“If you have a career or a family, Birkbeck is the best university.”

Ever since she was forced to drop out of university for financial reasons, Grace Jaro has dreamed of graduating. This week, she graduates with a BSc Business with Accounting from Birkbeck and wins the prize for Best Overall Business Student.

For Grace Jaro, graduation day has been a long time coming. Having begun her studies in the Philippines, where student loans weren’t available, she was forced to drop out halfway through when her family encountered financial difficulties.

“In my country, if you’re poor, it’s difficult to finish your studies,” she explains. The next time Grace thought seriously about continuing her education, she was married and taking care of her young daughter. “I had offers from other universities, but Birkbeck was the only place that offered the flexibility I needed. I wanted my mornings free to look after my child and undertake volunteering roles.”

Coming back to the classroom after a twelve year gap was a daunting experience at first. “I missed my daughter a lot and my first essay was a total failure,” explains Grace, “I got 35! I was writing the way I was used to in the Philippines; I didn’t know that here you’re supposed to put forward an argument. I was really disappointed with that mark, but when you have a goal, you have to be focused. I asked my lecturers for guidance and advice. I studied hard, did a lot of independent research, and the best essay mark I ever got was 79.”

Grace credits the support she received from Richard Carabine, Learning Co-ordinator for the School of Business, Economics and Informatics for helping her improve, admitting she found the numbers side of the course much easier.

“The brilliant thing about Birkbeck is that everyone here is so friendly. You can always ask the lecturers for advice, and because the business school has the departments of Management as well as Economics, Mathematics and Statistics, there’s someone to help with whatever part of the course you’re struggling with.

“Graduating is a really huge achievement for me. Achieving a first class honours (or Summa Cum Laude in the Philippines) is a bonus, and this Best Overall Business Student award is another dimension of accomplishment for me. I’m completely thrilled and honoured, my goal was to get a first, and I went beyond it!”

So, what advice does Grace have for current and future students?

“If you love your subject and you have the determination, you can cope with the work. And if you have a family and/or a career, Birkbeck is the best university that you can go to. It was my childhood dream to graduate and wear that black academic gown – although now I don’t know what to wear for the ceremony!”

Grace is now looking for a role in accountancy or finance. “In terms of a dream job, I’d love to be a head of finance someday– why not? Dream big, aim high, reach far, but always stay humble.”

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“Studying at Birkbeck makes you feel part of something.”

Studying the BSc Business and Human Resource Management at Birkbeck helped Valentina Introna move from the shop floor to the role of HR Business Partner. This is her #BBKStory.

It hasn’t been an easy journey deciding to go back to study. English wasn’t my first language and I felt that the only way to be fully confident in this new country was to access an academic level of the language. I studied classics in school, back in Italy, and I thought to challenge myself with something scientific and completely new.

When it was time to submit my university application, I was scared and quite nervous; I applied for five colleges and surprisingly all of them accepted my application. I was happy and excited by the unknown! I looked up all ranks, the opinions, the videos made by former students and I decided that Birkbeck was the one for me. It could allow me to work while studying and everyone in those videos looked satisfied.

I am a people person, always have been and always will, but I loved my calculations and my budgeting: Business and Human Resources Management was absolutely the perfect fit for me. Birkbeck was the only university able to combine this dual aspect where the first year (I literally looked into all the modules of each course!) was completely business oriented -i.e. Micro and Macro Economics, Financial Accounting, Quantitative Methods- and the last two a deep dive into the fascinating world of HR. I fell in love on day one, Corporate Social Responsibility.

I started at 31 years old, I had to work, I wanted to work; I couldn’t think of myself just as a student and honestly London is not well-known for its easy-living. I was in retail, supervising a fashion-clothing concession and I remember doing 9:00 to 5:30 shift at work and 6:00 to 9:00 at Birkbeck, an intense twelve-hour day. Every professor and lecturer was so passionate and inspiring that the tiredness of a day standing serving clients was easily forgotten. I was able to understand things that the next day I could apply to my job. I still remember when my manager asked me to help her to read the company’s financial statement. I felt recognised. Once I changed company and I was in my second year, my new manager was so impressed from my commitment in studying while working that, one day, when our Europe Retail Management came to visit the store, he introduced me as “the future HR of the company”. In that moment I was on the shop floor putting shoes back in the box and yes, he was right; exactly one year later I was offered the role of HR Business Partner for the company. I still can’t believe it.

