Tag Archives: politics

A cap, gown and hijab teach tolerance and triumph

BA Politics graduate, Soumaya Z, moved to the UK from France to escape discrimination and overcome barriers to her education as a young, Muslim woman. Now she’s hoping to encourage others, like her, to pursue their ambitions. Here’s her #BBKstory.  

Photo of graduate, Soumaya Z

Family values, discrimination and the will to persevere 

At just twenty-years-old, Soumaya possesses the insights and wisdom of a person much older. It’s hardly surprising when you listen to her recall stories of her grandparents migrating from North Africa plus the lessons both her parents and grandparents have taught her along the way. Soumaya shares that her grandmother had made the move from Algeria to France and was forced to give up on her education in order to support her family. Despite this, she still reinforced in Soumaya the values of learning and was so proud of her granddaughter for her recent academic accomplishments. Her parents, too, sacrificed their education when Soumaya was born and always sought to push her beyond the limits, to always dream and aim high. 

Soumaya credits those values with inspiring her to pursue her studies. However, despite being home-schooled by her parents, reading and writing at four-years-old, and completing the first year of her undergraduate degree in France aged just sixteen, Soumaya soon realised that the politics of her native country were counterintuitive to her progress and ambitions. 

She says, “As a Muslim (in France), it’s impossible to find a job, access education or do simple activities when you wear a hijab and it’s difficult even if you are just practicing your religion, praying or fasting. Hijabs and other Islamic clothes are also not allowed in schools and I faced Islamophobia when I was at school.  It was really hard. When I had exams for my French baccalaureate, I was insulted by a woman in the school talking negatively about my hijab. Alongside that, there is a lack of opportunities for Muslim women. I feel that I have a brighter future here in the UK.” 

Tolerance 

Fortunate to be able to make the move to London just two years ago, the advice of her English tutor helped her to apply through the clearing system, with sights set firmly on Birkbeck to complete the second and third years of her undergraduate degree. 

Soumaya had to navigate a whole new academic system, alongside mastering a language which was not her mother tongue. There was also the added challenge of the pandemic and the ensuing isolation throughout her degree, though she applauds Birkbeck’s online programme for both her lectures and to be able to still meet with peers in the virtual world.  

With the obstacles to education now behind her, she is hopeful that others around the world can cease the “close-mindedness” and “change their mindsets to assimilate more people into their societies.” She reflects on the benefits of more tolerant and inclusive policies as not only improving the opportunities for Muslim women, but also women, in general, and other marginalised peoples. 

Triumph 

With one degree firmly under her belt, Soumaya is is aiming to complete a master’s degree programme and is already considering a doctorate. 

She reflects, “As a French student, it was a challenge to adapt to a new environment, country and language. However, I met incredible professors at Birkbeck who are committed to their work, as well as classmates from all over the world who made my university experience invaluable. In France, it would have been impossible to achieve what I achieved at Birkbeck, because of the adversity I suffered as a Muslim woman. Now two years later I have completed my bachelor’s in politics with an upper second-class degree at just 19 years old. 

“I really hope that sharing my personal experience will help other students to understand that they are not alone in their academic journey and that despite their differences they can go beyond the limits and attain their goals, without forgetting who they are, their identity.”

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“Without Birkbeck’s disability service, I wouldn’t have finished my degree”

Ryan Wilson recently graduated with a First in BSc Economic and Social Policy, after overcoming a number of adversities, including leaving school with no qualifications and becoming seriously ill after a drug trial went wrong. Here is his #BBKgrad story.

Ryan Wilson

Ryan was born and raised in Islington and describes his background as “working class and economically deprived”. He came out of school with no GCSEs. In a bid to earn money, he took part in a drug trial in 2006 which went catastrophically wrong. Suffering multiple organ failures, as well as loosing parts of his fingers and toes, Ryan now faces his legs being amputated in the future. Ryan explains, “I felt at the time my whole life had been wiped away from me, and I’m still not over it and to be honest never fully will be. I had planned for years to become a plumber and could no longer pursue this career path due to my injuries.”

