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"I'm still a victim but now I'm a graduate I'm something else alongside it"

Usha Rasagopal graduated this week with a BA English degree, a great feat given her tumultuous journey to Birkbeck. This is her story.

Usha Rasagopal
Usha Rasagopal

A challenging childhood 

My upbringing in Sri Lanka was very unsettled because of the civil war which began in 1983 and ended just over a decade ago.  I was unable to finish my A-Levels when the exams were postponed due to the conflict, and I started working as an interpreter. 

Reading was my source of escapism  

My father taught me English growing up. I was a daddy’s girl and I wanted to copy whatever he did. Before the war, we read together, watched sport together and discussed world events, past and present. When my father very sadly passed away, reading was the only pleasure I had. I read whatever I could to increase my knowledge of the world. This love of reading and learning the English language, landed me with a job as an interpreter, translating Tamil into English and vice versa. 

I moved to the UK in 2011 without my husband 

At the end of civil war, both my husband and I were wounded. We escaped from the concentration camp and I obtained refugee status in the UK. However, since we had lost all our documents, I struggled to prove to the immigration courts that I’m married and that the person I was trying to sponsor via family reunion was my husband. 

Pursuing my dream of studying English 

After having suffered so much trauma in my life, I was desperate to find something rewarding and positive. I wanted to find another source of identity and I knew that studying English at degree level would be hugely gratifying. A charity worker suggested Birkbeck to me, and I applied and got in! It was a very happy day. 

Progressing forward 

It’s been a great learning experience, but I wouldn’t say doing a degree was easy and at times I really struggled, but I wanted to progress forward, physically and mentally. I grasped all the help that was offered and used most of Birkbeck’s brilliant support services, including disability support for my mobility issues and mental health support. I also did my degree part-time, so I could continue my work as a sales assistant and interpreter while being a carer for my disabled husband. 

I thank Birkbeck from the bottom of my heart 

Birkbeck gave me the chance to study. I’m still a victim and I can’t trace out my traumatic experiences, especially from the end of the civil war, but now I’m something else along with it. I want to pass on a message to others in similar situations - though you can’t wipe away what happened, you can find and do something else to give you positivity and enjoyment. I am continuing to pursue my passion, and this October I started a Master’s degree in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck, with the ultimate goal of becoming a university lecturer in the future. 

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