“There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’”

Former television presenter and journalist Gavin Campbell grew up in a house full of books, jazz, and intellectual discussion, and credits his parents for instilling his love of learning. His successful TV career brought him into contact with various aspects of the law, sparking an interest in human rights, criminal law, and in particular the uses and abuses of custody. He chose to pursue this further by undertaking an LLB at Birkbeck, which he graduated from this week aged 73, and in a new career as a paralegal.

He follows in his mother’s footsteps, who, despite leaving school at 14, was able to pursue her own scholarly interests later in life, gaining a BA from the Open University in her eighties. His father, having been seriously wounded at Dunkirk, spent much time in military hospitals studying, with a particular interest in the early Greek and Roman periods.

He says: “I think it was my parents’ attitudes to learning – to never be afraid to question that to think that one might be able to achieve something – that made me believe I could.”

He left Drama School to pursue acting work, before training as a journalist and joining the BBC’s current affairs unit, working on That’s Life, and other features and current affairs programmes. However it was his work as an investigative reporter which brought him into frequent contact with various aspects of the law and accelerated his interest in the subject.

“A short documentary that I reported on following the suicide of a young teenager at a Young Offender’s Institution, gave me an insight into and a further interest in the use of custody in the UK,” he remembers,  “an interest which has deepened and led to an undergraduate dissertation on Restorative Justice for my LLB at Birkbeck.”

“Although a tough regime in terms of the reading and essay writing, preparing for and attending lectures and seminars, I loved the subject and was hugely encouraged by some remarkable teachers.”

His advice for an older person who may be worried about starting university and whether they can make a go of it, he says, is simple and straightforward: “everyone has talent, and talent will out; it’s just a question of finding the right outlet for it. Ask yourself why you want to study. Finding the right subject  – something that fascinates you and you really have a need to find out about and explore  – is essential if you are going to be able to enjoy it and sustain the effort required over three or four years.”

“Everyone finds some aspects of study difficult, so don’t expect that there won’t be times when you think ‘I can’t get this’ – there will be. But don’t ever be afraid to ask for help – your Personal Tutor, the academic teaching the subject, your fellow students. There are always solutions; it’s just a question of getting help and advice to find them.”

“Lastly, and really importantly, make sure that you have the support of your family in undertaking a degree. Discuss it with them first, explaining what it is, why it’s so important to you to undertake it and what the likely and possible demands it may make on the family life are. Honesty is the very best policy here. A united, agreed start is the best start to studying.”

He is doubtful about whether he could have finished the degree without “the kindness, encouragement, help and support from the Birkbeck teaching and administrative staff,” who he says were central to his studies. “The inclusive and open atmosphere of Birkbeck and the sense of ‘you can’ is, I believe, perhaps the most important aspect of studying here. Never once was I told that I couldn’t, or that it would be too difficult. On the contrary, at every turn I was encouraged to continue, to work hard, to feel able to approach staff with a difficulty and seek a solution – and never to lose sight of the fact that there is no such thing as ‘can’t’”.

He is now working for a firm of solicitors with a practice focused on immigration, personal injury, public law and human rights, which he combined with his studies at Birkbeck. He is currently working on the Grenfell Tower Fire Inquiry, where his firm represents many of the bereaved survivors and relatives of the 72 victims of the tragic fire.

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”With the right motivations you can shift your life for the better”: young father works nights to achieve degree success

Marco Murdocca’s ambition to change his career led him to pursue a degree in Psychology at Birkbeck. Like many students he juggled a full-time job, working night shifts throughout his four year degree. Now with a new job and a young family, he reflects on how his hard work paid off.

After deciding on a career change Marco thought that Birkbeck’s evening taught degrees would enable him to fulfill his ambition while supporting his family. He was impressed by the quality of the teaching in the psychology department and inspired by the original mission of the College’s founder, George Birkbeck who he said, “intended to give an opportunity to the working class to gain further education and better lives. That really resonated with my situation and further convinced me to choose Birkbeck.”

Like most students, Marco faced the challenge of fitting in his studies with an incredibly busy schedule. During the week he worked in The Victoria, Grosvenor Casino and for the last two years of his degree he looked after his pregnant wife and eventually their son, Dante. Marco reflected: “Four days a week I would have been at university by 3pm to prepare for the lecture, and then I attended the lecture from 6pm to 8:30pm and after that I would go to work for a 10pm to 6am shift to finally end up in bed at 7am. For four years.”

Marco progressed well through his studies finding support from his lecturers, particularly his project supervisor, PhD candidate Isabella Nizza, who he said “has been great supporting me and pushing me over my limits and made the project a very formative journey.” But also from his fellow classmates whose varied backgrounds meant that as a group they pushed each other to get things done.

Ultimately, Marco’s source of inspiration was his family. “At the start of my journey, changing my career and upgrading my life was the leading drive. Towards the end, it became my wife and my son.”

His hard work has paid off as soon after completing the course Marco got a job as a consultant at The Business Transformation Network, a company that provides brand amplification to businesses from the HR tech landscape, where he is involved in attracting new partners to the network and sustains relationships with those already a part of it. He has not ruled out a Master’s degree in the future, but understandably for now he will be focusing on his new job and his family.

Marco’s parting words of advice for anyone thinking of a career change: “I would say, go ahead and get a degree and take ownership of your future. London has a wealth of educational opportunities to take advantage of, irrespective of age, gender, religion, sexual orientation and life commitments. What I realised is that with the right motivations and mindset you can achieve big and shift your life for the better. A bit of luck also helps!”

