“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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Quest for justice leads student to Law degree at Birkbeck

Marie Hydara graduated with a LLB Law degree from Birkbeck on Thursday 27 April 2017

Marie with her daughter and mother

Marie with her daughter and mother

Although Law had always been a passion for Marie Hydara, who worked at the Supreme Court of the Gambia for two years after finishing school, it was a family tragedy which finally led her to enrol on a Certificate of Higher Education in Legal Methods at Birkbeck in 2011, aged 39, followed by a Law degree, starting in 2012.

Family tragedy

In 2004, Marie’s father (Deyda Hydara), a veteran Gambian journalist and fierce critic of the then dictator Jammeh (who was only ousted after he lost the election last December), was brutally killed.

Marie says: “Born and bred in Africa, I know how African leaders abuse and violate their people’s basic human rights and civil liberties to prolong their stay in office, but nothing could have prepared my family for what we went through after my dad’s cold and cowardly killing.

She goes on to explain: “My father ran his own local newspaper and was a reporter for Reporters without Borders and Agence France Press (AFP) for 30 years, and he used his paper as a tool for the voiceless and the oppressed. Only weeks prior to his death, along with fellow journalists, he had challenged a new media bill, which he believed was designed to ‘muzzle’ the press. He was threatened regularly, but he was determined to expose the regime’s abuse of human rights and continuous abuse of office. This generated him more enemies in the government and military.

“I was initially told about Birkbeck by a friend who worked in the day and went to classes in the evenings. I said I would think about it, but to be honest, at the time I was consumed with grief and frustration over the situation with our family’s quest for justice for dad, whose killers were known and still roamed the streets, without fear of ever getting caught. Eventually, I decided to transform all of my rage and frustration into something worthwhile – to learn what could be done – not only for my family, but for other families who would go through what we did.

“Apart from Birkbeck being a world-class institution, whose reputation precedes it, the hours were perfect for adults with a family or who worked during the day, and also had a passion to further their education. I believed that this was the perfect place for my quest.

“My passion was in Human Rights. I wasn’t seeking revenge for my father’s death, but a way to be able to work towards support for victims’ families, which I felt was lacking in our case. Other areas that interested me were Human Rights reforms, as I would argue there is the need for more robust reviews of the very mechanisms that have been put in place to address issues of extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture in Africa. From a victim ‘s family perspective, I would argue that fact finding missions and even bilateral sanctions only “cushion up” dictators further. Hence I enjoyed any topics to do with freedoms and liberties. I was not disappointed when I got to the last year and studied International Human Rights and European Law, with lecturers and seminar tutors who were formidable and thorough. I also enjoyed lectures from politicians, barristers and judges, who shared a wealth of knowledge with us – the students. At Birkbeck, class seminars were enjoyable and at times topics provoked heated debates, where complex subjects became fascinating.”

Coping with an illness

“While studying at Birkbeck, I was diagnosed with Lupus, which left me with inflammation in my joints, making prolonged typing and writing difficult. Luckily by the end of the second year, I had received enormous help from the Disability Office whose advice was very useful, as was the equipment they helped me get to ease my pain and not exacerbate my condition further.”

Family affair

“Another challenging time at Birkbeck was while I had to help my eldest daughter to prepare for her GCSEs and A-levels, as well as do my own studying. When she successfully got into Sussex University in Brighton (doing a BA in Media and Literature), I was alone at home with her younger sister. The dropping off and picking up from school was difficult, and in the last few months of my degree my mum came over from Africa to help with caring for the little one while I was studying.”

The benefits of studying at Birkbeck

“Studying at Birkbeck has helped my personal development on so many different levels. I became more confident to be able to represent my family during press conferences, interviews, meeting with representatives and lawyers of Human Rights Organizations and journalism NGOs. I find myself more positive, self-reliant, full of integrity, enthusiasm and resilience to be able to help my family, and especially myself, in working towards closure.

“I have also improved my academic skills, where I was lacking in ways I never even realised. Some of this was done through a lot of workshops, seminars and lectures (outside study hours), which were extremely helpful. It is all down to collective efforts of dedicated lecturers who always go beyond the extra mile.”

Future plans

“My time at Birkbeck has helped me a great deal in cementing the course I want to pursue, and in fulfilling a lifelong passion. I believe, with Birkbeck’s help, I am prepared, able and willing to pursue a career in human rights in support of victims’ families, who have lost loved ones through extra judicial killings, torture and other human rights violations. My job prospects will be even greater when I complete my Masters, which I plan to study at Birkbeck, and my Legal Practice Course.

“Birkbeck is the place where the impossible becomes possible. The College is the best at working with students to prepare them for a successful future. Overall it is the best place for adult higher education, where the younger students are welcome as well. In short, Birkbeck is for anyone with a drive and passion to achieve their ambition. If they either work in the day or have a young family and struggle with childcare, then Birkbeck is the place to be, for they provide students with the support they need to achieve their goals.”

Making connections

“I have had the pleasure of meeting and knowing wonderful people – lecturers whose tenacity for teaching is rarely found; their dedication I found intriguing; the support provided for the students is like no other. I was blessed enough to meet colleagues who have become great mates after working together as teams for group work or on projects and despite our different backgrounds and shortcomings we developed strong ties and made great friends and have stayed in touch after university.”

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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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