Setting an example: mother and son graduate in the same year

When Miroslava Ezel’s teenage son started browsing university prospectuses, she couldn’t resist taking a look as well.

Miroslava Ezel had always wanted to study Mathematics, but prioritising work and family life meant plans for further study were put on hold. Still, while encouraging her son to apply to university, she couldn’t resist taking a look for herself.

Then she stumbled across Birkbeck. “The evening study model appealed to me as I could fit studying around my work and family life,” she explained. “I also felt it would help me meet people a similar age to me – it did, but in reality I’m friends with people of all ages on my course, so I needn’t have worried.”

Miroslava began studying the BSc Accounting at Birkbeck’s Stratford campus, which was conveniently located near her home in Southeast London. She attended academic writing workshops on campus to develop her skills and prepare for full time study. “Coming back to the classroom after a break and as a speaker of English as a second language, I wanted to make sure I was prepared to write an academic essay,” she explains. “I love Maths, so I applied to study accounting, but I became really interested in microeconomics and macroeconomics, so in my second year I transferred to BSc Accounting with Finance.

“I had some fantastic lecturers, like Dr Ike Ndu, who teaches Financial Economics – we loved Ike! Another lecturer also told us “we are not here to fail you, we are here to help you” during exam term, which was really reassuring. I think it’s really important to see your lecturers as people who are there to support you and help you do well.”

Graduating with a first, Miroslava admits to being very strict with herself and prioritising her studies, and with two students in the family at the same time, it was easier to stay on track. She also credits the friends she made through her course for helping her succeed: “We would be great motivators for each other – we knew what we wanted to get out of the experience and we pushed each other to do our best.” She admits that the first day of a new course can be daunting, but has now made friends for life at Birkbeck.

Miroslava’s confidence grew so much through her studies that, before finishing her degree, she had switched careers from retail to banking. Her son graduated from his degree in Law in July, although she had to rush back from the celebrations to sit one of her final exams in the evening!

For Miroslava, studying at Birkbeck has fulfilled a lifelong dream: “I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve always enjoyed learning, but I never knew before what I was capable of, especially in a second language. When I got here, I realised that age is not a limit: all that matters is knowledge, drive and your desire to prove yourself.”

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Breaking through the ceiling: BSc Business and Management at Birkbeck

Jeremy Galea came to Birkbeck to further his career. Last week, he graduated with the Best Project prize in the Department of Management.

When I was growing up, there wasn’t much emphasis on education at home, but I’ve always had a strong work ethic. I failed my last year of school in Australia and got a job straight away. I did everything from cleaning supermarkets to polishing stainless steel; being a hard worker was my way of escape.

After moving to the UK to start a junior project management role, I started to worry about hitting a ceiling. I was really into my career and very ambitious, but I could only get so far with no formal qualifications. I’d done courses along the way, but never tackled anything as big as university study.

I chose Birkbeck because it was the only university that would allow me to continue working while studying in the evening. The first two years were tough; I didn’t have access to Student Finance, so I worked seven days a week to fund my studies. Working 70 hour weeks and then studying on top meant sacrificing other areas of my life, but coming into lectures and meeting people who were in the same struggle motivated me to keep going.

I’ve always been able to put on a confident front, but Birkbeck really gave me that self-belief – my ambition is higher now than when I started. I never submitted an assignment in high school – my first university assignment was a 70!

I was just about to finish my second year at Birkbeck when I got my current role in the senior operations management team in the NHS. Drawing on my experience of my course really helped me in the interview, as did the confidence I’d gained along the way.

When it came to choosing a topic for my research project, my seminar teacher gave me some great advice: you don’t get extra points for a ‘sexy’ title! It’s best to write about what you know.

I chose to research whether outsourced organisations or in-house provide better non-clinical support services to the NHS. Having worked in operations for over ten years, I knew my subject matter pretty well. Basing my project on my work has taught me so much; it’s had an effect on how I think and I’m already directing things in a different way than I would have done before. In large organisations, management don’t know what it’s like on the front line and the front line has tunnel vision, so it was fascinating speaking to people across my organisation.

I was lucky to have the support of my line managers at work and of Dr Marion Frenz, my supervisor. In the end, I didn’t come to a definitive answer in my project, but that didn’t stop me from doing well as loads of information on management and relationships still came out of it.

My advice to students undertaking a project would be to start early: it can be hard when your nerves get in the way and you’re juggling work as well, but the quality won’t be there unless you allow yourself time.

If you’re in work, Birkbeck is the place to study to further your career. You can learn so much from other people’s life experience on campus. Undertaking a work-based project gets your name out there within your organisation – even if you work in a coffee shop there’s a business model there that you can learn from.

At school it felt like you were either naturally talented or dumb and there was no in-between, but now I believe that if you set your mind to something, you can achieve it. There’s nothing negative about further education; you learn how to analyse, research and make up your own mind. The world opens up to you once you’ve had that experience.

