindness and compassion of my therapist, my Econometrics lecturer and a few of my friends from my undergraduate and postgraduate cohort helped me to stay focused and not to drop out of my degree.”

When asked what advice he would give to someone thinking of studying at Birkbeck, Rajivan urges you to, “Go for it and follow your dreams”. He believes the College’s flexibility is a saving grace, and the character of the students is fascinating: “it is only at Birkbeck where you meet incredible people with extraordinary stories and a whole community of individuals who have dedicated work ethics and a burning desire to reach their ambition.”

Rajivan’s concluding message would be to be kind and compassionate, to yourself and to others, because it’s not always clear what challenges people are facing, even if they project that they are coping well. He urges anyone taking up the challenge to “look after themselves with running, meditation and yoga because things could go unexpectedly wrong and when they do, always work with it and not against it. Be ready to look after your Mind, Body and Soul.”

Although his journey had its ups and downs, Rajivan recalled a quote that kept him going; “Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.”-Maria Robinson.

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Discovering the self-belief that never was

Oliver Victorio, inspired by his time at the House of Commons, overcame a number of obstacles, including; disability, financial hardship and lack of confidence to begin a degree at Birkbeck. This week he graduated with a BA Politics, Philosophy and History and the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize, this is his #BBKgrad story.  

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

The Journey to Birkbeck: From the Corridors of Power to the Classroom of Politics

Before attending Birkbeck, I was an MP attendant in the House of Commons, which is parliamentary parlance for being the odd jobs person for MPs’ needs. It had been a memorable time that made me hungry to want to progress my career, although I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do, I did know that I would need a degree to get it.  So, when the voluntary redundancy was offered, I took it to begin a new journey.

After taking on a few more jobs, I eventually I applied for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and History and was delighted when I was invited for an interview. I was elated to receive an ‘unconditional offer’, and immediately shared the glorious news with my wife, the one person who had been there throughout the entire journey. Three years later I would find myself with a first-class degree and the recipient of the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize for achieving excellence despite circumstances of hardship – a fitting description of my entire journey.

The First Year: Dim Lights, Dyslexia and Distinctions

Getting back into intense study would take some getting used to. I found understanding what I was reading was the first major obstacle for me – it would often take me hours to get through one assigned reading.  It was only later in the first term that I would discover, due to Birkbeck’s prompting and immense support, for which I am grateful, that I had dyslexia and dyscalculia, despite my intelligence.

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

This explained my earlier struggles with learning at school and my mixed results, all of which contributed to my lack of confidence – and eventual withdrawal from the educational system. I remember it would take me an enormous amount of time to just read through the required reading, let alone essay writing.

Once I realised this, I attended a lot of study skills workshops, and disability support, and I found these to be pivotal to my success. One thing about Birkbeck that I have found to be exceptional, alongside their teaching, was the enormous amount of support that is available, both in terms of the plethora of support workshops, but also from the teaching staff.

What’s more, at the time, I lived in a basement studio flat, too small to accommodate a family, with very little room to study. It was difficult to find time to study in the daytime with a then three-year-old to care for, so I would wake up at 5am to squeeze in a few hours of study in my dimly lit bathroom while the house was quiet. I endured this back-breaking situation for the entire first year of study.

Yet, despite this, all my perseverance with reading, deep thinking and re-writing paid off – I struck gold with my very first essay, attaining a distinction mark for the Study of Politics. I was so astonished. In my second essay, I got another distinction mark and more in the second term. I was absolutely stunned – I simply could not believe it. It was unreal that, after all these years of struggle, I was even capable of that.

The Final Year: My Best Results Ever

My final year brought more struggles. The COVID-19 pandemic had begun, which required me to juggle homeworking and home-schooling but that didn’t stop me, I would continue to achieve a distinction in my coursework! I was absolutely awestruck. I still am. It just never seemed that such a thing was even remotely possible for me, given my learning difficulties, and my struggles with confidence and communication over the years.

Final Thoughts

My entire experience at Birkbeck, with the phenomenal network of support – teaching staff, study skills tutors, personal tutors, disability support, administrative staff, and library staff – were absolutely vital in making my success a reality. Despite all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I had faced, from being accepted onto the degree, to getting through it, I feel like I am finally on the path that I should have been on many years before.

A new life is now a real possibility, where I can provide for my family and steer them away from the life that I had experienced. Birkbeck has made this possible. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton eloquently put, I was ‘standing on the shoulders of Giants’. I am forever indebted and will never forget. A new journey now awaits- one that I have been searching for all my life.

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