A few years later, in 2012, Ryan had a son. He describes this as a pivotal moment: “I just wanted to prove to my son that anyone can change their life circumstance if they try hard enough. I believe everyone has potential, just for a lot of people its untapped. I’d been wanting to study economics for a number of years but hadn’t had the confidence to and being a student was a different world to the one I knew. I started researching how to become an economist and saw I had to get GCSEs, A Levels and a degree. So, in 2012, I started studying for my GCSEs. I managed to obtain an A* in English and a B in Maths so I progressed onto study Economics A Level. I’d never studied so much in my life but my hard graft meant I achieved an A. I had the most amazing teacher, who encouraged me to apply to Birkbeck, saying that they’d consider my application.”

In 2016, Ryan started his part-time BSc Economic and Social Policy degree, alongside working as an independent prison monitor, ensuring the decency of prisons and humane treatment of prisoners. He explains: “I had textbooks glued to me throughout my degree and entered a wormhole of reading. I worked so hard and loved the lectures – my favourite modules were Economics and Public Policy, and Macroeconomic Theory and Policy. I struggled in my second year with studying for my degree and overcoming some personal hurdles, but the support I received from the disability team and the mental health service really increased my confidence and drive to succeed. Mark Pimm, the Disability Service Manager, gave me hope in a sea of uncertainty. He encouraged me not to quit and without him and his team, I wouldn’t have completed my degree.”

Ryan graduated in November, winning the prize for the best final year Economics and Social Policy student. Describing his future plans, he says, “I want to work in politics and next week I’ve got an interview for my dream job in the civil service, working for the Department of International Trade. I’m busy writing a book about my life journey and how policy impacts the lives of people. In the future, I want to get into motivational speaking because I want to help others and be a voice for the under-represented groups that I’m part of.”

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Discovering the self-belief that never was

Oliver Victorio, inspired by his time at the House of Commons, overcame a number of obstacles, including; disability, financial hardship and lack of confidence to begin a degree at Birkbeck. This week he graduated with a BA Politics, Philosophy and History and the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize, this is his #BBKgrad story.  

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

The Journey to Birkbeck: From the Corridors of Power to the Classroom of Politics

Before attending Birkbeck, I was an MP attendant in the House of Commons, which is parliamentary parlance for being the odd jobs person for MPs’ needs. It had been a memorable time that made me hungry to want to progress my career, although I was not sure exactly what I wanted to do, I did know that I would need a degree to get it.  So, when the voluntary redundancy was offered, I took it to begin a new journey.

After taking on a few more jobs, I eventually I applied for a BA in Politics, Philosophy and History and was delighted when I was invited for an interview. I was elated to receive an ‘unconditional offer’, and immediately shared the glorious news with my wife, the one person who had been there throughout the entire journey. Three years later I would find myself with a first-class degree and the recipient of the Dakin ‘Best Birkbeck Student’ 2019-20 Prize for achieving excellence despite circumstances of hardship – a fitting description of my entire journey.

The First Year: Dim Lights, Dyslexia and Distinctions

Getting back into intense study would take some getting used to. I found understanding what I was reading was the first major obstacle for me – it would often take me hours to get through one assigned reading.  It was only later in the first term that I would discover, due to Birkbeck’s prompting and immense support, for which I am grateful, that I had dyslexia and dyscalculia, despite my intelligence.

Oliver Victorio

Oliver Victorio

This explained my earlier struggles with learning at school and my mixed results, all of which contributed to my lack of confidence – and eventual withdrawal from the educational system. I remember it would take me an enormous amount of time to just read through the required reading, let alone essay writing.

Once I realised this, I attended a lot of study skills workshops, and disability support, and I found these to be pivotal to my success. One thing about Birkbeck that I have found to be exceptional, alongside their teaching, was the enormous amount of support that is available, both in terms of the plethora of support workshops, but also from the teaching staff.

What’s more, at the time, I lived in a basement studio flat, too small to accommodate a family, with very little room to study. It was difficult to find time to study in the daytime with a then three-year-old to care for, so I would wake up at 5am to squeeze in a few hours of study in my dimly lit bathroom while the house was quiet. I endured this back-breaking situation for the entire first year of study.

Yet, despite this, all my perseverance with reading, deep thinking and re-writing paid off – I struck gold with my very first essay, attaining a distinction mark for the Study of Politics. I was so astonished. In my second essay, I got another distinction mark and more in the second term. I was absolutely stunned – I simply could not believe it. It was unreal that, after all these years of struggle, I was even capable of that.

