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Six well-known local faces who underwent the university challenge recall graduation

Published 01/07/2016

Rebecca McKinney
Rebecca McKinney
Sara O'Neill
Barra Best
Frances Burscough

The pages of local newspapers are filled with the images and stories of some of the thousands of students who are graduating from Northern Ireland's two universities this summer.

For them it is the culmination of three years or more of hard work, dedicated studying and, in many cases, getting their first taste of independent life. Armed with their degrees, they are now setting out into the real world where they face the challenge of getting a job. For some their career path may be laid out for them by their qualifications in disciplines such as law or medicine, but for others it will be a case of finding meaningful employment that may have little relevance to the degree they obtained.

We talk to three people about their memories of their graduations and how their dreams panned out, and three writers tell how university shaped their lives.

Frances Burscough: ‘We were known around town as the Fashionettes’

I graduated in 1986 from Manchester Metropolitan University, although in those days it was still called Manchester Polytechnic. My degree was BA Hons fashion/textile design and it had taken three years plus an initial foundation course of a year before that, so by graduation I was 24 years old.

The course was based at the All Saints Campus at Oxford Road in the city and there were 15 of us in the year. It was quite an intimate group and we all socialised together in a little clique that was known around town as "the Fashionettes" because we were all very trendy and outlandishly dressed, like fashion students usually are.

The final year had been a whirlwind of excitement for us all. Instead of finishing with a thesis and/or exams, a degree in fashion is marked largely on a final degree show that is just like a professional fashion show with a catwalk, loud music, models and an audience at a large venue.

We chose Manchester Town Hall, no less, for our degree show and each of us spent the final six months of the course designing and making a collection of six outfits to be unveiled that afternoon.

Mine was a collection of women's eveningwear inspired by the pomp and ceremony of the Vatican, so the colours were black, ruby red, emerald green and purple decorated with ornate gold and jewelled trimmings and included sweeping gowns, capes and sashes topped with mitres and birettas.

One even carried a staff, like the Pope. It got a great reception and rapturous applause, so I couldn't have been more pleased. The following day we took our show - lock, stock and barrel - to the famous Hacienda Club where hundreds of people turned up to see all the budding new designers make their debuts.

Members of the band New Order were there along with the producer Tony Robinson and a few other celebs too, so it was a really exciting night all-round.

Afterwards our outfits were graded and all of us, bar one, were given a disappointing 2.2, an average mark, nothing to write home about per se, but a pass at least.

The joke at the time was to call a 2.2 score "a Desmond", as in Desmond Tutu. So I got a Desmond for all my hard work, but luckily I also got offered a job on the strength of it. As I was the only one in my year who came away from college with a career lined up, it was actually a great success.

The graduation ceremony took place at Manchester Free Trade Hall. Mum and dad came and we went for a meal afterwards to the Dutch Pancake House, but like so many pancakes, the day felt like a bit of a flop after all the excitement of the shows.

I got a photograph taken of me in my cap and gown but it was so hideous that I waited until the novelty had worn off and then threw it away. Mum and dad never noticed because I was just one of their eight kids who all graduated over a short space of time.

For the next few years I worked my way up from an assistant in a small design studio to designing womenswear for Marks and Spencer in London.

However, I moved to Northern Ireland in 1990 to concentrate on fashion journalism.

Alex Kane: ‘Everything valuable that I’ve learnt I did so in the real world’

I remember crossing the stage of the Whitla Hall with my black gown flapping like an embarrassed crow as I reached out to receive my degree - a joint honours in politics and philosophy. There's then a few seconds while you walk back down the steps, scroll in hand, and get a proper look at the audience.

I remember thinking: "I'm going to rule this country one day and people will listen to what I say."

But 38 years later I don't even rule my own house, and my daughters treat almost every utterance with a smile, a snarl, or a slam of the door.

That was July 1978, a time without fees and when only about 10% of the population went to university or a polytechnic. It was also a time when most of us walked straight from the degree ceremony into a job.

We dared to dream back then because we knew we were a blessed generation: unencumbered by debt, fought over by potential employers, loved by bank managers (those were the days when they came out and shook your hand) and with a career path helpfully laid out in front of us.

Yet, if I could do it all again I would go back and tell myself to take a different path. About two weeks after I left school, in 1974, I was offered a job with a local newspaper. I turned it down because I thought I was much too clever to start at the bottom with the "sort of people" who had to cover local councils, school speech days and church fetes.

I should have started there, because it's only by working your way up that you learn the most important lessons in life and the most useful tricks of the trade.

You get to know people. You get to realise that there's more collective wisdom in those "ordinary people" than in the self-referencing, self-serving babble of those who live in the bubbles occupied by the professional classes.

University serves a purpose, particularly for law, medicine, careers in research and so on.

But in my lifetime I've seen a university education transformed into an expectation rather than a necessity or a reward.

