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"Birkbeck allowed me to continue my professional rugby career whilst studying for a degree and preparing for my future"

Thinking of doing something different? Go for it. At age 18 Alex Coles traded in the traditional university model to study BA Politics Philosophy and History at Birkbeck alongside a successful career as a professional rugby player, playing for Northampton Saints and occasionally England

Three rugby players wearing an England kit, stand in a line with their arms around each other, singing. It is raining in the picture.
Alex Coles (middle) singing the national anthem at the start of a rugby match

When opportunity comes knocking

I've always wanted to go to university and as a teenager had big ambitions of studying something multidisciplinary like politics and economics; rugby had always just been a hobby. But year on year, I seemed to progress until, in my final year of school, I was offered a professional contract with Northampton Saints, my local club from Cambridge. Pursuing this new ambition meant I had to defer my university placements, so I told myself it was a gap year.

Making room for ambition

My career in rugby took off, and five years later I'm still playing professionally - I was even on the England squad last year! But I never gave up on my ambition to study. I really wanted to find a way to balance my career with studying, but I knew that a regular university structure wasn't compatible with the intensive rugby training and match schedule I have. I considered the Open University but knew that wouldn't work either – I get more from structured learning, being in classrooms with people, exchanging ideas. I needed something different.

An innovative solution

Evening study at Birkbeck was the perfect solution. The campus is right near Euston station, which is where my commuter trains arrive in London, so it was ideal. The lectures and seminars are structured to fit around your life, and it works. Of course, combining a rigorous training and game schedule with classes and coursework deadlines has been challenging. But the College has allowed me flexibility and understanding throughout, even when it's been really tricky.

Connecting with the wider world

My time at Birkbeck has felt really enriching. Even now, in my final year, I'll attend a lecture or seminar about a topic and be buzzing about it all the way home. Discussing subjects and ideas with classmates adds a whole other dimension too. In rugby I meet lots of people with very similar backgrounds and worldviews. Studying at Birkbeck allowed me to connect with people of all ages, from all over the world, with very different perspectives. My horizons and understanding of the world have been broadened.

The benefits of studying and working

In professional rugby you ride the emotional wave of wins and losses a lot, and if you don't have other things going on in your life, it can really get to you. It can also be a precarious career – you live contract to contract and there's a time limit to how long you can keep doing it. Studying for a degree at Birkbeck provided me with a much-needed sense of perspective. Playing a bad game or having a difficult training session was never the end of the world, because I had something else going on in my life that I cared about just as much.

Challenging stereotypes

I think there's a bit of a stereotype about rugby players, and I like the idea that I can break that. I love to learn, and I use the self-discipline and drive that every professional sports person has to have towards my studies. Hopefully one day, I can use it in the wider world too. I'd love to go on to do further study, perhaps in Law or Economics and see where that might take my career one day.

Further Information