Mother and daughter who faced homelessness, dyslexia and bereavement triumph as they graduate together

Jessica, Tayah and Maria

Maria Phillips this week graduated with a degree in history while her daughter Jessica graduated with a degree in theatre and drama studies.

When Jessica finished her BTEC in Performing Arts she thought that she would go on to study an acting degree at university. However, aged 19 she found out that she was pregnant and her plans went on hold. In 2012, when her daughter was three years old, Jessica decided that the time had come to return to education, inspired by her mother, Maria, who had just completed the first year of a history degree at Birkbeck.

Being a single mother and worried about how she would find childcare for Tayah and how she could fit studying into her life, Jessica was delighted when she discovered that Birkbeck’s Theatre and Drama degree was taught in the evenings; and that, as Jessica was on a low income, she qualified for a bursary to cover the cost of Tayah’s nursery care at the nursery five doors away from where her classes were.

Maria, meanwhile, had found out about Birkbeck from a woman who worked at a historic house where she was volunteering, helping with tours for visitors, who would be shown around the building by an actress in costume. She explains: “I went to quite a few different schools and ended up leaving without any qualifications. I had my first two children when I was very young and although I did try to go back to education – studying for a GCSE and a City & Guilds qualification in 1990 – I was struggling with homelessness at the time, living in one room with my two girls, and I wasn’t able to take it any further.

“By the time I enrolled on a distance-learning degree a few years after that, I’d been out of education for so long that I struggled a lot and ended up dropping out and almost completely giving up on the idea of education. When I applied to Birkbeck, I was really surprised to get a place.”

Overcoming hurdles

“The first year was difficult,” Maria adds. “It took me that long to understand my way around the library and how to write essays. I remember going to see a tutor for advice. The tutor’s advice was helpful for managing to get my essays in on time, but I still struggled with organisation all the way through my studies and even when it came to the day I handed in my dissertation, Jessica got a taxi with me and we had to run down the corridor to get there in time!”

“Once it had been handed in and I was walking away it felt unreal – I couldn’t believe that I’d finally made it to the end of the course.”

In her second year, Jessica discovered that she had dyslexia but wasn’t going to let that stop her either and, with the help of her learning development tutor, managed to continue with her course. A major flood left Maria homeless and sleeping on Jessica’s couch for seven months at one point, and when Maria’s close friend died just as she was meant to be finishing her dissertation, it nearly all fell apart.

“We both really struggled at times, and both came really close to giving up,” Maria remembers. “I had many problems with housing, including the flood in my home, which took months of battling with my landlord to fix, including at one point getting my MP involved.”

However, her voluntary work, and her studies at Birkbeck, kept her going.  “I became a volunteer at the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Rose Playhouse in Bankside the same year I started at Birkbeck. Being able to escape to the two theatres was one of the most important reasons why I kept going with my studies and why I didn’t give up – it allowed me to step out of the reality of my situation, to step inside another world of theatre and get away from the bad things that were happening in my life.”

“But even though there were times we would weep or argue, it was a real benefit to have someone to talk to who understood what you were going through,” Maria adds. “Support from a sympathetic tutor in the School of Arts – even though my degree was in history, my voluntary work and support from Jess got me through.”

Jessica describes how her confidence in her own abilities has grown during the course: “At first I was really shy in class but as I started to speak to tutors more and get a feel for what was required for the course I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have contemplated before – I went to theatre productions on my own, in all sorts of different locations. One production was as far as Richmond. When I began studying I didn’t even like getting the tube as I never used to be able to work out the different lines.”

“I even took part in The Rose Theatre Bankside’s two Readathon events for the Rose Revealed project in 2014 and 2015. Before studying at Birkbeck I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do that after a huge gap in acting on stage.”

Inspiration

“For my final year project I developed a solo performance piece based on my own experiences as a single mother. It was a tragicomedy about the shame of the single mother on benefits and it expressed this shame through transformation, using makeup and costume as a means to mask the self.

“I also used clowning techniques; my performance depicted the everyday life of a single mother on benefits against the stereotype of the single mother. I used a clown character to show this stereotype. Throughout my intensive research I was greatly inspired by the amazing regency actor and clown, Joseph Grimaldi, who performed in theatres such as Sadler’s Wells, Convent Garden, and Drury Lane.

“I was also inspired by an amazing kind-hearted man and contemporary clown Mattie, who I visited in Dalston at the clown gallery-museum and Archives, located at the Holy Trinity church in Hackney. I went on a few occasions for my research on clowning and on Grimaldi.

“For my solo performance in April this year, I got a first and when I finished performing it everyone was clapping loudly and I literally stood there in shock as I couldn’t believe they were clapping for me. My tutors after the performance were saying how good it was and how much content I had in the piece – one tutor hugged me. When I was collecting my daughter from the Birkbeck crèche I was crying from happiness. That feeling was just overwhelming; I had worked eight months on my own piece of theatre and it was successful, and well-received.”

