“Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future”

Isabella Ghawi faced challenges during studying, including a brain tumour diagnosis, epilepsy and dyslexia. With the help of Birkbeck’s Disability Department and her steely determination, Isabella founded the Birkbeck Biological society and graduated in November with a BSc Biomedicine degree. Here is her #BBKgrad story.

Isabella Ghawi

What made you decide to study at Birkbeck?

I did a lot of research because I left school quite suddenly without A levels as I started to have epileptic seizures.  After a long time, I decided I wanted to go back to university and study to be a neurophysiologist after my experience of working in a hospital.

I was searching for a good access to university course and chose Birkbeck as it had the best one. Unlike all the other places I looked at, it taught actual science. I knew that I wouldn’t just come out with a piece of paper, but I’d actually come out with real knowledge. After undertaking the Higher Education Introductory Course I decided to continue at Birkbeck to study a BSc in Biomedicine.

Did you face any challenges during your time studying? How did you overcome them?

I had a huge challenge in my first year. I already had epilepsy from the age of 18 and I had dyslexia. On top of that in my first year of biomedicine, I was diagnosed with a most likely cancerous brain tumour which meant I had to have a serious operation.

I overcame it, with the help of my family, my church and the people around me, but also with the support of Birkbeck – I’m especially grateful for the help and support I received from Dick Rayne, Mark Pimm and Jackie Saunder and many others. It was a learning curve for all of us, as we implemented new changes that were best for me at the time. So, with the help of all those people, I was able to continue and not just able to continue, but to really excel and exceed my expectations despite many difficulties.

Did you receive any additional College support whilst at Birkbeck and if so, how did this help you?

Birkbeck staff were a huge driving force because they were very understanding and supportive. The lecturers and the administration staff really helped me to develop resilience within myself and I kept going because they were so supportive. I also received a lot of help from the disability team. I received extra training on my computer with programmes that helped me with my dyslexia. There were a lot of assistive technologies that I was given, as well as a support tutor who was great and again, a real emotional rock. I also received a note taker and had extra time in exams which was helpful. Unfortunately, in a couple of my exams I had seizures, which were quite distressing. As a result, towards the end of my studies my exams were split, and I did them in smaller chunks which was extremely helpful. By the time it got to the last year, we had figured out what worked best.

What do you hope to achieve in the future?

Doing this degree has completely changed my expectations of what I can do in the future. Before doing this degree, I didn’t think I would be able to do much, but it’s made me really open to new opportunities. I really hope to continue to work in research, which is something I’d never dreamed of. I had never really done any lab work before this degree, but by the end of three years I was leaving the lab sessions thinking that if I could go back to the lab every day for the rest of my life, I’d be a very happy person. So, I would really love to work in a scientific laboratory.

This degree has also made me think that maybe there could be other things out there that I would be good at that I haven’t experienced yet. Now I’m looking for a job, hopefully in research, to gain more experience and then perhaps go back and do a PhD when I have more experience in the field, because I feel I really need more hands-on experience.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of studying at Birkbeck?

I would say go for it and give it a try, you will surprise yourself with what you can achieve. If you have any doubts or problems, there is so much help and support out there. I would also strongly suggest being open about your difficulties from the beginning with the staff.  If you do have a busy life and lot to cope with, for example if you have children, work commitments, health problems or caring commitments, the opportunity of doing part-time is well worth taking.

Studying at Birkbeck is a truly great experience, I would strongly recommend others go for it and give it a try. I don’t think you’d regret it, I certainly haven’t.

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“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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