Tag Archives: Graduation 2019

Birkbeck student graduates with a first after a coma left her unable to read or write

Odessa Hamilton is graduating today with a first class honours degree in BSc Business Psychology after recovering from trauma that left her comatose. This is her #BBKStory.

I ran a successful business in New York, but that all changed when I suffered a trauma and went into a coma.

The doctors did not expect my recovery, but when I woke, I had lost the ability to move from my mouth down. Speaking, reading, walking: I had to re-learn it all. As if recovering from that wasn’t enough, I then decided to apply to university.

The first year was tough. Having to re-learn how to read meant ordinary tasks presented a real challenge. Initially, I couldn’t decipher between words like ‘cite’ and ‘site’, never mind get to grips with complex vocabulary expected of you as a university student.

Birkbeck gave me the platform to do what would not have been possible anywhere else. Evening study meant I could continue to go to my countless hospital appointments for treatments, tests and therapies during the day. Lecturers and all other staff at Birkbeck were always incredibly supportive and willing to help wherever necessary, which proved invaluable!

My lecturers truly encouraged me to continue my studies, and facilitated such by supporting my applications. After graduating with a first class honours degree at Birkbeck, I chose to study a combined Masters in Psychological Sciences as part of the Brain Faculty at UCL to secure my BPS accreditation. Thereafter, my studies shall continue with a doctorate in psychoneuroimmunology.

My unsolicited advice for anyone considering university with a disability and/or a chronic illness is ‘don’t be afraid to be vulnerable’. We often fear being different or being seen as less than, but your condition is not something to overcome – it just is. No different from someone having to wear prescription glasses. If I can study and do well in my situation, anyone can. All it takes is tenacity, diligence and resilience [and perhaps a dry sense of humour to help you along the way].

I don’t make comparisons and I don’t feel sorry for myself: I just get on with doing my best.

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“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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Turning a hatred of education into a passion

In their early life Phoebe Ewles-Bergeron associated education with self-loathing and suffering, but after a challenging journey they were able to develop their love for studying history at Birkbeck.

I always hated school. Education was not joyful or positive in my opinion. It was confusing, frustrating and seemingly endless – but I’ve always loved history. When I was four years old my mother found me in the sitting room trying to “excavate” the carpet after watching one too many episodes of Time Team. I was intelligent and curious about the world around me but in a system that labelled me as an underachiever. When I was six I was formally diagnosed with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Nothing at school seemed to work and soon I believed that my bad grades represented me. I got only Ds so I must be stupid. I could not wait for it to end.

As if that was not enough as a teenager my health started to fail. I was extremely fatigued, experiencing blackouts and had extreme, immobilising chronic pain. No doctor could give a diagnosis. What we now know as Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (PoTs) made my life worse by the day and the previously bad grades worsened. Frustration led to depression and anxiety. But luckily my love of history remained a constant.

When I considered the possibility of university Birkbeck appealed immediately. My PoTs systems are less prominent in the evening so attending classes would be much more realistic at that time of the day. Plus the College heavily promoted diversity. I saw testimonials from people like myself who were finally achieving with the help from teachers and administrators who supported and accepted them.

The only issue was that my A-level grades would most likely not be high enough to make me eligible for a degree. On paper I was far from a hopeful prospect – what saved me was the interview. I was able to explain my circumstances and talk about what I loved about history and archaeology. I was allowed to be myself and I walked out of Birkbeck with an unconditional offer. They saw past my bad grades from school but recognised that I was a young individual who loved knowledge and wanted to learn.

Birkbeck was efficient at getting me the help I needed through the Disabled Student Allowance. Teachers knew about my conditions and often offered me extra help when needed. In 2017 my physical and mental health declined and I had to request a leave of absence, the support and understanding that every member of the department had for me was truly exceptional.

I left for a year and a half, worked on improving my PoTS condition, worked on my cosplay hobby, and had surgery. But I was apprehensive about returning to Birkbeck.

You see, I am transgender. Non-binary to be precise. It was life-changing: depression gone, anxiety gone, and confidence up. My life was full of colour and potential. I was happy. But what would be the reaction of staff that I had come to respect? I should never have doubted it. The reaction was kindness. I still have my old gender marker on the official documentation as I’m still afraid of discrimination. But every member of staff I have talked to has been understanding; I was genuinely surprised. What surprised me, even more, was that my grades shot up. I went from an average of a 2:2 to receiving firsts. I truly believe that this change would not have been possible without the understanding and support of the university.

The best part of my experience at Birkbeck is that it has allowed me to flourish academically. As I studied History and Archaeology the course structure let me pick the topics that intrigued me the most. I got to learn both historical and archaeological approaches. I went on digs at the famous Must Farm and later Despotiko in the Cyclades. I finally decided that my interests lay in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds and I finished my four years at Birkbeck with a dissertation on that very subject. Education was no longer an annoying fact of life. It was addictive.

When I began my first year I still loathed education; I still associated it with suffering and self-hate. I am now in my first year of the MA in Classical Civilization and the complete opposite is true. I am confident in my abilities and intellect. Instead of fearing teachers who called me lazy, I now have teachers that encourage me to pursue further study. I have a disability plan that allows me to play to my strengths. I will never be able to thank Birkbeck enough for managing to transform a decade’s worth of hatred for learning into a passion, one that I hope will continue for many years to come.

I recognise that I am an odd individual; transgender, multiple disabilities and learning conditions. But I have found a place to be accepted at Birkbeck, to be understood. And I hope that any prospective or new student reading this, who is like me, who has struggled for years in a system that was not made for people like us, will consider Birkbeck as a gateway to great things.

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