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  • Writer's pictureAlexandra Sills

An Ode to My Alma Mater

Updated: Jan 25

Since this blog was conceived to chart my adventures in adult education, it would be remiss of me not to write about how I feel as I graduate. It is impossible to take completing a degree in your thirties for granted, for numerous reasons, and yet since getting my results back at the start of the summer, I’ve been reminded in several different ways how grateful I am.

GCSE and A-Level results have been released for students who battled to earn them under circumstances we will never truly appreciate the difficulty of. Grades have fallen, meaning that despite facing unprecedented challenges, many will not get the results they need to progress to the next level. Though I don’t want to delve too much into why, due to a medical issue I got lower GCSE grades than predicted and ended up doing A Levels that were useless to me. Because I wasn’t on a very specific career path, my lecturers and I mutually ignored each other throughout college. I had, in the end, barely a UCAS point to my name and didn’t bother making any applications; I had a career lined up that would not only give me a degree as part of my training but would provide me with bed, board and a cast-iron pension in return for doing something that came very easily and naturally to me. I was all ready to go, until I failed the required medical because of a birth defect. In short, I very much know what it’s like to find yourself completely adrift on the brink of adulthood, with no contingency plan.

All of this happened in the eye of the Mickey Mouse degree storm, when boomers decided to roundly mock elder millennials who decided they might want to get a degree in sociology or Media Studies. My cousin took such a degree and has spent her career getting paid to go to music festivals and now owns an insta-worthy house and travels the world. Go figure. Classics was not a Mickey Mouse degree, because Disney was for the proletariat, don’t you know. It hadn’t been an option for me at GCSE or A Level, why should it have been an option at BA? Classics For All didn’t exist yet, and I had never knowingly read or seen a working class classicist from a comprehensive school like mine. And so, even if I had tried to scratch together some UCAS points, my complete lack of a feasible alternative career path meant that I wouldn’t even know which other course to apply for, and I reached adulthood at a time when boomers loudly condemned young adults going to university ‘just for the sake of partying,’ as if young people without degrees didn’t also clamour for 2for1 shots at cheap and seedy bars. Rishi Sunak, that supercilious toad, is now waging the same war, complaining that people have the audacity to give more thought about their interests and intellectual fulfilment when choosing a course, rather than how it will help them become a miserable, faceless cog in the melancholy machine that is our capitalist economy. That said, he is the living proof that a PPE degree doesn’t make you any good at philosophy, politics or economics, so perhaps he should try shutting the fuck up.

Unfortunately, the cunderthunts in government seem to heartily disparage anyone studying the Humanities, partly because we are supposed to be soulless automatons who exist for our labour to be exploited, and partly because it is usually those who have studied the Humanities who recognise them for the piles of stinking excrement that they are. I’m no augur, but Roehampton closing so many Humanities courses this year is surely but the opening volley. Not only was their Classics department a haven for working class students from state schools, they did pioneering work in corners of the field overlooked by more sacrosanct institutions - race, gender, disability… Their closure is nothing short of cultural vandalism, and immediately I became worried for my new alma mater, Birkbeck. I doubt that my degree will ever make me rich. It appears that the earning potential of myself and fellow alumni may be what keeps its doors open in the future. But here’s the thing, I didn’t go to university to make money. Anything I earn over my previous salaries will be very welcome, but I can’t be the only one who believes that there are other ways to improve your life other than change your salary bracket.

I was rarely out of work from the moment my ambitions were dashed in that doctor’s office to the start of the pandemic. A lack of degree didn’t preclude me from working in some of the most interesting and prestigious museums and visitor attractions in the country. I’m a bloody excellent tour guide and ‘explainer.’ I have spent over twenty years building encyclopaedic knowledge of every place I’ve worked, and if you need someone to explain a complicated event, dynasty or building in five minutes or less, I’m your girl. There is very little I can’t make accessible and engaging, it’s my superpower. That said, my career has coincided with the gadgetification of the tourism industry. I have been rendered almost obsolete by sodding audioguides and apps. By the time the pandemic hit, I was reduced to little more than pointing out the toilets to people who couldn’t see the signpost if you waved it in their face. I was employed in an industry that aligned with my interests, but my brain was atrophying. My husband and I had also recently had a very unexpected baby (as I was supposed to be barren!) and motherhood hit me like a freight train. Caught in a cycle of sleep deprivation, anxiety and interminable tedium, I felt my last vestiges of identity seep away. By the time I discovered Birkbeck and was coaxed into applying, my mental health was fragile, and I was stuck in the doldrums. So let me document what Birkbeck gave me, in order to demonstrate their magic. I approached them with no UCAS points, no self-confidence and no other options; these three things you must remember, or nothing that follows will seem wondrous.

