New lease of life isn't all you win

May 18, 2007

Award praises those whose successes illustrate education's power to change lives. Melanie Newman reports.

A former hotel chambermaid and a reformed criminal are among academics nominated for awards celebrating the power of higher education to change lives.

Hotel worker-turned-archaeologist Joanne Kenny and ex-con Joe Baden are on the shortlist for the Endsleigh-UCU Life Changer Awards this week, along with a host of inspiring academics who have transformed their students' prospects.

Ms Kenny said: "I was working as a chambermaid at a little hotel in Crewe.

I was very restless because I always wanted more - I had always wanted to be an archaeologist. But I had a difficult childhood and at school was in remedial classes, as they used to be called. I was pretty much written off, and left school at 15."

Her life was turned around one day when a heavy downpour forced her to take shelter in a careers office. As she perused the noticeboards, a woman appeared and asked her whether she was ready for her 2 o'clock appointment.

"After I'd finished the tests, I did admit that it wasn't my appointment," Ms Kenny said. "But the other person hadn't turned up, and it became my opportunity."

The careers officer suggested that she enrol in an access course, and Ms Kenny never looked back. After passing the course she was accepted on to an archaeology degree course at Liverpool University.

"I had tremendous difficulties," she said. "I hadn't had enough recent education, and the education I'd had as a child wasn't sufficient. The access course went some way to prepare me, but I still struggled. I had problems with spelling, grammar - pretty much everything."

Her success in achieving a 2:2 was down to her determination and the help she received along the way.

"I met some very kind people, students included, who went out of their way to help," she said. "I was also prepared to ask for help; and whatever opportunity was there, I took."

She used to tell people that what she lacked in education she would make up for in enthusiasm. "I wasn't going to fail; it just wasn't an option."

After her degree she studied for a masters in the same department and is now applying for a PhD in September. Her thesis will build on an ethno-archaeological study of a village on the Turkish-Syrian border.

"That part of the world still has much to reveal - there's a lot there yet to discover," she said.

One of her lecturers, Alan Greaves, said: "When I interviewed Jo she was a nervous mum with two teenage kids who were about to leave home and an interest in archaeology. In the past five years, she's been transformed by university."

Also on the shortlist is Mr Baden, who runs a project at Goldsmiths, University of London, that aims to open up higher education to former drug addicts, offenders and people with mental health problems.

He was told he would amount to nothing when he was at school and left without qualifications to work in the print trade. "The work was mind-numbing," he recalled.

Mr Baden soon drifted into a life of crime. With several convictions under his belt, mental illness and alcoholism began to dominate his life and he realised he had to change.

It was not until he began an education project that his life turned around.

After gaining a degree in history, graduating in 1998, he set up the Open Book project, which now has 100 students on its books taking access or undergraduate courses.

The project helps students to understand academic language and gives support with basic techniques such as essay and CV writing.

Mr Baden said: "People say widening participation is about social engineering. I say: 'Come and look at the ages on the gravestones in Peckham, that's social engineering.'" All winners will receive a £300 prize towards a project in keeping with the spirit of Life Changers. Two of them will receive a further grant of £3,000.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

OTHERS ON THE SHORTLIST

* Pat Wilkinson, head of social sciences at Bradford University, was nominated by a disabled student who suffered homophobic bullying at the start of his university life. Without her support, he says, he would not have completed the second month of his course.

* Hazel Cox, senior lecturer in the chemistry department at Sussex University, helped organise a massive campaign to save the department from closure. The success of the campaign helped buck the trend of closures in British university science departments.

* Janine Talley, lecturer in the faculty of health and social care at the Open University, was nominated by a former student. Dr Talley recognised Terry Rush-Morgan's undiagnosed dyslexia. Thanks to her support, he is now working as a lecturer.

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