“I remember when I had to rehearse my solo performance piece at The School of Arts every Monday evening, and I was lucky Tayah was allowed to be in the Birkbeck crèche for the three hours I rehearsed. Throughout those eight weeks I had to devise a performance; I had carrier bags of props and confetti and a baby doll I was carrying on the buses back and forth between Birkbeck and home.

“People on the bus were looking in bewilderment at how many empty food boxes I had – I was laughing to myself as they didn’t know I was rehearsing for my solo performance; I literally got off the bus with my Tesco bags with many props in one hand and little Tayah in the other hand.”

Jessica’s daughter Tayah, who is now seven, was really proud of her mum for getting her assignments in on time. Jessica said: “It’s made her want to do better at school herself and to make me proud. She has even said she will go to Birkbeck when she is older.”

As they prepare for their graduation ceremonies at Senate House on 8 and 9 November, Maria reflects: “I didn’t expect to get to this stage. There were so many obstacles that almost stopped me, but eventually I did it. It has increased my confidence and I will be able to apply for jobs that I couldn’t have before. I’m so proud of Jessica as well. She might not have done it straight after college like she planned to, but now she’s picking up where she left off.”

Jessica was awarded a Harold and Jean Brooks Prize from the Department of English and Humanities to celebrate her academic progress during the course of her BA Theatre and Drama Studies degree. Jessica said: “Now that I’m coming to graduate, I can’t believe it’s happening. But I got through four hard years and now I get to walk away with something huge.”

Jessica is planning to develop further her final year solo performance piece into a longer version and hopes to perform it in the future.

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Military intelligence: former RAF gunner swaps military uniform for gown and mortar board

military-intelligence-photoFormer RAF Gunner and Southwark resident Paul Croney has swapped his military uniform for a gown and mortar board, as he celebrated his graduation today. Military life and then shifts in the police force meant that Paul, 34, didn’t have much time to think about returning to study until 12 years after finishing his A-levels.  However, his military background and experiences of conflict in the Middle East, serving alongside personnel from other nations, gave Paul a strong interest in how politics works at a global level.

When he moved into a new role in the Metropolitan Police Service in May 2012, Paul’s regular hours meant that he had evenings free. The first thing he did was to apply to the part-time Global Politics and International Relations degree at Birkbeck, University of London where the evening study meant he could continue to earn during the day, while satisfying his thirst for knowledge. He received funding through ELCAS, a MoD scheme to help veterans adjust to civilian life by funding courses and tuition fees for their new careers.

Paul says: “The best thing about evening study was I was able to carry on working in a job that I loved while learning. My evenings were being used constructively and I enjoyed the balance of work/study/life.”

While many mature students worry about fitting in at university, Birkbeck’s evening study model attracts a wide variety of different students and Paul says “I’ve made several friends for life from the course. It was great going to university as a “mature student” and, because of the diverse age and backgrounds of the students, not feeling like a granddad.”

Halfway through his degree, Paul applied for a new role in the Civil Service. During the interview he mentioned his studies at Birkbeck and was able to demonstrate his potential by working and learning at the same time. He says, “Now I have graduated, I am able to apply for further roles in the Civil Service that prefer applicants to have a degree.”

Combining full-time work with two or three evenings of lectures a week can be challenging, but a military background is the ideal preparation, providing the discipline needed to be successful. Paul’s advice for others contemplating a degree as a mature student is: “You will need to be really self-disciplined for the degree, particularly for the final two years. It is a great option for veterans, who will come from a disciplined background. I found the best way for me to study was to head to coffee shops with my books and laptop, so I had few distraction, and just made sure I did all the reading for the lectures.”

Paul graduated today at a ceremony at the University of London’s Senate House, along with 175 Birkbeck social sciences graduates.

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Twickenham business woman celebrates graduation after busy two years

A Twickenham businesswoman who has juggled family and study commitments while setting up her own HR consultancy celebrated her university graduation this week.

Sarah Mason

Sarah Mason

On Monday (18 April), Sarah Mason graduated with distinction with a Master’s degree in Management Consultancy and Organisational Change.

During her two-year part-time degree at London’s only specialist provider of evening university study, the 42-year-old Meadway resident established Talent Advantage, her own human resources and leadership training consultancy which built on her experience in senior roles at global recruitment firms. Since her consultancy’s launch in March 2014, it has become well established in the recruitment industry.

She was drawn to the MSc programme at Birkbeck’s Department of Management as it allowed her to combine full-time work in the daytime, while attending up to two three-hour lectures per week in the evenings at the college’s Bloomsbury campus.

She had previously completed a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and a diploma in Employment Law, however the Birkbeck MSc appealed to her as it combined organisational psychology, HR and business – all of which she was interested in deepening her knowledge of at this stage in her career.

