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I was twenty-five when I first applied for university, studying BA Criminology. When I first told my family and friends, they were unsure. They did not understand why I wanted to change my career and study a subject without having a ‘plan’. I had accomplished many things since leaving school, such as buying a house with my partner, buying a dog and at the time I was a supervisor in a nursery. However, I was not satisfied, I wanted to be challenged and wanted to try something new. In all honesty when family and friends asked me what I wanted to do, I did not know.
Growing up, I was told I was not smart enough for university, as a young person you begin to believe it. It wasn’t until I began looking after children when I realised that children should be encouraged and if I was going to reinforce my belief – that you can do whatever you set your mind to – I should believe it in myself.
Choosing criminology was easy for me, crime was something I was sheltered from as a child, I did not experience crime. I only began my fascination, after watching documentaries on Netflix and even then, I was curious about the concept and naively wondered, ‘what makes a criminal?’ After studying for one year, it is now easy to see that it is not an easy question to answer – but don’t take my word for it, study criminology and see for yourself!
Reflecting on my first year, it was a lot of trial and error. Like many students, I was learning how to write essays again and abide by deadlines, work a part time job, balance study, volunteering and home life and try not to consume too much alcohol in the meantime.
As summer comes to an end, I am excited to begin again, the stresses of university become worth it, when you build friendships and have the realisation that you are one step closer to graduating. I will continue to be determined and optimistic in my future, because I believe I can finally be satisfied. The next time someone asks me what I want to do, I can be confident and say, ‘I haven’t decided yet, but you can do anything you set your mind to, and no-one can tell me I am not smart enough for university’.
Stephanie is a BA Criminology graduate of 2019 and was motivated to write this blog through the experience of her own dissertation.
Last year was a very important time for me, during my second year of studying Criminology I began doing a work placement with Race Act 40, which was an oral history project to celebrate 40 years of the Race Relations Act 1974. The interviews that were conducted during my placement allowed me to get a variety of in-depth stories about racial inequalities of Afro-Caribbean migration settlers in the UK. During my time with the Race Act 40 project it became clear to me that the people who had volunteered their stories had witnessed a long line of injustices from not only individuals within society, but also institutions that makeup the ‘moral fabric’ within society. When exploring whether they have seen changes post and pre-Race Relations they insisted that although the individual within society treated them better and accepted them post-Race relations, to an extent there is a long way to go to improve the hostile relationships that has been formed with politicians and police.
The notion of hostility between politicians and the Afro-Caribbean community was reinforced, as the UK was going through the Windrush scandal which affected the core of every Afro-Caribbean household within the UK. This was extremely important for me as both paternal and maternal grandparents were first generation Windrush settlers. During the scandal my father became extremely anxious and the ramifications of the Windrush scandal hit home when some of his friends that came to the UK in 1961, the same time as he did, were detained and deported on the grounds of them being ‘illegals’. The UK Government used their ‘Hostile Environment’ policy to reintroduce Section 3 paragraph 8 of the Immigration Act 1971, which puts burden of proof on anyone that is challenged about their legal status in the UK’.
The UK government was ‘legally’ able to deport Caribbean settlers, as many of them did not have a British passport and could not prove their legal right to be in the UK and the Home Office could not help them prove their legal rights because all archival documents had been destroyed. This was a hard pill to swallow, as the United Kingdom documents and preserves all areas of history yet, overnight, the memory of my family’s journey to the UK was removed from the National Archives, without any explanation or reasoning. The anxiety that my father felt quickly spread over my whole family and while I wanted to scream and kick down doors demanding answers, I used my family’s history and the experiences of other Black people under British colonial rule as the basis for my dissertation. The hostility that they faced stepping off the Windrush echoed similar hostility they were facing in 2018, the fact that the British government had started deporting people who were invited into the country as commonwealth workers to build a country that had been torn apart as a corollary of war was a slap in the face.
Under Winston Churchill’s government, officials were employed to research Black communities to prove they were disproportionately criminal as a strategy to legally remove them from the UK and although they did not have any evidence to prove this notion the government did not apologize for the distasteful and racist treatment they demonstrated. It is hard to convince Black people in 2019 that they are not targets of poor similar treatment when they have been criminalised again and documents have been destroyed to exonerate them from criminality.
A final thought:
I have outlined the reasons why this topic has been important to me and my advice to any Criminology student who is going to be writing a dissertation is, to find a topic that is important and relevant to you, if you are passionate about a topic it will shine through in your research.
My name is Francine Bitalo, I am 21 years old and a Criminology undergraduate at the University of Northampton. Coming from a black African background I have always had a strong interest in the Criminal Justice System and its treatment towards different groups in society.