The Final Year: My Best Results Ever

My final year brought more struggles. The COVID-19 pandemic had begun, which required me to juggle homeworking and home-schooling but that didn’t stop me, I would continue to achieve a distinction in my coursework! I was absolutely awestruck. I still am. It just never seemed that such a thing was even remotely possible for me, given my learning difficulties, and my struggles with confidence and communication over the years.

Final Thoughts

My entire experience at Birkbeck, with the phenomenal network of support – teaching staff, study skills tutors, personal tutors, disability support, administrative staff, and library staff – were absolutely vital in making my success a reality. Despite all the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I had faced, from being accepted onto the degree, to getting through it, I feel like I am finally on the path that I should have been on many years before.

A new life is now a real possibility, where I can provide for my family and steer them away from the life that I had experienced. Birkbeck has made this possible. As the great scientist Sir Isaac Newton eloquently put, I was ‘standing on the shoulders of Giants’. I am forever indebted and will never forget. A new journey now awaits- one that I have been searching for all my life.

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“My disability does not have to halt my career options in the way I thought they would”

After an accident left Esther Adegoke with a disability she sought to complete her studies in Politics at Birkbeck. Last week, she graduated with a First.

Esther doesn’t recall exactly what sparked her interests in studying politics. Just that her sisters who had studied politics at AS level would come home and discuss topics from their classes, topics that piqued her interest more than any of the GSCE subjects she was studying at the time.

After completing her A levels she opted for a degree in Politics at the University of Leicester. In the beginning of her third year she was involved in an accident that left her using a wheelchair and in need of a full-time care team, meaning she could no longer study in Leicester.  Determined to continue her degree, Esther looked for options in her home city of London where she came across Birkbeck, “what gave Birkbeck the winning edge for me was the evening classes, it was more practical having lectures at 6pm because it fit my routine as opposed to morning lectures and seminars.”

At Birkbeck, Esther found new topics that sparked her interests in Politics further and in different ways. “My favourite course, funnily enough wasn’t a module taken under the politics department but actually the psychosocial department called, ‘racism and antisemitism’. I found it interesting because it did something unique in that it challenged us to investigate the commonalities and differences between anti-black racism and antisemitism. Of course, I had seen instances of the two racisms being studied separately, but never together.”

Fortunately, Esther had the support of her family and friends who were pivotal in helping her complete her work.  “My mum accompanied me to every lecture and seminar I attended and my sisters often read my essays.” The College’s Disability team were also instrumental in allowing her to complete her course. She recalled: “My disability officer Mark Pimm and scribe Yvonne Plotwright were a massive support to me. Mark went above and beyond to ensure that my points were taken seriously and Yvonne was extremely thorough in her note-taking, ensuring I didn’t miss any vital information from my lectures and seminars.”

The accident left her unable to speak for long periods of time before her voice became exhausted so she used EyeGaze to help her craft her essays. EyeGaze is software that enables the individual’s eye to control the mouse and keyboard of a computer. She explained: “I took to it rather quickly, I used to use it recreationally and even then I was told the hours I would spend on it were unheard of. Without Eye Gaze I wouldn’t have been able to complete my degree. “

Now Esther has graduated with a First Class degree, recognition for all of her determination and resilience. She says of her achievement, “It felt amazing, I was over the moon with my result and without sounding arrogant it was even more rewarding because I knew I deserved it. I worked so hard for it so it was special to know my hard work had actually paid off.”

Unsure of what she will do next, Esther still feels positive about her future. “My experience at Birkbeck with the assistance of Eye Gaze has really given me the confidence to say that my disability does not have to halt my career options in a way I previously thought they would. I have often said that I have no plans to return to study after my undergraduate degree but never say never; at least I know it’s a case of if I want to go back as opposed to I can’t.”

Dr Ben Worthy, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics said: “Here at the Department of Politics, we are all so proud of what Esther has achieved and honoured to have been able to help her in her studies. She’s not only been a model student but an inspiration to us all. We also want to say a big thank you to everyone around her, especially the disabilities office and her family and friends who supported her along the way.”

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