While Sarah had prepared herself for a very busy two years upon enrolling, it took her some time to adjust to balancing her multiple commitments.

“It was harder than I thought it would be. I had to give up a lot of my spare time to reading academic papers, writing assignments and doing my research project,” she said.

“I really enjoyed studying but the hardest part was my eight-year-old daughter pushing notes under the door of my study asking me to go to the park with her. I was very lucky that my husband was really supportive and gave me the time I needed to study. Studying alongside a full time job is a big commitment but it was worth it.”

This week, Sarah joined more than 200 fellow postgraduate students from the college’s School of Business, Economics and Informatics at a formal afternoon ceremony held in Senate House. She was joined on the day by her husband, Phil Mason, and her daughter, Tegwen.

She said: “I’m really pleased with this accomplishment. I started off with several goals; get a distinction, learn some useful stuff and hit specific revenue goals for the business.  It was a lot of hard work, but I did achieve them.

“In reality, the grade is much less important than the learning and for some people it’s more about finding a good balance of study, work and life.  For me, having a focus of getting a good grade did push me to make sure I put enough time in to get the most from the course, so I learnt loads.  And I think it’s fine to be a geek!”

Moving forward, Sarah plans to continue growing her consultancy, and further applying the frameworks, theories and evidence-based approach to practice which she learned at Birkbeck.

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Surrey resident graduates with sixth university degree

A Surrey man claimed his sixth university degree this week when he accepted his Master’s in European History from Birkbeck.

Dr David Sutherland

Dr David Sutherland

On Tuesday (19 April), Dr David Sutherland took to the stage at the college’s formal ceremony in Senate House, Bloomsbury. The day marked the achievement of his third degree from Birkbeck, and his sixth overall, across an eclectic field of disciplines ranging from the physical sciences, to language and history.

The 69-year-old Limpsfield resident took his first step on the road to academic success in his native Scotland when he completed a BSc in Physics from the University of Dundee in 1969, followed in 1975 with a PhD in Physics. Well into his career in IT – working for the likes of ICL (now Fujitsu) at the European Space Agency – Dr Sutherland returned to his studies, attaining an MSc in Internet Technology from Queen Mary College in 2002.

From then, he began what is now a hat trick of degrees at Birkbeck – London’s only specialist provider of evening university study – graduating with a BA in German in 2007, and an MSc Bioinformatics in 2012.

Reflecting on his study experiences across the decades and this most recent degree – an MA in European History which he undertook part-time over two years ­– Dr Sutherland said the main difference is the “wide range of fellow students”.

He said: “In Dundee, I was with my peer group and there were very few ‘mature students’. In Queen Mary College I was very aware of being the oldest in the class. Birkbeck has people of all ages and backgrounds so it was easier for me, as an older student, to fit in. However, that is not to say the Birkbeck is only for older students, rather, it is for people of almost all age groups. I believe that this is good for both students and teachers.”

He said that although he initially underestimated the amount of effort required to do course work at postgraduate level, he was able to adjust to the pace.

He especially enjoyed researching and writing his dissertation, which focused on the Scottish Continental herring trade in the ‘long 19th Century’ – a topic which is linked to his family history.

He said: “My ancestors came from Wick in the North of Scotland, and it has been fascinating to find out how their livelihoods depended on a trade that extended far into continental Europe – to Vienna, Moscow, Romania, and even Odessa.”

During the process of writing the 15,674-word dissertation, he was delighted to discover how different the study of history has become thanks to the internet.

Dr David Sutherland

Dr David Sutherland

He said: “In particular, the availability of a wide range of government documents from the 19th century, and of newspapers from the same era, made it possible to gather information much more easily than would have been the case in the past. It is also much easier to collate information gathered in this way.”

This week, Dr Sutherland joined more than 150 fellow postgraduate students from the college’s School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy at a morning graduation ceremony held in Senate House’s Beveridge Hall. He was joined on the day by his wife Sheila, who also graduated in the same ceremony with an MA in Comparative Literature.

Also in the audience was his brother-in-law John Walker, Reader in Reader in German Intellectual History at Birkbeck who first encouraged Dr Sutherland to enroll at the College.

In terms of his plans for the future, Dr Sutherland is now setting up a website based on his dissertation (www.scottishherringhistory.uk).

He said: “This website will not only tell the story, but will also present statistics from that period in graphical form. I am hopeful that it will stimulate further research. There has been a lot written about the Scottish side of the story, but this big, important industry would not have existed without logistics, traders and customers on the Continent.”

As something of an expert on the topic of undertaking a university degree, he had some words of encouragement:

“Study – at any age – can be both demanding and rewarding. Do not underestimate the effort. Plan ahead and do not leave everything to the last minute. You will get the greatest benefit from what you are studying if you attend regularly and participate in the work of the class. You will find that the lecturers are glad to help you, and often even a limited amount of guidance can go a long way. Most of all – enjoy what you do.”

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