Tag Archives: postgraduate study

“Don’t call me El Chapo!”

Azucena Garcia Gutierrez has made it her mission to represent the very best of Mexican culture to the rest of the world. This is her #BBK Grad story.

This is a photo of Azucena Garcia Gutierrez

Growing up in Toluca, a city close to Mexico City with parents who didn’t graduate but who still provided for their small family has given Azucena a perspective on life which has her always returning to her humble beginnings.

With just one sibling, the two had spent practically all their lives side by side so when Azucena decided to leave Mexico to study MA Applied Linguistics and Communication at Birkbeck, it left her stunned and a little lost. Not surprisingly, her sister would go on to also study languages.

Seeing first-hand the misconceptions that prevail about Mexico was part of Azucena’s culture shock throughout her international travel: “People would shout out ‘El Chapo!’ They had a view of Mexico which concerned me. When I was growing up as a teenager, it was very safe. But I realise the situation with crime is bad now; but that is not the only thing we have to share with the world.”

At Birkbeck, she would make every effort to explain the best parts about Mexico: the diversity and richness of the country, wanting to show others “what Mexicans are made of.” She applauds Birkbeck for its encouragement of international community and the support of students who comprise that. Azucena is both a Chevening scholar and the winner of the Michel Blanc prize for best MA dissertation and credits both with supporting students, like her, from around the globe.

Whilst lamenting the fact that indigenous languages are dying out in Mexico, Azucena also recognises the value in being able to speak English, seeing this “open doors for so many, including myself.” It was just fifteen years ago, at the age of 18 years, that she made the decision to be an English language teacher. She had previously learnt English at secondary school and found it hard at first, especially since her first teacher was American and spoke very fast.

It’s that experience and understanding which now crosses over into her own teaching of English. She witnesses students who are challenged with learning English as their second language but is fervent in her teaching and reinforces the message that the hurdles of learning another language, especially English, must be overcome in order to reach one’s aspirations.

For her beloved home country of Mexico, this is a matter which is even more paramount. With the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) recently citing Mexico as the second most unequal country, education reform is a critical matter Azucena wishes to address. She says, “Education means hope for Mexico. When the people of a country are well educated, things will improve, it will shape better citizens and give them a thirst for knowledge which will contribute to a better country.”

Azucena returned to Mexico in February and is working on progressing her career in Education, using learnings from her time spent at Birkbeck and the contact with people of different mindsets to apply to her homeland in a meaningful way. She sees it as her duty to contribute to the education and social landscape in Mexico to improve the country’s academic and economic standing and in turn its international reputation.

Find out more about the Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

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Crossing borders to explore new horizons

Carolyn Stillman travelled to the UK from the USA to complete a degree in Language Teaching/ Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages (TESOL) (MA) at Birkbeck, and used her time to travel and throw herself into a different way of life. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carolyn Stillman After having completed a Bachelor’s degree in elementary education in the USA, Carolyn decided that she wanted to expand her horizons and take on a Master’s in the UK. When looking around for options of where she could study, Birkbeck stood out as an ideal choice for what she needed because of the flexibility that evening study gave her.

“One of my room mates mostly worked nights so we would leave at the same time so I had time to see her during the day. I did not have classes on Fridays so I had more time if I wanted to travel over the weekend – one time we took a weekend trip to Ireland.

“Also, if I wanted to work on assignments, it was really helpful when I had the big essays due to have time during the day to research and get those finished.”

During her time in the UK, Carolyn faced the challenge of homesickness. “I was there with barely anybody, I had my boyfriend, but I had met him before I came to London and he lived in Newcastle, which is three hours away. If I wanted to see him, he would have to come down during the weekend or I would have to go up there. So, at first, when I came to London, I didn’t have anyone, I didn’t have my mum obviously, I didn’t have any of my friends and it was such a time difference so homesickness was my biggest challenge because it was just me by myself for the most part.”

Despite the difficulty she first had to adjusting to a new country, Carolyn was able to overcome her homesickness through a mix of time and building connections with people. “I met people on my course at Birkbeck that I was pretty close to and we would hang out, and I had my boyfriend. I had to get over the initial shock of being on my own in another country but I loved it either way, it was hard at first but I still loved it.”

She fondly recalls the small class sizes at Birkbeck which differed from the 100 person classes she experienced during her undergraduate degree. “It was really intimate, so we all got to build off of each other and do different activities and those were my favourite classes.”

When the pandemic hit, Carolyn was finishing up her classes and she recalls it being hard going from in-person to online learning, but she was grateful that all the online videos were easy to access.

Having completed her Master’s, Carolyn is back in the US where she has resumed her teaching career, a job which she hopes to continue now that she has the knowledge she gained from her course. “I have a couple of students at the moment and English isn’t their first language. The course has helped me a lot with coming up with different modifications to lessons.”

Carolyn also hopes to be able to travel more once the pandemic subsides and hopefully, one day, return to the UK to teach. In the meantime, she’s telling everyone she knows about Birkbeck: “I really enjoyed Birkbeck, I talk about it all the time! People are really interested in hearing about it whenever I bring it up and I don’t regret it at all, I loved my time in London.”

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From one GCSE to a Master of Science degree

Shekira Malcolm had a five year plan which has landed her a ‘dream job.’

In 2013, Shekira Malcolm sat down and wrote a five year plan that would transform her from a 33 year old with one GCSE to a Master’s degree holder and enable her to have the career that she’d always wanted. Yesterday, Shekira celebrated achieving her Master’s in Human Resource Management at Birkbeck’s graduation ceremonies.

Difficulties during her teenage years meant that Shekira didn’t always pay attention to her education and as a result she left school with just one GCSE.