My dissertation was based on the impact of police practices such as stop and search on young black men and their families. Whilst statistics present the alarming racial disproportionately which exist in many areas in the criminal justice system, it fails to portray the long-lasting effects it has had on Black families. For example, the daily harassment and differential treatment subjected to young Black men has forced black families to reinvent themselves to conform to institutional racism. Coming from a Black family myself and having male family member, the findings in my dissertation quickly became personal to me, as I could constantly relate them to the structuring of my own family. For example, the fact that it would take my father longer to find a job due to institutional racism, making my mother the breadwinner, or when my mother is preparing my brothers for police harassment and discrimination, but not me and sisters.
While conducting my research I was quick to learn that what literature may describe as a phenomenon, for many of us is a reality. If I am honest the writing stage of my dissertation was difficult for me because it was a passionate topic. I experienced a lot of self-doubt regarding my positionality for example, being a Black woman and facing my own forms of discrimination and now having to talk about the experiences of young Black men. I think my dissertation tutor would agree with me on this as I remember emailing her after I submitted my work expressing how I felt like I didn’t effectively capture the effects and the voices of the young Black men I interviewed, despite that being my main goal. I mean who would blame me, as a student, if I am honest I felt like literature really let me down for instance, when writing my literature review I found that literature neglected the subject of racism solely from the perspectives of young Black men, despite statistics showing them to being the largest group to experience institutional racism. At this point I had to laugh at the criminal justice system and its propositions to improving police relations as well as re offending.
With that being said the information I did come across I couldn’t help but sense the notion of white privilege lingering in the perspective of some scholars. I understand this is a strong claim to make however I say this because not only did literature provide little of the work of Black scholars regarding the topic, yet it was evident that most white scholars did not see the issue with stop and search and its discriminate use. Arguments for this were discussed in my dissertation for example, some argued that the process of racial socialisation in Black households were ineffective to police relations and the functioning of their services, which creates the notion that the Black community should submit to discrimination and harassment in favour of procedures and compliance during police encounter. Some tried to justify the disproportionality in stop and search by claiming that young Black men should be harassed because they tend to be out more especially in certain urban areas or the disproportionate targeting of Black minors is due to parental criminality. I felt there was a lack of accountability from white scholar thus, little understanding in the issue of race which is natural because their experiences do not allow them to understand. Yet this led me to ask questions such as why shouldn’t Black mothers have the right to prepare their sons for police discrimination, does it matter what time and area should a person of colour be around for them to be targeted at?
After completing my dissertation and getting a First Class I felt extremely proud of myself, the fact that I did not shy away from the research topic despite it being limited in literature. As a result, it was satisfying to know that I was able to articulate the experiences of others to a First Class standard. I hope this can encourage others to trust in their abilities and put aside any doubts especially when choosing a research topic. As a student writing a dissertation or even an assignment, I believe we should explore the unexplored, open the unopened and always be willing to discover and learn. Do not be afraid of researching something that is limited or has never been done. Lastly as my dissertation was extremely passionate to me I have decided to turn it into a personal project and continue researching the topic
A question that always strikes when discussing my dissertation topic is why did I chose that particular area to research – is it a topic that I was passionate about, or was it my personal life experience that lead me into that field? The answer to these questions is quite simply, no. In fact, it was a topic I accidentally fell into after reading existing research on the area for one of my other modules in second year. Intellectual disabilities within the Criminal Justice System are quite often misunderstood, and as with all academics, the more I read the more questions I had. Taking this topic at face value, the field is extremely vast, therefore after taking some time to digest many angles of research I narrowed my topic down into two areas. Firstly, an institution that I have always been interested in, policing, and one intellectual disability in particular, autism (ASD).
To give you a brief background; the examination of the relationship between criminal offending and intellectual impairments is proved as complex and problematic. This is due to the issues associated with the definition of intellectual disability, as well as the contribution of unreported crime which means researchers can only examine individuals who are currently involved in the criminal justice process (Talbot, 2007). From a policing perspective, these complexities and concerns increase in terms of conflicting procedures and relevant training which can later impact levels of service and effective results (Mercier, 2011). Amongst academic literature, it is evident that contemporary policing institutions are subject to increasing budget cuts which means that police staff must exercise discretion in processing large amounts of work with inadequate resources, in which shortcuts and simplifications are made (Lipsky 2010; Loftus 2012). This is highly problematic as policies have a tendency to occupy a one size fits all approach. In effect, this becomes increasingly difficult when dealing with individuals with autism, as increased support and time is needed to sufficiently deal with vulnerable groups.
In terms of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), this is a common form of learning impairment which can affect patterns of behaviour within a social setting. Autism is characterised by a triad of impairments, which includes difficulties in social interactions, communication and repetitiveness in daily activities (Roth, 2010, p.6). The varying expression and severity of these characteristics means that autism is recognised into sub-types, and therefore, is also considered as a spectrum disorder (King and Murphy, 2014).