It hasn’t been easy, but studying at Birkbeck makes you feel part of something; you have the chance to meet people with a similar path, your same age, perhaps older; you have the opportunity to advise younger students by sharing your previous experience. You could simply meet special mates that will stay by your side for the entire journey or why not for life. I’ve met two great friends thanks to Birkbeck.

I probably will need few months off studying, but in my plan there is a Masters and, if it’s going to happen, it will be at Birkbeck. The College gives you the right support, everything is online, lessons are recorded, and lecturers are easy to reach. My supervisor for the final project has been so helpful and full of insights that still I am using some of his suggestions to coach my store managers. I will always have good words about Birkbeck, because it gave me a chance: it’s up to you to use it to the fullest, but without the initial opportunity there won’t be stories to tell.

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From the Abercrombie Plan to Abercrombie & Fitch: A cultural history of East London in an evening of films

This post was contributed by Andrew Whittaker, a local Forest Gate resident.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the latest in a series of workshops called “East London In Flux” organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, University of London. This was an evening of films, ranging from the postwar Abercrombie Plan to young people’ views on the Olympics, Westfield (hence the title) and their local area. The films from the 1940s were fascinating and I was surprised at how industrial London was, with rows of cranes at Tower Bridge to unload cargo ships into the warehouses lining the Thames. This was particular true in East London and the second film about West Ham described how washing hung out to dry was often made dirty again by the smoke coming either from the large factories in Stratford or the ships coming into harbour in the docks.

It was also interesting to see the changing culture of architecture over the last seventy years, from the centralised, technical-rational certainties of the 1940s through to the more fluid realities of the current day. In the first film, it was ironic to hear Abercrombie talk of his plans clearing away the ‘bad and ugly things’ of the past, when the modernist architecture of the 1960s is often regarded in a similar way. This was brought home in the Fundamental film ‘Watts the point’, which featured the demolition of a tower block in 2003 and the reactions of former tenants and local people. While such events are often viewed as a triumphant clearing away of the bad and ugly reminders of the sixties, the film captured the most complex feelings evoked in the ex-residents who had spent a significant proportion of their lives there.

One of the recurring themes of the evening was the changing nature of architecture and public involvement. We heard that there were extensive surveys done to gauge public reactions to the Abercrombie Plan in the 1940s, which was quite well-meaning and probably quite genuine. But this was public involvement done on the planners’ terms – they decided what questions to ask the public, which probably followed their own dilemmas and concerns, not those of the public.

This contrasted with the later films about young peoples’ views, which were more interesting and engaging. My two favourites were films about the ‘architecture crew’, a group of local young (13-19 years) who were interested in architecture and it’s contribution to their everyday environment. In the first film, they travelled to St Paul’s to learn more about London’s architectural past and in the second, they discussed how they had researched the history of Newham as a port and industrial area in the lead up to the Olympics. In both films, the passion, enthusiasm and curiosity of the young people came over as they learnt about the history of their city and developed a sense of ownership of the area where they lived. The films documented how they had found a voice and had been influential in major changes such as the Olympics and had obviously had a lot of fun on the way!

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The Legacy of William Morris (East London in Flux V)

This blog was contributed by Elisa Engel, Architect and Director of ehk! (engelhadleykirk limited). ehk! publishes a regular blog on its website. Click here to read.

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

William Morris Gallery. Credit: Nick Bishop, Overview

East London in Flux, an event series organised by Fundamental Architectural Inclusion and Birkbeck, met at the William Morris Gallery on Wednesday 18 June, for the third event in the series. A fascinating guided tour of the collection was followed by tea, cake and debate in the museum’s café.

