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.”

Further information

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“Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability meant I had the chance of getting a degree”

 

Godlisten Pallangyo received a limited education in his home country of Tanzania. Despite not having an abundance of resources at his disposal in his early life, he demonstrated a will to finish school and study politics at university.

Born into a poor family in rural Tanzania, Godlisten was limited by the lack of resources available to students who were not able to afford to pay for their education. At the end of the school day and at the weekend, Godlisten would help his parents with farming their land.

Despite these challenges, Godlisten passed primary and secondary school. However, when it came time to progress to A-Levels his family could not afford to pay for his education. He went out and supported himself financially so he could complete his studies, while also supporting his younger brother at school.  Unfortunately, Godlisten did not get the grades needed to get a place at a university in Tanzania, but he never gave up hope of getting a university education.

Ten years later, Godlisten was living and working in the UK with ambitions to study politics. He said; “I became interested in politics from an early age, as growing up in Tanzania, I wanted to learn more about how decisions were made both at global and national levels.”

Even though Godlisten’s grades would have disqualified him from some university courses, Birkbeck’s inclusive policy meant that his application was assessed on future potential, not just past attainment. He commented: “I think it is very important for universities to recognise the potential in students rather than just looking at grades as many people don’t get the same opportunities as others educationally and so don’t achieve the right grades to progress. Birkbeck’s policy of not requiring specific grades and instead assessing my ability through set assignments meant I had the chance of getting a degree, something which I never thought I would achieve.”

When he first started at Birkbeck it had been ten years since he had written his last essay so his first assignment was a challenge. He recalled: “I was not used to reading long articles and books as I am quite slow at reading and it took me a while to get used to it. Learning how to structure an essay and develop an argument, when you come from an education system that just teaches you to listen and repeat information rather than think creatively was definitely a challenge!”

Godlisten found support from his lecturers and tutors who were able to help students from non-conventional educational backgrounds and was aided by the flexibility afforded to students through evening teaching, which he said allowed him to “plan my time well ahead of each term in order to ensure I attended all my lectures and complete my assignments on time.”

For Godlisten, taking the step into higher education was a worthwhile one that will hopefully see him fulfil his ambition of influencing political change in Tanzania. His parting words of advice for anyone unsure about returning to education: “If you’re thinking about getting a degree I would wholeheartedly recommend it. It may seem like just another three years of reading long books but I gained so much more than just writing essays and achieving good grades. I got to meet people I would never otherwise have met, increase my confidence and broaden my thinking.”

Further information

 

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Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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