Rebecca overcomes odds

Joseph Lee

The deaf mute Spanish student has learnt a foreign sign language and passed Btec qualifications . Now she's aiming at a fine art degree. Joseph Lee reports

It is hard enough for a student to succeed in a foreign country, learning a new language at the same time as keeping up with their studies.

When Rebecca Abalos came to the UK from Spain, she faced an even greater challenge. She is profoundly deaf and mute. As well as coping with her disability, she had to learn a new type of sign language to communicate in Britain.

Despite this, she has earned a series of Btec art and design qualifications in about half the usual time at Hammersmith and West London College. Last week, the college gave her an award to mark her achievements.

While her teachers in Spain suggested a recreational pottery class would be all the education she could hope for, Rebecca now hopes to study for a fine art course at university.

One of her tutors, Chris Brockbank, said: "She's like a sponge in the way she can absorb information. We forget that she's deaf - we treat her like anybody else. But she is an exceptional student."

Rebecca was only enrolled at the college by chance after her mother inquired about courses for her 18-year-old brother, Kashmir.

Growing up in an isolated part of Catalonia, Rebecca had studied in a mainstream secondary school. But sign language interpreters were harder to come by, she said, and she was told that further education was impossible.

So when the family arrived in England, they had little expectation that she would be able to continue studying. Her teachers in Spain had recommended that she find an evening class in pottery.

The college had different ideas. Rebecca was taught British Sign Language, and signers from City Lit, the central London adult education college, were brought in to help her communicate with her tutors.

Rebecca said: "I didn't want to move to London. I wasn't sure I would understand English. I didn't feel confident signing, so they brought in an interpreter. It was hard to understand at first."

She said she was struck by the amount of support and the number of signers available to interpret for her.

After five weeks, she was progressing so quickly that she was moved from a Btec foundation course to a more challenging intermediate GNVQ. She completed that course with a distinction and then finished a two-year Btec national certificate in 12 months.

"My other brother is back in Spain and I haven't seen him for a long time.

I miss him. But I couldn't go back to Spain, not now," Rebecca said. "My life is in England and I'm going to carry on here. I love it here. The art and museums are brilliant and the teachers are wonderful.

"I would like to go to university to study fine art, but it's hard. I would need an interpreter and a note-taker."

Lynne Pearson, director of the Hammersmith and West London College, said Rebecca's story sums up the strengths of FE. "It's because she showed so much courage, effort and sheer determination to succeed that we chose her as being a very special student.

"Rebecca encapsulates everything that's good about FE. It's a testament to the teachers who gave so much support, and it's a testament to her and the hard work she put in."

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Joseph Lee

Joseph Lee is an award-winning freelance education journalist 

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