On the occasions that an individual with ASD comes into contact with the police and wider criminal justice services, it is normally a result of their social and communication skills being misunderstood which means that they are not given the appropriate support (Cockram, 2005; Tucker et al, 2008). Research suggests that autistic individuals are likely to become extremely distressed in unfamiliar, confusing and loud situations whereby their actions and behaviour can be easily misinterpreted and subsequent actions could escalate the situation (Hayes, 2007). Complimented by the current implications previously discussed that are faced by the police and wider services, it is no surprise that there are issues and concerns surrounding police responses and decision-making processes towards the ASD community. After personally interviewing police constables and custody officers from Northamptonshire Police to investigate the initial responses when dealing with such individuals; the realities of such dilemmas were highlighted.
After now completing my studies with First Class Honours, I am now fortunate enough to work for The Appropriate Adult Service (TAAS) where such theoretical standpoints are often presented to me in a practical environment. From a personal judgement, Appropriate Adults can be easily dismissed, but just being a friendly face who can help and support a vulnerable person within a custody setting is far more rewarding than meets the eye. In fact, it is my dissertation itself that has lead me into this career and has now also given me a thirst for further study in my chosen research area.
Lipsky, M. (2010) Street- Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Loftus, B. (2012) Police culture in a changing world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mercier, C. (2011) The first critical steps through the criminal justice system for persons with intellectual disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities. 39(2), pp.130-138.
Roth, L. (2010) Autism: an evolving concept. In: Roth, L. (ed.) The Autism Spectrum in the 21st Century: Exploring Psychology, Biology and Practice. 1st ed. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.1-29.
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching on modules in years 1 and 3.
I joined the University of Northampton as an associate lecturer in 2009, teaching at first on the Offender Management foundation degree and then joining the Criminology team, although I had been a visiting lecturer in Criminology for a number of years prior to that. I am sorry that a prior commitment means that I am unable to join you for the Big Criminology Reunion, although the occasion has inspired me to reflect on the professional journey that starts with graduation.
Last week I received an e-mail from a former student in the 2010 Offender Management cohort. She is just about to qualify as a probation officer and she was asking for advice about giving evidence at Parole Board hearings. It was great to think back, to remember what a vibrant and enthusiastic student she was, and to project forwards; perhaps I’ll see her at an oral hearing soon. She will probably make an excellent probation officer, and the fact that she is asking for advice before she even starts is evidence of that. She will possibly be the first of our offender management students to become an offender manager!
A couple of years ago I was at a Parole Hearing at HMYOI Aylesbury where I was very impressed by the evidence of the trainee psychologist. She had prepared a clear, concise but thorough and analytical report on the prisoner and she gave her oral evidence confidently and thoughtfully. After the end of the hearing, she popped back in to tell me that she had been initially inspired to take up prison psychology after hearing my guest lecture on Manos’ Forensic Psychology module. I saw her again earlier this year and she’s still doing a great job!
For undergraduates, completing a degree, submitting a dissertation, putting the pen down at the end of the last exam and then graduating with friends, seems like the end of a long and arduous process. And of course it is! But as the stories above show, it is also just the beginning. Just the beginning of a professional journey which may or may not involve direct application of the subjects covered on the course. Not all our students become probation officers or prison psychologists or academic criminologists, but they will take something of what they learn out into the world with them. It may be a more critical way of digesting the news, a wider appreciation of the social forces that shape our world, a readiness to reflect and question and see the world from different perspectives. All of that will help them on their journey. I hope that you all have a great time at the reunion and that as you compare each other’s journeys you have fond memories of the degree course that seemed a marathon at the time but was really only the first step!
Every year in late autumn, all universities prepare to welcome new students onto their campuses. In the media, we know this as “Freshers week”, a period when new students become familiar with university life. Throughout the years this particular week has grown in importance for the students’ social life, activities and other out of classroom activities. Students can taste the nightlife of the campus and that of the nearby town, engage in group activities, join a society and of course have, in many cases, their first taste of independence away from home. For the University, it is the first opportunity to engage students and get them involved in societies, volunteering and other after hours activities.
Year by year, this week is becoming increasingly important for the student calendar.
Returning students participate and graduating students remember when they were involved. A clear watershed moment in the student diary, so much so that special wristbands are produced and different special events are organised, only for this week. There is clearly some attraction, into being part of “freshers” so strong, that is now recorded into our collective vernacular. Finally, the freshers apart from the commercial, cultural attractions, is even connected with health, the infamous “freshers flu” is presented as the scourge for many students who will suffer some ill-health in their first term at Uni/life.
For an academic welcome week is interpreted differently. It is definitely an important week because it signifies the start to another form of education. It is transitional in terms of age for those who just crossed the 18 year old threshold marking the first part of adult education. It is a declaration of independence for many students and the time to make one of the many transitions into the world of academia.