Birkbeck are, as far as I am aware, the only UK HE institution offering undergraduate degrees with f2f teaching to those without academic qualifications. They were the only university I was therefore able to apply to, without spending further money and years trying to find a feasible place to study some A levels (of which there were none.) Nevertheless, I was still filled with trepidation when I arrived. Classics has such a toxic and elitist reputation that I still wasn’t sure if I would be welcome. When it came to the interview, I was so tremulous that I thought the interviewer might think I was in the midst of a medical emergency. I must have mispronounced a dozen words I’d only ever seen in books, and I’m sure I stuttered as I tried to explain just how much I loved learning about antiquity and had done since primary school. I must have reeked of desperation. At the end, I very meekly asked what my chances of acceptance were, and the interviewer chuckled when he said I was already in. I managed to wait until I was outside to burst into tears.

In my tourism career I’d managed to pick up a tour guiding and lecturing accreditation that turned out to be roughly equivalent to 30 undergraduate credits. That was deemed enough for me to skip a foundation year. Apart from that, I was an entirely unknown quantity. Here was a proper university offering me a place on little more than blind faith, and each student in a similar position to me must have been a huge gamble. There are dozens of reasons why someone might fall off the typical path of GCSEs at 16, A levels at 18, degree at 21. I wasn’t even asked mine. My past was entirely irrelevant, and wouldn’t be used to predict my future. I immediately decided that I wasn’t just going to work as hard as possible to prove my abilities to myself, but to provide some returns for Birkbeck on their risky investment. I sincerely hope I’ve done them proud, and that they haven’t yet nor ever will regret taking me aboard. So the first thing they gave me was a chance, when nobody else would.

Secondly, they gave me the opportunity to read Classical Studies in a cohort that was broadly representative of the general population. If you don’t understand why that’s so extraordinary, you haven’t been paying attention. I’ve never felt like the token state school kid. I’ve never had to clean my classmate's toilets to survive, in an environment so toxic it may lead me to conclude that scrubbing shit stains so that I don't starve makes me middle class, actually. My peers on Twitter have given examples of racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in their prestigious universities (and not just from fellow students.) Regional accents are mocked. State school kids being made to feel inferior for not having the academic headstart provided in private schools. I’m not saying that discrimination of any kind doesn’t happen at Birkbeck, but I am saying that I didn’t experience any. Anecdotal evidence has made it very clear how lucky I am. I felt welcome, and that I belonged.

Thirdly, they gave me an academic challenge. Easy to get into does not mean an easy ride. Blow off classes and hapless teachers don’t exist here, it’s not Greendale (although a few epic paintball wars wouldn’t have gone amiss.) I have no way of knowing how rigorous or advanced the first year is in comparison to A-levels, but from discussions with peers at other institutions and perusing the syllabi shared online by other professors, the course content at Birkbeck is comparable to anything offered elsewhere. We hit the ground running, and I made it my mission to read every sentence assigned to me. I’m so glad that I did, because it opened up the scholarship I’d been craving. There is a limit to what you can achieve using popular histories - most bookshops stock an incredibly slim selection and the quality of documentaries is far from consistent. Now I was finally getting my hands on advanced stuff and to my delight, I could understand the majority of it straight off the bat. I learned how to read more critically, to the point where I can spot the flaws in the books I was reading before where previously I took them as gospel. Teaching myself meant that I was starting with a healthy overview, but with many gaps I didn’t know how to fill. Four years ago I was reading whatever I could afford on offer in Waterstones, and now my dissertation cites scholarship in seven languages. I took modules that I knew would test me, and Plato in particular really gave me a beating, but I graduate having broadened my academic horizons far wider than I could have ever hoped. One professor even kindly let me audit a class so that I didn’t have to miss an archaeology module. Another let me live out my wildest fantasies as she taught me to excavate at an actual Greek sanctuary, all the while giving me a very new and preferable example of what a classicist could and should be. My diss supervisor is the kind of person who could power a metropolis using only his shower thoughts, and it will always be a thrill that he was impressed by my work. I still don’t like Plato, though.

