Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Where you grew up, your family and so on.
My name is Devshi Mahar, I am 35 years old and I live in Leicester, UK. I was born in Gujarat, India and brought to the UK by my parents when I was 1 year old. I grew up on a council estate and went to a non-selective state comprehensive school. Neither of my parents attended university and they both work in factories as machinists making leisure and denim-wear. They are hardworking, religious people who value education and integrity above all else. At GCSE I achieved good grades and I did not know what I wanted to study at A level so I followed my older brother and did Maths, Biology and Chemistry. I got AAB in 2002 and was accepted onto the MBBS programme at King’s College London. The course was very interesting and I passed years 1 and 2, after which I did a 1-year Intercalated BSc in Biomaterials at Guy’s Hospital (achieving a 1st class award) and then went onto pass my 3rd year of the medicine programme. This is when my situation changed. I started feeling depressed and anxious about clinical placements and clinical exams and eventually failed my 4th year of medical school. I was given resits but eventually withdrawn due to academic failure. On returning home to Leicester, my mental health difficulties continued and I did not work or study for 2 years straight. I then went onto Employment Support Allowance followed by Job Seeker’s Allowance. This was a difficult time in my life and only began to improve after I made to conscious decision to change my situation. I succeeded in getting a job as a healthcare support worker in a learning disabilities hospital in Leicester, and later got a job as a healthcare assistant at Leicester General Hospital. These roles in the NHS were challenging, especially because I was still recovering from depression, and my anxiety about exams had become a generalised anxiety. However, being in employment had a positive effect on my mental health because I was surrounded by people as opposed to being isolated; I had structure to my day and purpose and responsibility; and the fact that I was earning a wage, as opposed to being on benefits, made me feel part of society again. I developed the confidence to believe I could improve my future and so being a glutton for punishment I decided to re-apply for medicine. I did not get a place this time but was offered a place on the Medical Physiology and Therapeutics BSc at the University of Nottingham. I still enjoyed reading about the basic medical sciences and wanted to get back into education, so I accepted the offer.
What stage of your studies are you at? How are you enjoying them?
I have now completed my BSc in Medical Physiology and Therapeutics with a first. It was challenging going back to university as a mature student, but the University of Nottingham supported me throughout my time there; they have a great policy and procedures in place to help students with disabilities and mature students to succeed. The tutors were also very supportive and gave me good advice, which is why I enjoyed the studies, I found the anatomy classes most interesting and the medical statistics module intellectually stimulating.
What do you hope to do next?
Although I am now changing direction and am not pursuing a career as a doctor or any other career in the NHS, I am grateful for the experiences I have had working and studying in the healthcare sector. My interest is now geared towards learning as much as I can about banking and finance. I reflected this year on what I enjoy most and realised that I like solving problems, and I miss intellectual challenge that studying mathematics offers. For that reason, I am applying for a master’s degree in Banking and International Finance at the University of Leicester. I believe teaching the next generation is important and so would like to pursue that at some point in my career. My plan is to work in the banking industry for several years before considering a PhD.
How would your friends describe you?
As an introvert I have always tended to keep my true feelings to myself, but after going through the difficulties I have faced in the last 10 years, I have become more open and honest with those around me. My closest friends would probably describe me as ambitious and intelligent and a good listener who enjoys conversations. They would probably also say that I lack a bit of confidence, and that is understandable considering the ups and downs I have experienced over recent years.
Who inspires you?
My immediate family acts as my biggest inspiration. Our household has a strong work ethic and a deep routed ambition to succeed. This ambition is not overtly expressed but is subtle and I feel it in the way we communicate with each other. Perhaps it has something to do with being immigrants who left our homeland and a life as farmers in search of a better future.
If you could be endowed with a talent that you don’t have, what would it be?
I respect anyone who has challenged themselves to overcome their difficulties in life and not given up when times have been tough. Although I am relatively intelligent, I do not feel I could do a PhD in mathematics, and so if I wanted a talent it would probably be the aptitude to do that.
What’s the most boring evening you’ve ever spent?
The most boring evenings happen every now and then and they involve not doing much of anything, just lying on my bed day-dreaming. However, I think these ‘boring’ evenings may actually be periods of self-reflection and could be beneficial every once in a while.
If you had to be stuck on a desert island with a politician or political leader, who would it be, and why?
Dr Liam Fox. I am interested in international trade and would enjoy hearing his insights.
If you were Prime Minister, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Reduce university tuition fees.
Can you tell us something probably don’t know about the subject you’re studying?
