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Gerald Nathanson

BA History

Gerald Nathanson was born in 1934. When he was five years old, World War Two broke out and he was evacuated, before returning to London just before the Blitz, followed by a second evacuation to Lancashire from 1940-42.  By the time he left school, aged 15, he had been to eleven different schools in total. Gerald remembers:  “You might have 60 children in a class. If you were seen to be highly able then you were sat at the front. Then there was the middle, then the back. I was usually sat at the back. My education was completely destroyed.

'I’ve always felt very conscious that I didn’t have an academic education and my one dream was to be properly educated.'

Age 74, Gerald began planning to study history. A friend from his wife’s Rotary Club was a professor at Birkbeck and recommended the College to him. After sending his CV, and attending an interview, Gerald was accepted to the BA History programme. He recalls that the first weeks were a real struggle: 'When I came to the first lecture at the College I couldn’t understand a word of it. I’d always liked history, and read lots of history books, but I’d never studied it academically. I didn’t know what a bibliography or histiography was, or how to contextualise or overarch – it was a foreign field to me.'

With the support of his tutors Gerald began to get to grips with the subject, and with academic study. He says: 'The tutors were able to guide me. When I had doubts three weeks into the course my seminar tutor told me: 'You will get this BA, no matter what. Any problems, you come and see me'.  Throughout the course all of the tutors were wonderful. They wanted to help you, and they really did help me.

'The other students also helped to carry me through. There were students in their 20s, one in her 60s, and the average age was probably 40. They were all so welcoming and always kept in contact by email. After the lectures we’d go to the bar for a drink. They helped me a lot.'

It wasn’t an easy journey for Gerald. He says: 'I’ve dedicated four years to doing this, but I felt so privileged to be able to do it. I’ve lived the whole College environment. From the moment I walked through the College doors, I was smiling, and people smiled back. The tutors, the IT staff, the librarians, the porters, the canteen staff – I really felt like they were all supporting me and it gave me such a lift.'

Gerald’s family were another source of support and encouragement. He says: 'My wife Carole put aside everything to help me get my degree. She let me have the dining room, which I covered with books, and articles and notes.

'I remember emailing my sons one day, saying that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to finish the degree. They replied straight away, saying that I sounded like a 20 year old student, and telling me how proud they were of me.'

The day that Gerald found out he’d passed the degree was full of emotion. He says: 'You can never be sure that you’re going to make it; not until the last exam has been passed. When I saw the results on the screen, I called Carole in and we both cried. I couldn’t believe that I’d fulfilled a lifelong ambition. I still can’t believe it. Very few people can truly say that they’ve made their dream come true, but that’s what’s happened to me.'

Gerald’s graduation ceremony took place this November. His family, his tutors and his friends have all told him they will be there to see him graduate. When he goes to New Zealand to visit his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren next year he plans to have his photo taken with them in his cap and gown. 'I think I’ve earned that cap and gown!' he says. 

Gerald's Graduation Day

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'Throughout the course all of the tutors were wonderful.'