“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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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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