Breaking down barriers: how Sheffield Hallam empowers students to challenge stereotypes

·4-min read

Shahina Hanif always wanted to be a physiotherapist, but for a long time it seemed her ambition would remain unfulfilled. Brought up in a conservative Muslim community in Sheffield, she wasn’t encouraged to go on to higher education.

Instead, Hanif married young, started a family and became a fitness instructor. Even that involved overcoming barriers. “Muslim girls don’t become fitness instructors. It’s not something that is in our culture,” she says. She loved the work, however, and took the opportunity to run a class for older women, educating women from her own community about the importance of taking exercise.

Nonetheless, Hanif felt a gap in her life – and that gap was education. An access course in health and social care at a further education college led to her achieving her dream of studying to be a physiotherapist at Sheffield Hallam, her local university. Now aged 49, in the final year of her undergraduate degree, and one placement away from qualifying, Hanif has found her studies every bit as rewarding as she hoped.

Most of her fellow students came to the course straight from A-levels, with a few a little older. Hanif initially found the academic demands challenging, but benefited from an approach tailored to the needs of individual students. “At Hallam, they have a lot of support for people like me,” she says. These include online library workshops, support with assignment writing and library tutorials on critical writing. She also undertook a leadership placement (a type of project placement with other health professionals that enables the student to gain leadership skills) with one of the tutors, Helen Batty.

Hanif didn’t feel confident about presenting, but the placement gave her the opportunity to practise her presenting skills, and she ended up giving a presentation over video to 100 people about the challenges she’d faced and the skills she’d developed that would help her excel in her future career. It was an amazing experience, she says: “I didn’t think that I would have the ability and confidence to do anything as big as that.”

Sheffield Hallam University’s student body is diverse. Enabling those from different backgrounds to fulfil their potential is an important part of its ethos. In subjects such as engineering and computing, where women are still underrepresented, a major focus involves drawing in more female students.

The university’s computing department is large, running undergraduate courses in subjects such as games development, cybersecurity and software engineering. Since the 1980s, computing courses across the UK have been dominated by men, and although the number of women is gradually increasing, men still outnumber women on undergraduate courses by about four to one. To help address this, the department is working hard to recruit and retain more women.

These efforts include outreach activities such as sending female academics into schools to talk about their subject. Márjory Da Costa-Abreu, a senior lecturer in ethical artificial intelligence at the university, is also the computing department’s equity, diversity and inclusion lead.

As a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) ambassador, Costa-Abreu gives talks to local schoolchildren on artificial intelligence. “They get very excited and interested because it’s something that is very present in their life,” she says. “It’s an excellent and simple way of breaking those barriers and showing girls it’s possible to do whatever they want to. When one of the girls says: ‘I like this area, I think I will apply [to university] for computer science,’ I want her to feel confident that she will be able to do that.”

The department also takes part in British Science Week, a national event held every March. School students are invited to Sheffield Hallam and immersed in the university experience, says Costa-Abreu: “They see the different academics, and we make sure that we have different representatives not only of gender variations but also minoritised groups as a whole.” In June, the department holds an event called Tech Week, in which school students are invited to take part in activities such as computer programming and games development.

These efforts to reach out to girls have been successful – the computing department has increased the number of women signing up to degrees, Costa-Abreu says. The department has also introduced a scheme where female undergraduates mentor first-year female students to make them feel more welcome. “Not all the girls are comfortable in male-dominated environments,” says Costa-Abreu, “so we make sure they know each other.”

She herself shows her face at as many departmental induction events as she can so that new students are aware of the presence of female staff.

The aim is to make Sheffield Hallam as welcoming a place as possible, and the university goes the extra mile to break down barriers to ensure all students from all backgrounds can thrive and achieve their potential, whatever subject they choose to study.

For Hanif, looking forward to her first physiotherapy role – perhaps in women’s health or neurology – the opportunity to study physiotherapy in the face of lifelong cultural expectations has been transformative. After having waited so long to fulfil her ambition, she says: “I feel complete.”

Find out more about the broad range of degree courses at Sheffield Hallam University in health and social care and computing