Tag Archives: education

“A year into my degree I fell pregnant and experienced numerous complications during and after my pregnancy – the support I received from Birkbeck was second to none.”

Ella Michalski graduated this month with an LLB Law degree after becoming pregnant with twins during her degree and her daughters experiencing many health complications. Ella persevered with her degree throughout this traumatic time, even studying from hospital. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Ella Michalski with her family on her graduation day

Ella Michalski with her family on her graduation day

I spent my teenage years in the care system with a local authority. When I entered my early twenties I was desperate to travel, so I used my savings from various hospitality and retail jobs I’d had to travel around the world. I returned from travelling aged 25. I had an amazing few years but I was ready to return to normality again and wanted to settle in one place.

My late twenties soon came around and I decided I wanted to enter higher education to pave and develop my career, but I wanted to find a way of studying that meant I could keep my daytime commitment of working in retail. I knew I wanted to study law, with criminal justice being a huge interest of mine.

I came across Birkbeck after friends recommended it to me – studying in the evenings provided the perfect solution. I signed up for a Birkbeck open day, and after attending I just knew Birkbeck was where I wanted to go. It had a real feel, straightaway, of a strong student community. Despite having no previous legal experience, I took a deep breath and enrolled onto the LLB Law degree.

A year into my degree, when I was aged 29, I became pregnant. Unfortunately, I experienced numerous complications during my pregnancy, and at 12 weeks into my pregnancy I was told with near-certainty I would lose my twins. I spent 14 weeks on bedrest in hospital. The Wellbeing Team at Birkbeck were so supportive with finding me alternative ways to study in hospital, and despite being in such a traumatic situation, studying really helped give me escapism from my difficult reality at that time.

When I gave birth, my twins were born with chronic lung disease. They spent three months in intensive care, with multiple medical difficulties whilst they were there. I spent my days visiting the hospital in the day and studying in the evening. Knowing that I could tell my daughters about how I studied for a degree kept me going as I knew how proud of me they’d be one day.

When my daughters were finally discharged from hospital, they were on oxygen 24-hours-a-day for a whole year. Despite their severe health needs during this time, I continued with my degree. It was certainly hard but Birkbeck ensured I had the support in place, and with my strong network of family and friends I was able to persevere and eventually complete my degree.

Reflecting on my Birkbeck experience as a whole, it’s provided me with skills that I didn’t even know existed and given me so much more than I ever anticipated. The skills I’ve gained will stay with me forever and go far beyond just academic skills. My degree has propelled my confidence – it’s made me believe in myself a million more times more than I ever thought possible. When I was able to attend lectures in person, I found the teaching incredible. The lectures were always so informative and inclusive with students in the room, and questions were really encouraged. I’d describe the learning experience at Birkbeck as gentle and encouraging. I particularly enjoyed group work – I found it brought people together and the Library facilities were brilliant as we could book group areas easily to work together.

Thankfully, my daughters are now well and thriving. In the future, I plan to pursue a career in criminal justice. I’m hoping to volunteer for the Innocence Project soon, which aims to free innocent people from incarceration. I also enjoy being an ambassador for the Rainbow Trust Children’s Charity, which provided invaluable support for my family and I through our challenging times.

I’d 100% recommend studying at Birkbeck to anyone – the level of education, flexibility and support I received was second to none.

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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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“The more I learn, the more I want to learn” – from ‘left behind’ to law degree

Firhana wasn’t sent to school as a child and only learnt to read and write at 15. With years of hard work, persistence and dedication, she’s achieved the extraordinary feat of gaining a master’s degree in Law – and now has plans for a PhD.

Growing up, the idea of studying for a degree wasn’t even on Firhana’s radar. She was raised in Oxford with her parents and five siblings but was never enrolled in school – something that only came to light when a doctor made a home visit and found that at 12 years old, Firhana wasn’t able to write a simple sentence. When asked why they didn’t send their daughter to school, her parents said, “in our culture, the daughters get married, have children, and run the household.”

She strongly believes her parents did their best for her within the cultural context that they knew, but going to school for the first time was very difficult. “I was quite severely bullied because I didn’t know how to read and write,” Firhana remembers. “A lot of the children at school obviously thought that if I was born in England, why couldn’t I read or write? Eventually I had a one-to-one tutor who went through letters and phonics with me. I mastered my alphabet at the age of 15, and slowly learnt how to read and write.”

“To be honest with you, I didn’t really understand what I was reading at first. I used to look at the pictures and try to make out the story as I was going along. I didn’t really try to help myself because I had missed so much so I thought there was no point. Eventually, when I was about 19, I finished the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was my favourite book.”