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“We need more women to study computer science and build the future.”

Being a woman with a newborn in a male-dominated subject didn’t stop Camilla Graham Wood from achieving a first in Computing. She shares her story in this interview.

Birkbeck: What made you decide to return to university and study computer science?

Camilla: My decision to study computer science was quite a random one. I have no technical background, no science background. In fact, I’m terrible at maths as well. I think my ignorance as to what studying for a degree in computer science would truly involve was a huge benefit. If I knew what was in store, I’m not sure I would have signed up.

At the time I decided to enrol, I was working in legal aid and the then Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s devastating reforms were completely decimating access to justice. I was chatting with a colleague about our backup plans if we lost our jobs because the cuts were so severe. I thought that I might need another skill in addition to law.

I was listening to various podcasts and in one Sheryl Sandberg said that more women should study computer science, so I thought ok, I’ll give that a go. I looked up evening classes in London and came across Birkbeck. I signed up, got through the entry test, and who would have expected that five years later I’d graduate with a first?

How did you find your course, coming from a Law background?

The course was a shock in many ways. I was one of two or three women in a sea of men. I had no idea what the lecturers were talking about, particularly at the start of each course, so I furiously took detailed notes and then went back over them trying to understand what the hell binary digits were, for example. I remember being totally flummoxed even by the basics. I think that nowadays, with technology so pervasive in our lives, most people have a better base understanding than I did when I commenced my studies.

My legal background meant that I found the more theoretical side of the subject much easier. The practical side, such as Java and PHP were challenging and required a lot of practice. That’s one of the harder things when you’re working full time and have other commitments, is to find the time to go over and over something until you can’t work out why you found it so difficult at the start.

What was it like juggling a career with family life?

My partner has been amazingly supportive: he encouraged me to apply, which was good because it meant he couldn’t complain when for the next five years I spent three nights a week at Birkbeck and most of April to June revising. I think he was more excited when I finished than I was.

I didn’t get pregnant until the end of my course, and with working full-time and studying I was already used to having a limited social life. My baby was born in August, so I was quite heavily pregnant during summer exams. My sister said it was a benefit, as it meant I had two brains. That’s one way of looking at it.

The more amusing time was when I had a newborn and still had lectures to go to. I used to drive to Euston with my newborn in the back, meet my partner there who came from work, he’d drive her home and I’d try and stay awake in the lecture. It was pretty chaotic, but we all made it through. I’m sure a lot of those studying in the evening are balancing multiple things and just trying to keep everything moving forwards.

In that same lecture there was another woman who came with her young daughter. I thought that was far more impressive than what I was doing. What incredible drive to attend lectures and convince your daughter to come along too.

What would you say to women considering studying computer science?

We need more women to study computer science and build the future. It will be to the detriment of society if technologies continue to be developed and built predominantly by white men in California. We need diversity in computer science to ensure that discrimination and exclusion is not exacerbated in the future. We need women from all types of backgrounds to shape the face of technology tomorrow. I saw a lot of women going through the doors of Birkbeck, I hope that in the future more of them go into the Computer Science lectures.

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Birkbeck student graduates with a first after a coma left her unable to read or write

Odessa Hamilton is graduating today with a first class honours degree in BSc Business Psychology after recovering from trauma that left her comatose. This is her #BBKStory.

I ran a successful business in New York, but that all changed when I suffered a trauma and went into a coma.

The doctors did not expect my recovery, but when I woke, I had lost the ability to move from my mouth down. Speaking, reading, walking: I had to re-learn it all. As if recovering from that wasn’t enough, I then decided to apply to university.

The first year was tough. Having to re-learn how to read meant ordinary tasks presented a real challenge. Initially, I couldn’t decipher between words like ‘cite’ and ‘site’, never mind get to grips with complex vocabulary expected of you as a university student.

Birkbeck gave me the platform to do what would not have been possible anywhere else. Evening study meant I could continue to go to my countless hospital appointments for treatments, tests and therapies during the day. Lecturers and all other staff at Birkbeck were always incredibly supportive and willing to help wherever necessary, which proved invaluable!

My lecturers truly encouraged me to continue my studies, and facilitated such by supporting my applications. After graduating with a first class honours degree at Birkbeck, I chose to study a combined Masters in Psychological Sciences as part of the Brain Faculty at UCL to secure my BPS accreditation. Thereafter, my studies shall continue with a doctorate in psychoneuroimmunology.

My unsolicited advice for anyone considering university with a disability and/or a chronic illness is ‘don’t be afraid to be vulnerable’. We often fear being different or being seen as less than, but your condition is not something to overcome – it just is. No different from someone having to wear prescription glasses. If I can study and do well in my situation, anyone can. All it takes is tenacity, diligence and resilience [and perhaps a dry sense of humour to help you along the way].

I don’t make comparisons and I don’t feel sorry for myself: I just get on with doing my best.

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