The most important advice I can give anyone thinking of studying medical science or indeed wanting to become a doctor, is that you don’t have to be a genius to do it. Sure, you need a certain level of intelligence, but what is more important is your passion for the subject, your determination to succeed and having humility because dealing with people’s problems takes a particular mindset, which might require letting go of your ego.
What would you say is your best quality?
I am always thinking of ways to improve. Whether it is applying for a new course to learn something new that will help my career or whether it is just going for a walk every morning to aid my mental health. I have realised that my biggest asset is my motivation to reach my full potential and so making small changes in life, things such as eating more healthily or listening to and surrounding myself with positive people, which can have a cumulative effect on our outlook.
What do you think makes someone good to work with?
I enjoy working with people who are not self-centred. In work tasks it maybe that these people can be beneficial, they are serious, self-disciplined and hold themselves and others to high standards. However, I believe the best people to work with are those that have empathy and who understand what it means to be a team player.
Do you prefer to work out problems alone or with others?
Sometimes I like to spend time on my own to work through problems and try to understand the situation at my own pace without the pressure of someone looking over my shoulder. Eventually though I reach a point when I either need to ask someone for help or want to share a success with someone, so I think collaboration is more important than individual efforts.
What drives you?
Desire for success. Success can be money, a happy wife and children but it can also be personal like not having regrets, making your own decisions and living by them, forging your own destiny rather than accepting your lot.
Did you receive adjustments when you were in education? If so, did you feel they were effective and adequate?
In my degree at the University of Nottingham, I applied for Disabled Student Allowance though Student Finance England on the basis of my past mental health difficulties. I was given a specialist mentor who I met once a week throughout the whole three years of my degree. I felt this was the best decision I made as the mentor that supported me was an occupational therapist by trade and she helped me stay motivated, gave me moral support when I struggled and gave me advice on when to request further adjustments such as extensions to coursework. I did not get awarded extra time in exams but I did get the opportunity to take breaks and was given a separate room away from the rest of my cohort in which to sit my course exams. This was particularly helpful as exams can be stressful and being in busy environments can add to the pressure so for this, I am grateful.
Would you say your disability impacted the accessibility of higher education?
Living away from home was difficult at first because I was used to having people around me and since my condition meant I tended to isolate myself when left to my own devices, the thought of living away from home was daunting. The way I got through it was to stay positive, remember why I was doing the course, develop inner resilience and to reach out to people for support when times were difficult.
What, if anything, do you find the most daunting part of the application process for jobs or internships?
Having to explain my past failure, and fearing that my mental health difficulties in the past will overshadow the progress I have made. In terms of the actual job or internship, I am most afraid of people thinking I do not belong in the banking industry. Having spent all my life trying to become a doctor and not succeeding, it is difficult to convince myself that I have the right to change direction and having the confidence to get people to take a chance on me.
Have you ever had a job/internship interview? Was is impacted by your disability? Were there adjustments in place, and did they help?
I have had several video interviews and they were without adjustments. I do not like the format of the video interview because I am someone who likes to talk face to face. I much prefer building rapport with someone, seeing their facial expressions and being able to ask questions to clarify my understanding.
When a job application form asks if you require any reasonable adjustments, do you know what to say?
I never know what to say and for this reason I always tick ‘no’. I am quite well now and so my requirements would be very subtle and so it is difficult to articulate what I need, especially when they do not tell you what options are available.
What’s your dream job?
At the moment I would say trader or junior analyst at an investment bank but after studying this MSc in banking and finance I will probably have a better idea of the role I want. I do know that my ideal job would involve international experience.
What are the greatest positives of your disability?
I have a unique outlook on life having experienced difficulties. I can be more grateful for small things which others may take for granted like feeling well enough to go out with friends and not having the negative thoughts that hold one back from doing what they want.
If you could have ten minutes on prime-time TV to talk about disability, what would be your key message?
The biggest obstacle to seeking help is social stigma. A very personal and specific worry for my parents is that being from an Asian community with very traditional views, there is a real risk of someone not wanting to offer their daughter’s hand in marriage to me because of the depression and anxiety in my past. This type of thinking has forced me to hide my troubles from anyone outside my immediate family, which has put considerable strain on me at times. The best thing to reduce stigma would be to celebrate successes. Publicise people who have achieved things despite their disability or who have recovered from things like depression. This positive approach will lessen the stigma and make it easier for people to seek help sooner rather than when it is too late such as, after they have been withdrawn from a course or failed university exams. This is just my opinion; I am sure there are people who have faced greater difficulties than me such as, physical disability and they may have a more poignant message to deliver.