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"Studying at Birkbeck opened up a new world of opportunities and networks"

MSc Social and Political Theory graduate, Chris Lehmann (they/she), shares how studying benefitted their career, broadened their networks and allowed her to make a difference in the workplace.

Christ wearing graduation gown and cap smiling to camera

Finding my own voice and helping others use theirs

I grew up in the United States and was lucky enough to be accepted into one of the 'Little Ivy' colleges after high school. When I got to college, I realised I was part of the LGBTQ+ community and started to get involved in campaigns to make queer theory a degree-level subject. However, when my parents expressed their concerns about the queer theory courses I wanted to take, which coincided with my personal struggle to come to terms with my identity, I ended up dropping out. I started a new life in California, then moved to London 20 years ago, where I found my passion for playwork. Working for a local authority as a manager of the play strategy, I loved doing work that aimed to support people whose voices were less heard in society.

Not wanting to live with regret

I accumulated various work-based certificates and diplomas but often felt like there was something missing, like I could be doing more. Not wanting to live in regret, I decided it was time to complete my education. I started looking into courses, and realised that with all my professional experience, I wanted to study at Master's level. I chose Birkbeck because it gave me the flexibility to work and study. I was anxious about not having fully completed my undergraduate degree but needn't have worried. When I applied to study MSc Social and Political Theory, a professor asked me to complete an entrance essay to demonstrate I was capable of studying at Master's level. When I found out that I had been successful in this, and was accepted onto the course, I was so excited - I recognised what a brilliant opportunity it was!

Making a difference with my research impacting how I approached my job

The positive impact of my studies on my professional life was profound. Cultural topics I'd been discussing with my friends and colleagues for a long time started to come to life through research, academic discussion, and critical thinking. The further I got into my Master's, the more I realised I could use my research as a way of improving the public services I work for. My dissertation centred on exploring how social care, kinship groups and housing can help better support the queer community as we age. I wanted to interrogate how we can allow queer people to grow older in a happier, healthier, more holistic way in society, and even began volunteering with older LGBTQ+ people. My employer recognised the value that my research brought to the workplace and created space for my academic contribution to have an impact on how we develop our working practice. For example, I have been supported to convene a group of practitioners to share learning about the research that we are carrying out, both academically and through our employment, and how we can incorporate what we learn across the department.

Newfound confidence led to a new job

Birkbeck has so many resources available to students to help us both academically and professionally. I participated in the career coaching programme and was matched to the most amazing job coach. Six sessions empowered me to see that I had outgrown my job and I began thinking of ways to progress my career. My newfound sense of confidence about my area of work was a bonus because I could speak critically and passionately about our profession whilst also providing creative solutions. As I was completing my studies, I changed jobs and moved into a more senior role as a Head of Service in Adult Social Care.

Finding new opportunities and networks

My professors from different modules introduced me to colleagues with similar academic interests, not just within the university but at other institutions too. They encouraged me to look at things like academic conferences and workshops, and as a result I'm now collaborating on the Mind the Gap conference for LGBTQ+ research and practice, with various Kings College students. I will also be speaking at the Brighton Outside/rs Conference in the summer, which is about queer solidarity with/in the community. My network has expanded more than I could have imagined and exposed me to places where I can explore my own areas of interest and people who I can continue to learn from.

The future is bright

After my challenges with college and coming out more than two decades ago, my parents and I spent lots of time reflecting during my time at Birkbeck about my journey to celebrating who I am now as a queer, nonbinary person. Alongside my amazing wife, my parents have been my biggest supporters during my Master's – they read and loved all of my queer theory papers! Studying at Birkbeck has been a wonderful way for me to take ownership of my education again, and my family's support has heightened that sense of accomplishment. After graduating with a distinction in April, I'm hoping to start a PhD at Birkbeck in October, where I hope to continue to use my research to make a real, tangible difference to the LGBTQ+ community.

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