This is why, instead of wristbands, I was frantically preparing my plenary lecture last week. Every year, I dig deep inside to find something that will signal to our newest cohort why I feel so passionate about criminology. This year, using the 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, I considered the importance of criminology, as a discipline. The main points focused on the multidisciplinary nature of criminology, the ability of criminology to holistically explore complex phenomena and the immense service, criminology offers to understanding crime from a dynamic/ever changing standpoint. The reason for going through the “pains” of delivering a plenary is clear to me: welcome week is the first week of the next three years of academic study. The start of a wider conversation that allows lay people to embrace those skills that will allow them to understand, evaluate, critique and argue with evidence and knowledge. Unfortunately there is no wristband for that, only a certificate at the end of the road, that will just about quell the thirst for knowledge. For many, this thirst will grow further and whilst the wristband may fade and the band attended may break-up, the knowledge that our students will acquire will be with them forever. This is the tool we offer and this is the beginning of how we do it.
To all of our new students, Welcome!
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve revisited my life as a student. That’s not to say I haven’t been studying on a regular basis, but the last fortnight or so has seen a return to more “intensive” times. Having c. 20,000 words to prepare for Ph.D transfer, plus a rationale to tie it all together has led to some very late nights, not to mention days in the library. With the presentation still to prepare, not to mention the thesis, this looks likely to continue for some time. As an undergraduate student I was fortunate enough to study full-time and work part-time; this time the roles are reversed.
As an undergraduate, you get into the flow gradually; at the beginning the dissertation appears impossible; how can anyone write 10-12,000 words on just one subject when you’re struggling to write 1,000? By the time you get to that point, the question changes; how can I be expected to get everything I want to say into just 10-12,000 words? The process and progress is gradual and at times, haphazard; when you are in the throes of studying, success can be almost imperceptible. It is only at the end when you can really begin to consider how far you have come, from that early timorous foray into academic life. By the time you get to graduation you have forgotten the anxieties which often go hand-in-hand with academia.
Although I have studied more or less constantly, since taking my first hesitant steps back into education via an Access course, it’s been some time since I have been confronted by word counts and deadlines. For almost a decade, I’ve been setting them for other people rather than be subject to them myself. It’s come as quite a shock!
I’d forgotten how painful writing can be, especially to deadlines, reliving all the old anxieties and noticing the feelings of inadequacy flooding back. Not only trying to satisfy curiosity, develop understanding and construct arguments, there is also the knowledge that this is not private, your output is designed for an audience, albeit small. When I start writing, it is if I am back in primary school, trying to make sentences which not only make sense, but say what you want them to say. Trying to ensure that the words you choose are not going to bore your audience into submission and yet still get your message across. The perpetual internal competition, between wanting to give up and wanting to succeed, seems to grow ever more insistent the more you write.
So why do it? Why not just walk away, do something less painful, less challenging, less meaningful? Why bother with education when you don’t have to? The answer for me, as with all of us, is intensely personal and largely integral to my own sense of being. Even to put my rationale/motivation into words is extremely difficult; I’m not sure I have the words to do justice to the experience. Fortunately, some years ago my daughter did find the words; replace Philosophical/Philosophy with Criminological/Criminology and you’ll get the gist….
The Philosophical Orgasm
Philosophy is difficult. You can read the same piece over and over, making little progress each time, losing faith and on the verge of giving up and then… something happens. The fog clears, everything slots into place, the philosophy offers itself up to you, the tension subsides and your whole being is filled with warmth and understanding; new clarity dawns. This moment is something many of you will be familiar with. It comes on quickly, and strong. And it changes the way you understand forever. You’ve taken it, conquered it, made it yours. Borges sums it up perfectly; in that moment of clarity we become part of something larger than ourselves – we access that shared knowledge (shared, that is, by all those who have gone before, who have walked the same path) and can speak the words as our own. Some people call this the ‘Eureka!’ moment, but I am inclined to say there is even more to it than that. The Ancient Greek εὕρηκα translates roughly as ‘I have found it!’, hence its association with scientific discovery. We can all recall the story of Archimedes jumping out of his bath and running naked through the street exclaiming ‘eureka!’ upon his discovery that the volume of water displaced in his bath was equal to the volume of the part of his body that was submerged. In the case of philosophical understanding, something more personal is going on. It is not merely a case of seeing how concepts operate within arguments – the understanding goes deeper than that, is internalised, changes you. It’s like an orgasm in your mind, that permeates your whole being. The more difficult the philosophy you are trying to grasp, the more intense the orgasm. It isn’t about finding a solution to a problem, it’s about augmenting your ideas in preparation for the next exploration. On each subsequent journey, you’ll take those new ideas along with you. (Saffron Garside).