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“Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability meant I had the chance of getting a degree”

 

Godlisten Pallangyo received a limited education in his home country of Tanzania. Despite not having an abundance of resources at his disposal in his early life, he demonstrated a will to finish school and study politics at university.

Born into a poor family in rural Tanzania, Godlisten was limited by the lack of resources available to students who were not able to afford to pay for their education. At the end of the school day and at the weekend, Godlisten would help his parents with farming their land.

Despite these challenges, Godlisten passed primary and secondary school. However, when it came time to progress to A-Levels his family could not afford to pay for his education. He went out and supported himself financially so he could complete his studies, while also supporting his younger brother at school.  Unfortunately, Godlisten did not get the grades needed to get a place at a university in Tanzania, but he never gave up hope of getting a university education.

Ten years later, Godlisten was living and working in the UK with ambitions to study politics. He said; “I became interested in politics from an early age, as growing up in Tanzania, I wanted to learn more about how decisions were made both at global and national levels.”

Even though Godlisten’s grades would have disqualified him from some university courses, Birkbeck’s inclusive policy meant that his application was assessed on future potential, not just past attainment. He commented: “I think it is very important for universities to recognise the potential in students rather than just looking at grades as many people don’t get the same opportunities as others educationally and so don’t achieve the right grades to progress. Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability through set assignments meant I had the chance of getting a degree, something which I never thought I would achieve.”

When he first started at Birkbeck it had been ten years since he had written his last essay so his first assignment was a challenge. He recalled: “I was not used to reading long articles and books as I am quite slow at reading and it took me a while to get used to it. Learning how to structure an essay and develop an argument, when you come from an education system that just teaches you to listen and repeat information rather than think creatively was definitely a challenge!”

Godlisten found support from his lecturers and tutors who were able to help students from non-conventional educational backgrounds and was aided by the flexibility afforded to students through evening teaching, which he said allowed him to “plan my time well ahead of each term in order to ensure I attended all my lectures and complete my assignments on time.”

For Godlisten, taking the step into higher education was a worthwhile one that will hopefully see him fulfil his ambition of influencing political change in Tanzania. His parting words of advice for anyone unsure about returning to education: “If you’re thinking about getting a degree I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It may seem like just another three years of reading long books but I gained so much more than just writing essays and achieving good grades. I got to meet people I would never otherwise have met, increase my confidence and broaden my thinking.”

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“We need more women to study computer science and build the future.”

Being a woman with a newborn in a male-dominated subject didn’t stop Camilla Graham Wood from achieving a first in Computing. She shares her story in this interview.

Birkbeck: What made you decide to return to university and study computer science?

Camilla: My decision to study computer science was quite a random one. I have no technical background, no science background. In fact, I’m terrible at maths as well. I think my ignorance as to what studying for a degree in computer science would truly involve was a huge benefit. If I knew what was in store, I’m not sure I would have signed up.

At the time I decided to enrol, I was working in legal aid and the then Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s devastating reforms were completely decimating access to justice. I was chatting with a colleague about our backup plans if we lost our jobs because the cuts were so severe. I thought that I might need another skill in addition to law.

I was listening to various podcasts and in one Sheryl Sandberg said that more women should study computer science, so I thought ok, I’ll give that a go. I looked up evening classes in London and came across Birkbeck. I signed up, got through the entry test, and who would have expected that five years later I’d graduate with a first?

How did you find your course, coming from a Law background?

The course was a shock in many ways. I was one of two or three women in a sea of men. I had no idea what the lecturers were talking about, particularly at the start of each course, so I furiously took detailed notes and then went back over them trying to understand what the hell binary digits were, for example. I remember being totally flummoxed even by the basics. I think that nowadays, with technology so pervasive in our lives, most people have a better base understanding than I did when I commenced my studies.

My legal background meant that I found the more theoretical side of the subject much easier. The practical side, such as Java and PHP were challenging and required a lot of practice. That’s one of the harder things when you’re working full time and have other commitments, is to find the time to go over and over something until you can’t work out why you found it so difficult at the start.

What was it like juggling a career with family life?

My partner has been amazingly supportive: he encouraged me to apply, which was good because it meant he couldn’t complain when for the next five years I spent three nights a week at Birkbeck and most of April to June revising. I think he was more excited when I finished than I was.

I didn’t get pregnant until the end of my course, and with working full-time and studying I was already used to having a limited social life. My baby was born in August, so I was quite heavily pregnant during summer exams. My sister said it was a benefit, as it meant I had two brains. That’s one way of looking at it.

The more amusing time was when I had a newborn and still had lectures to go to. I used to drive to Euston with my newborn in the back, meet my partner there who came from work, he’d drive her home and I’d try and stay awake in the lecture. It was pretty chaotic, but we all made it through. I’m sure a lot of those studying in the evening are balancing multiple things and just trying to keep everything moving forwards.

In that same lecture there was another woman who came with her young daughter. I thought that was far more impressive than what I was doing. What incredible drive to attend lectures and convince your daughter to come along too.

What would you say to women considering studying computer science?

We need more women to study computer science and build the future. It will be to the detriment of society if technologies continue to be developed and built predominantly by white men in California. We need diversity in computer science to ensure that discrimination and exclusion is not exacerbated in the future. We need women from all types of backgrounds to shape the face of technology tomorrow. I saw a lot of women going through the doors of Birkbeck, I hope that in the future more of them go into the Computer Science lectures.

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