“I fell in love with Birkbeck the moment I began studying”

Patricia Bonifaz Carrillo arrived at Birkbeck without a formal qualification, but her desire and ambition to learn saw her complete the Higher Education Introductory Studies course and a BSc Business degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Patricia Bonifaz Carrillo on her graduation day

Patricia, mother of five, left Colombia for the UK 15 years ago, to be closer to her children and grandchildren. She began her Birkbeck journey back in 2016, when she undertook the Higher Education Introductory Studies (HEIS) course (opting for the Business Studies pathway). Patricia became aware of the course because of Bridges to Birkbeck – an initiative in partnership with Haringey Council that aimed to meet the educational and career aspirations of residents in Tottenham. She found the course hugely enriching: “Enrolling on the HEIS course marked a new life for me, taking away the bad and sad memories I had. I studied alongside 19 peers from a rich variety of backgrounds and we all loved the experience of studying and getting to know one another.”

After completing the year-long HEIS course, Patricia enrolled onto the BSc Business degree in 2018, “I fell in love with Birkbeck, and I just thought, if others can do a degree, why can’t I? I felt much more confident in studying at degree level after the HEIS course, and the evening classes and part-time study option meant I could continue working and attend to family duties. I discovered that social inclusion and mobility are at the heart of Birkbeck’s philosophy, and are real facts, not words. I wanted to study business because it is the core activity around the world – everything has to be profitable.”

Patricia enjoyed all of her degree modules and she was very pleased to receive academic support for English and maths during one-to-one sessions throughout her degree. She explains, “I felt very supported at Birkbeck – the English support I received was excellent and really helped challenge me and improve my maths and English language skills. My course fulfilled my ambitions of learning about the economy, microeconomics and macroeceonomics, statistics, philosophy, governance, law for business, sociology, finance, business plans, psychology, research methods, marketing laws and understanding cyber-attacks prevention. The academic and administrative staff from the Department of Management were very caring, efficient and professional.”

She is hugely proud to have completed her degree this year, aged 69: “I’m so happy to have graduated, I never thought doing a degree in the UK was possible for me, and I’m the first in my family to have studied at degree level. I would encourage others to never doubt their skills and abilities, to not be afraid and to apply to study at Birkbeck to help them realise their dreams. The excellent reputation and relationship that Birkbeck has with the biggest employers and the support delivered to its students and alumni really enhances your skills and employability.”

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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

Study Psychology at Birkbeck.
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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“During my time at Birkbeck I saw over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends – it was the best time of my life!”

Xiayan Zeng graduated last week with an MA in Screenwriting. She shares her #BBKgrad story in this interview.

Xiayan Zeng

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?
I was studying for my PhD in China and I felt something wasn’t right. I’d studied playwriting for ten years and I wanted to learn more. I decided I should spend my gap year studying screenwriting in the UK to experience different cultures and meet new people.

I chose Birkbeck because I had a great interview with Professor Paul Gallagher, Associate Lecturer in Screenwriting, which confirmed my decision to study at the College.

Did you enjoy having lectures in the evening?
Yes, I loved having the lectures in the evening because my thoughts are a lot clearer at night.

In the daytime, I read scripts and wrote my assignments. Occasionally I went to see a play in the West End and visited museums or galleries, or just enjoyed sightseeing around London.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?
After I finished my degree, I returned to China to finish my PhD and now I am a Lecturer in a university, teaching playwriting.

As an international student, what would you say were the differences for you in culture that you noticed?
The main problem was the language barrier. English is not my mother tongue, so I sometimes struggled writing in English. My classmates and professors noticed this and they helped me correct my mistakes in my assignments and speaking.

Another difficulty I had was explaining my culture. The difference between Eastern and Western culture is something I wrote about in my assignments. Sometimes my classmates and the professors wouldn’t understand, but later it became clearer when they’d ask questions: “Why did your character do this?”, “Why did your character solve the problem in this way?” I would explain my thoughts and then they’d give me advice and suggestions on how I should write so it would be clearer to the reader.

Thanks to Professor Paul Gallagher, Professor Barbara Cox and so many other professors, I’ve got to know more about screenwriting and the difference between screen and theatre. I had a great time chatting with professors about my assignments, which made my life in London wonderful.

How did you settle into life in the UK?
I had a student community of mostly Chinese students, but I also felt I should spend more time communicating with other people. I communicated with people who don’t only speak Chinese, often having a drink with my classmates after lectures, which helped me to fit into London life.

Do you have any advice that you would give to other international students coming to study at Birkbeck?
I think for the full-time students, you may feel that there are a lot of assignments, but when you spend your time and you concentrate on them, you will find that you will successfully finish them.

And, as for the language – just communicate with classmates and your professors and don’t be ashamed of getting things wrong; you will find that it won’t be a problem.

During my year at Birkbeck, I have seen over 100 films and plays in London, travelled over 5 countries, and made so many friends.

It has been only a year in Birkbeck, but I can say it is the best year I’ve ever experienced!

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