She went on to gain experience in HR in the public and private sectors and then worked for her husband’s business. But without any qualifications, Shekira always felt that she was at a disadvantage in terms of her career.

In 2013, Shekira started an Access to Social Sciences course at her local FE college, before studying history at undergraduate level and then going straight onto her full-time Master’s course at Birkbeck. She says: “It was hard work. I had several setbacks during my Master’s – including my teenage son being robbed at knifepoint twice, and having to care for my grandmother in the last months of her life.”

Shekira describes her postgraduate degree as a very different experience to her first, as at Birkbeck there were students of all ages, backgrounds, and with varied career histories – a diversity which Shekira really enjoyed. Although many of her classmates were working, Shekira stresses that they were not given an easy ride by the tutors. She says: “The academic level is high – luckily Birkbeck tutors understand that people are juggling university with other aspects of their life and also that many students haven’t been in formal education for several years, so there is support available.”

Shekira also credits her husband for helping her achieve her goals. “He’s had to take up some of the slack at home, so it has been a team effort. At first he was a bit unsure when I told him I was going to study for five years, but he really supported me and is very proud of me now.”

Shekira was the first person in her family to ever go to university, but having seen the satisfaction that studying has brought to their mum, her daughter has now also enrolled in a degree in economics and politics at Loughborough and her son, who is currently studying for his GCSEs, also plans to apply to university. Shekira says, “I was able to help my daughter with her application process and with getting to grips with university-level study. If I hadn’t been to university myself then I would have felt totally out of my depth trying to support her.”

Five years of hard work has paid off for Shekira, who is now the proud owner of not one but two degrees from the University of London. On top of this, gaining her Master’s degree gave Shekira the confidence to apply for jobs that she would never have considered before and in April she was offered her ‘dream job’ in the HR department of a local authority.

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Survival story: Jodie was diagnosed with cancer four times while studying

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer. Given a 23% chance of survival, Jodie was determined that she would get the degree she’d always dreamed of having.

For most Birkbeck graduates, receiving their degree represents the culmination of many months or years of hard work.

For Jodie Cole, who graduated on Thursday 2 May with an MSc Organizational Behaviour, the path to graduation has been longer and harder than she could have envisaged when she applied to study at Birkbeck in 2012, 16 weeks before being diagnosed with stage four cancer.

Since then, Jodie has undergone four rounds of cancer and treatment, and will this month be celebrating not only her graduation, but 18 months cancer-free.

In 2012, Jodie had been working in HR for over two decades, and had a college diploma from her native Australia. However, she felt what she describes as a ‘burning passion to obtain this elusive piece of paper, in order to quiet that saboteur voice inside my head and prove to myself that I was as good as everyone else’.

Jodie, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, explains: “I was the single mother of two teenagers. I never had the time or finances to further educate myself before that – it was poured into the children’s education. Once I was finally able to, in late 2012, as my teenage daughter applied to universities, so did I.”

A few months later, in early 2013, Jodie’s application was forgotten about, as she was diagnosed with stage four cancer; cancer in the breast, liver, ovaries, lymph nodes and bone. She says: “As I lay on the sofa feeling ill from the chemotherapy treatment, an email popped into my inbox stating the university had accepted my application for the Master’s programme.

“What was I to do?  This meant so much to me, and was something I had wanted so badly for so long. I was finally being offered a position at university and the possibility of achieving a major goal – a dream – of mine. How can I do this, yet how can I not?!”

So, despite having no hair, feeling sick, and having cancer, Jodie pressed the button that said ‘accept’.

In October that same year, after 18 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and still in the middle of her treatment, Jodie arrived in London as a university student for the first time, for the first weekend workshop.

“I turned up with a gleam in my eye and pride in my heart. I had made it this far, been accepted, got through cancer and was sitting there in a real university lecture hall. The feeling was exhilarating.”

During that first weekend, Jodie met fellow students whose friendship and support was invaluable during that year.

Unfortunately, Jodie’s breast cancer returned before the second year commenced and she had to defer her studies for another double mastectomy and more treatment. Most of her friends continued their studies and went on to graduate without her. Disheartened to be left behind but still keen to complete the programme, she was in the process of enrolling once again the following year when she was diagnosed for a third time with breast cancer. Her studies were deferred again. It took her many months to recover from this round as a more radical double mastectomy was required, followed by weeks of radiotherapy. When she thought there was a light at the end of the tunnel, her fourth diagnosis revealed she had liver cancer again.

She remembers: “I was becoming a broken record at the university admissions department. ‘Sorry, I have cancer, can I please defer?’ That piece of paper felt like it was getting further and further away from reality for me.”

It was in October 2017, while still on chemotherapy that Jodie says she: “threw caution to the wind and re-enrolled for my final year, determined to remain cancer free and complete my Master’s. That piece of paper was like a shiny beacon in my world. I wanted it, I had to have it, I was determined.”

The reality of studying while on chemotherapy was tough. Jodie describes it, saying: “the chemo was addling my mind, making me tired. Plus, I was now working on this alone at home, with no more comrades in arms like my first year. I was distance-learning, logging in remotely to listen to lectures and study at hours that suited me (and the doctors’ schedule). Sitting exams was the toughest part for me as my memory was not what it used to be at all, and then there was the research and writing of the dissertation. I am absolutely sure all of my girlfriends and family were just as pleased and relieved as I was the day I mailed in my dissertation paper.”

When Jodie received her ‘confirmation of award’ letter from Birkbeck it was a moment of intense emotion. She says:  “To me, the piece of paper represents survival. It represents crossing that finishing line and being given the gold medal – for everything I’ve been through in the past six years, and for being alive. That piece of paper means believing in myself, in achieving my goals and that I CAN do anything. That piece of paper is success.”

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