When a closed airport and visa problems led to Libya-born Salma Bertata losing her place on a PhD course at a UK university, she assumed she would never again have the chance to study in this country. She also thought that becoming a single mum was a barrier.
This all changed when a chance remark to a health visitor, followed by a conversation with an English language tutor got her back into education. The 41-year-old was encouraged to enrol on an ESOL course so that her improved English communication skills would help her gain a place on another university programme.
Her efforts paid off and she is now embarking on a PhD in chemistry at Keele University.
“Chemistry has always been my biggest interest,” said Salma whose first language is Arabic. “I’m so happy I have now the chance to carry on studying it at university.”
Her acceptance on the PhD programme was made possible after she achieved Entry Level 3 reading, speaking and listening exams through a community programme delivered by Walsall College at Green Lane Baptist Church. She will move from Darlaston to Stoke on Trent to complete a pre-university English programme before starting her PhD in organic and analytical chemistry.
Salma declares that none of this would have been possible without the advice and support of her health worker and college tutor.
“I’d told them about the PhD scholarship the Libyan embassy had given to me so I could study in the UK,” said Salma. “I wasn’t able to travel here in time to start my course because it took too long for me to get my Visa. Then, when I was ready to leave, the political situation in Libya at the time meant the airport was closed. Even though I made it to Liverpool, I thought my university dreams were over.”
Fortunately, Salma’s health worker suggested she sign up for English classes to help her get more settled in the country and meet people. Her course at Green Lane Baptist Church proved to be ideal as the on-site crèche facility meant she could bring her two-year-old son along.
Despite understanding basic English, Salma had found it difficult to grasp the language.
“I found accents hard to understand,” she recalled. “When people in Liverpool spoke to me, they shortened some words or extended their vowels, so I would really have to concentrate to find out what they meant. I’m much more confident about speaking the language now.
“Coming to classes improved my reading as well. I don’t have to use Google translate as much as I used to.”
It was these classmates, ‘a second family’, who were the first to hear Salma’s good news about her course place at Keele University.
“I don’t have any family here so I wasn’t until I came to class that I had people to celebrate with,” said Salma. “I’m grateful to everyone here that supported me.
“My tutor, Ambika was very kind. She was the one who advised me to try again for a PhD. When I told her I was going to university, she said she’d always believed in me and was happy that I was now following my dream.”
“Being able to study chemistry has never been easy for me,” Salma continued. “When I first told my father I would be going to university for this, he said this wasn’t something for girls and that I wouldn’t pass my degree. I showed him I could do it and changed his beliefs. I achieved a masters qualification and then I became a teacher.
“Studying a PhD now means a lot to me. I have more choices for my future.”