The William Morris Gallery, at Morris’s former home in Walthamstow, houses an exhibition on the designer, poet and socialist’s life and achievements, alongside changing exhibitions. The museum was remodelled in 2012, coinciding with the Olympics, and has since gone from strength to strength, winning the prestigious Museum of the Year award in 2013.

William Morris (1834-1896) is most famous for his involvement with the arts and crafts movement. By all accounts, throughout his life he battled with two sometimes conflicting ideals.

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The Ideal Book room at the William Morris Gallery. © William Morris Gallery

The first ideal, that of beauty, diverted him from the career in the clergy that he had been destined for. It led him to study art and develop an almost obsessive interest in the details of craft. William Morris was not content to design objects and work with craftsmen in delivering his vision. He insisted on becoming a master in every discipline he touched – to know all there was to know about dyeing fabrics and printing patterns, of weaving tapestries and printing books. It seems almost unimaginable how one person would fit his level of accomplishment, combined with his vast output in different disciplines, into one lifetime.

The second ideal, that of social justice, led him to stand at the street corners of London’s East End, overcoming his fear of public speaking, to rail against inequality and poor working conditions. In his workshops, he offered decent pay and development opportunities for his employees.

William Morris aimed to make his products available to the wider population – he famously said: ‘I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.’

However, this is where his two ideals seemed to collide. Given the meticulous craft that went into producing his company’s artefacts, they would always remain out of the financial grasp of the “common person”. He tried to counteract this by offering a range of objects large and small, to ensure that the moderately wealthy would be in a position to afford at least more minor items that embodied his aesthetics. Commissions for his company, however, came largely from wealthy clients for their refined country homes.

Following the tour of the gallery, the group sat down to discuss how William Morris would have viewed today’s world, and more specifically the changes that East London is experiencing right now. Many of his concerns appear to be surprisingly contemporary – most notably, growing income inequality and the struggle to combine quality design with ethical considerations about methods of production at prices that make objects affordable to every sector of society. A question that sparked much debate was: what would William Morris have made of Ikea and its planned housing development in the Lea Valley?

Black Horse Workshop

© Black Horse Workshop

One development he would have surely approved of is the recent emergence of shared craft spaces in London. Black Horse Workshop in Walthamstow, an easy walk away from the William Morris Gallery, is one such workshop that offers open access to a fully equipped wood and metal workshop for people wanting to reconnect with the making of things.

One can also easily hazard a guess at what he would have made of the sales pitch that the company that still bears his name employs on its website: “The original William Morris and Co: The luxury of taste”…

The East London in Flux evening at the William Morris gallery very much chimed with another event, held at the London School of Economics and organised by the Royal College of Art, the following night. This was a panel discussion featuring Alex de Rijke (of dRMM architects),  Oliver Wainwright (architecture critic at the Guardian) and Katie Lloyd-Thomas of Newcastle University under the title Kapital Architecture: Commodity.  The panel discussed how the role of the designer has changed. Increasingly, architects specify proprietary systems, and merely design the interface between them. This is just one example of how architects are complicit in reducing and narrowing their role in the construction process (while simultaneously aiming to widen their role into other areas, such as social policy). In this way, they are moving further and further away from Morris’s ideal of someone who is intimately involved in the making of things. Not everyone is following this trend, but it is only logical that there is a certain economy to working with proprietary systems instead of bespoke solutions.

But maybe this is not as much of a contradiction as it may at first appear – proprietary systems are not a natural resource, they are designed just as much as a wallpaper by William Morris is. Maybe what needs to happen in order to reconcile William Morris’s two ideals is for those involved in the design of our homes and cities on a larger scale to work much more closely with those behind the designs of the components that make up their physical fabric – and in this way once again to create objects and buildings that are designed in a much more holistic way.

At this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, the 14th International Architecture Exhibition is looking at the evolution of building components from bespoke architectural solutions to manufactured components.  As its curator, Rem Koolhaas,  says: “There are whole sections of my buildings that I have no control over. I simply don’t know what goes into the soffits of my buildings!”

It appears that it is not just us here in East London that people are pondering these questions – East London in Flux is dealing with very topical issues that are being discussed at a global level, forming part of a much wider debate.

East London in Flux continues on 16 July.

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