(Interestingly, I did take one module ‘next door’ as an intercollegiate student. My experience with the teaching and syllabus there put any suspicions that Birkbeck is an easier option firmly to bed; the only difference I immediately picked up on was the demographics of the seminar group, given that they were a Russell Group university…)

The fourth gift was support. Having finally got to university, my Dad became gravely ill within weeks of the first semester starting and spent months in the hospital on the verge of death. He had grown a tumour that had punched holes in his abdominal organs which had turned septic. The surgery was described as ‘special episode of Grey’s Anatomy’ and even his surgeon was amazed he survived it. Some winter assignments were written at his bedside on the ward. A kind professor listened to me cry, and helped me navigate the rest of the term. In an example of ring composition that Herodotus would be very appreciative of, my Dad was back in hospital for a major chunk of my final year, as that same tumour burned itself out but attempted to take Dad with it. My diss supervisor could not have been more supportive, with an admirable deftness of touch. I’ve twice had to bring my small daughter to class when childcare has fallen through, and twice was told not to worry about it at all (even though I very much did anyway.) When my depression and anxiety (which I’ve battled since my teens) threatened to sabotage my progress as is their wont, I received empathy that helped me steer a steadier course. Extensions were readily given in times of need, and again, the experiences of my peers are in sharp contrast to this. I’ll never forget that I was assisted to succeed, not set up to fail. I’ve seen anecdotes of lecturers demanding death certificates to prove bereavements and medical notes to prove illnesses, or handing out fails if an essay was an hour late. This distrust and infantilization of students was, mercifully, completely absent at Birkbeck. Finally, when I gathered enough courage to voice my ambitions, the encouragement and belief that I could achieve them was near-universal, swiftly followed by valuable advice.

That brings me to gift number five: pride. I didn’t have much left when I enrolled. Depression is a sly thief who knows exactly how to steal what you hold most valuable. A decade or more passes by and one day you realise that you have had your feelings of self worth, your passions and your ability to experience joy all spirited away. They are tough to claw back. But in the four years I have spent at Birkbeck, I have regained so much. I found that academic challenges make me happy. Some people like to do triathlons or jump out of planes to test the limits of their capabilities, I get my kicks from writing essays. My dissertation research was a towering pile of evidence, and piecing it all together into a coherent argument was such a rewarding puzzle. I have revelled in the joys of exposition in a setting where no cheap smart device would supercede me. Of my weighted modules, all scored in the 1:1 bracket. The tiny voice that always suspected I could achieve that was finally vindicated, and now when my brain chemistry tries to trick me into thinking I am dim, I can reread my transcript. I had honestly forgotten what it felt like to be proud of myself. I am delighted to remember now. The feelings of pride and satisfaction in turn give me happiness. My mental health has improved, and my relationships have benefited enormously. I am a better daughter, wife and mother for feeling fulfilled. It is pointless to wonder what might have been if I'd gone to university at the same time as my school friends. What matters is I no longer have to wonder if I’d have made the cut. Because I bloody well have, haven’t I.

This leads me to the final gift Birkbeck gave me, which is the luxury of choice. Remember, four years ago I had only one. Now, I get to pick and choose, because a group of academics saw a spark of potential and did everything they could to enable me to succeed. I graduate with a 1:1. I’ve used their training to write commissioned pieces for ancient history websites; one piece was quoted on Wikipedia and another was made assigned reading for undergraduates at another university. When it came time to consider an MA, I realised that I was no longer a risky investment. I am now a strong candidate for many universities. I made multiple applications and received multiple offers. Once upon a time that was a fantasy. I have chosen to move on, and I will start at Leicester in a few weeks. When I do, I will do so with confidence. Everything that I achieve in the future, from the MA to whatever comes after it, will only be possible because of Birkbeck, their ethos, and their wonderful, wonderful faculty. Without them taking that chance, I never would have had the opportunity to change my life for the better. They gave me so much more than a degree. I shan’t forget that, and I hope I’ve done them proud. I am so grateful to be a Birkbeckian, an alumna of a bastion of egalitarian education. They truly are one of a kind.

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