After she had her own daughters in her twenties, she knew she wanted to get a proper education to help her children get ahead in life. Today, after years of hard work and close, careful guidance from dedicated teachers, she is graduating with a master’s degree in Law from Birkbeck, University of London with merit, after gaining a 2.1 in her bachelor’s degree in 2012. Next, she plans to apply for a PhD looking into sexual violence in Asian communities. “Who would have thought there was going to be degree after degree for a typical Pakistani housewife who missed out on most of her primary and secondary education?!” she laughed.

Firhana is a passionate advocate for women and girls in Asian communities, and wrote her master’s dissertation on the grooming gangs in Cowley, Oxford where she grew up. “If I had any power,” she says, “I would ask the government to look at legislation which deals with violence towards women, especially women of colour. I feel like there’s not enough said or done because people are culture sensitive. I think the government should also aim to get women over 30 or 40 back into education. I think a lot of women in my era missed out and they feel like they don’t have the opportunities.”

Birkbeck’s evening study model suited Firhana, who was able to combine her studies with working and family life. Her daughter, Aisha, was starting her A levels at the same time as Firhana started university – “we were study buddies!” she said. “Today my daughter is an A level teacher in a really good school, and she’s also doing her master’s at Birkbeck. My other daughter is studying English Literature and Creative Writing, and my son’s at grammar school preparing for his GCSEs. He plans to go on and study Medicine.”

“Birkbeck has changed my life and my family’s life for the better. It has just had such a massive impact. What we show our children is what they will follow. I showed mine love for books and education because my teachers showed me their love for books. Now I feel like I have been empowered with the gift of knowledge. I am on a journey of learning more and more every day, because the more I learn the more I want to learn.”

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The past in the present at international meeting on ancient and medieval Telangana

Dr Rebecca Darley, a lecturer in medieval history from the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology reviews an international conference on the history of Telangana in Hyderabad, India.

In January 2018, researchers from across the world met in Hyderabad, India for the second international congress uncovering the history of ancient and medieval Telangana. The first, held in 2017, had been inaugurated only three years after Telangana became India’s newest federal state and the first new state to be created since India’s independence in 1947.

Though Telangana is administratively a very new state, its claims to an independent identity are rooted in the antiquity and uniqueness of its culture. These conferences, hosted by the Telangana State Department for Archaeology and Museums, now re-named Heritage Telangana, were therefore aimed at bringing together researchers and the public to celebrate and uncover this past. In particular, the focus on the ancient and medieval periods was intended to provide a sense of the depth of this identity beyond the recent rhetoric of an independence campaign which was, for obvious reasons, rooted in modern grievances and modern decisions about how to establish the states of India.

I was very fortunate to have been at the 2017 gathering as well and it was great to meet new people, see old faces and to be back in one of my favourite cities in the world. My own research focuses on discoveries of Byzantine and Roman coins, minted in the Mediterranean region, but exported to south India in the first seven centuries AD. The State Archaeology Museum in Hyderabad has one of the largest collections of these coin finds in India and many were discovered within what is now Telangana. This was the challenge I had set myself; to interpret these ancient finds through the lens of the modern boundaries of Telangana State.

Mine was the first paper after the elaborate and extremely enjoyable opening ceremonies, and it received a very good response. It was a particular honour to be on a panel with P. V. Radhakrishnan and T. Satyamurthy, both senior scholars whose work I have used and admired for many years.

Being the first paper also meant that I was then free to enjoy the rest of the conference – two days of papers and cultural performances. Director of Heritage Telangana, Smt. N. R. Visalatchy has made it her mission in this post not just to raise the profile of cultural heritage in Telangana, but also to expand its definition, and so academic papers were combined with demonstrations of classical dance and folk musical performance. The range and standard of papers was wonderful, as was the public interest shown in the conference. It would be fair to say that academic conferences in the UK rarely attract a substantial public audience, even when they are open and advertised. By contrast, in both 2017 and 2018, the international meetings on Telangana heritage filled an auditorium with a crowd including journalists, members of learned societies, local history enthusiasts, writers and teachers, as well as archaeologists, academics and heritage workers.

Heritage institutions in India, as in the UK, often have to struggle with budgetary constraints, maintenance of buildings which are themselves heritage structures and recording and cataloguing ever-growing collections. The support given by Telangana State to these conferences is, therefore, most welcome and was an opportunity also to see some of the success stories as excavators reported on ongoing archaeological excavations and developing projects.

Hopefully, there will be a chance to meet again in Hyderabad for the third international conference on Telangana Heritage. My own research, in part as a result of this paper, has raised a wealth of new questions about how Roman and Byzantine coin evidence can reveal social practices and state structures in inland India. There remains much more to say and to discover.

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