However, 40 years on and the one thing I know for certain is that everything valuable I've learned I learned in the "real" world.

Fionola Meredith: 'All PhD students know it takes up your entire life'

I graduated three times from Queen's University Belfast, and on each occasion the gowns got fancier. By the time I received my doctorate in English and scholastic philosophy in 2001 it was very swanky indeed: a vision in silky purple and red.

But that seemed fair enough to me. After four years of intense intellectual labour I was happy to get the glad-rags on. As anybody who completes a PhD knows - and I'm talking about real ones, not the instant, honorary kind - it takes over your entire life.

The only way to get it done is to immerse yourself in your topic - obsessively, passionately, exclusively - and wave goodbye to the outside world for a few years.

Probably wave goodbye to your mental health as well: I'm still feeling the after-effects of it. So when the day came to formally accept my PhD, I was more than ready.

All I remember of the graduation days themselves is a confused impression of academic processions, organ voluntaries, strategically-placed safety pins, and strawberries and cream in the quad afterwards.

But I do know how proud I was to take my place as an alumna of Queen's, and that's something that never leaves you. I was privileged to be taught by true scholars and intellectuals - increasingly rare these days - such as Dr Hugh Bredin and Dr Jennifer FitzGerald, my PhD supervisors. They shaped, nurtured and challenged my thinking, sharpened my wits and sustained me with great friendship throughout. That never leaves me either: their influence is in everything I write and say.

I started Queen's as an 18-year-old, straight out of school, and by the time I left I was married with two young children.

My son, now 21, was born in the second year of my undergraduate degree and I gave birth to my daughter during the first year of my doctoral study.

I have wonderful memories of summertime classes out on the lawn in front of the Lanyon building, my little boy playing in the daisies by my side.

I used to take my baby daughter into the library in her back-pack (I don't think they'd have let me in with a pram) and we'd go up together to the 11th floor, where the philosophy books were kept.

Quickly working out what it was all about, she would reach for books from the highest shelves, take them down and prop them on the back of my head as she leafed through them.

My daughter is a woman now, and I still think of those days and smile.

‘I worked for an IT firm for a while but liked the sound of a journalism course’

Rebecca McKinney (29) is a personal stylist and co-hosts the Cool FM breakfast show with Pete Snodden. She says:

"I have a law degree from Queen's University and a Master's degree in communications, advertising and public relations from what is now Ulster University.

I went to both my graduation days and I loved them. I was so excited about the day and graduating from Queen's my friends and I all tried to get dresses that would match the colour of our hoods. I ended up with an orange dress that I probably wouldn't have worn in a thousand years, but I loved it that day.

When I graduated from Queen's I still very much wanted to be a solicitor and fully intended to pursue that route. I took the exams to get into it and ended up on a waiting list, so in the meantime I did my Master's.

I had always had an interest in media and when it came to choosing my degree it was a toss-up between journalism and law. Doing the Master's degree really got me excited about the media so it ended up enticing me down that path.

'My degree has been invaluable as I've worked in fashion and I really understand how fabric works'

Sara O'Neill (36) is a stylish and designer of Eadach scarves. She lives in Portrush with her fiancé Al Mennie. She says:

"I graduated from the University of Ulster in Belfast with a BA (Hons) in fashion and textiles. I went to my graduation and got dressed up in the gown, entering into the spirit of it all. It didn't massively stick out in my mind because we had a fashion show at the Waterfront Hall a few days before graduation and that involved a lot of hard work.

On graduation day I really didn't want to be a designer - the nitty gritty bits about it bored me - but I did want to be a stylist or an illustrator. It was a very small industry, particularly back then in Northern Ireland in the days before social media. I ended up working as a waitress for a year and seriously considered becoming a teacher. I interviewed for places on courses and spent three months helping out at my primary school with arts and crafts. Then I met Gavin Miller, the photographer, who asked me to style a shoot for him and it all snowballed from there.

It was only a couple of years ago I finally ended up being a designer with my Eadach print range. My degree has been invaluable as I've worked in fashion and I really understand how fabric works. I didn't have the formed ideas for designing when I left university, but they've come with experience."

'I loved my graduation day and I had all my family over for it'

Barra Best (33) is a TV presenter for BBC Northern Ireland. He says:

"I went to Edge Hill University in Ormskirk just north of Liverpool and I studied information systems with media and communications. I always had a knack for IT and computer systems as well as media so I wanted to keep both of those things together.

I loved my graduation day and I had all my family over for it. Back then I wanted to work in IT so I came back to Belfast and worked for an IT firm for 18 months. It was pretty good - my first job in the real world.

I did enjoy it but a friend of mine started talking about doing a Master's in broadcast journalism and I really liked the sound of it. I decided I wanted to do something a bit more creative so I ended up doing a postgraduate diploma in broadcast journalism at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.

When I finished that course I came back to Belfast and worked at local radio station for nine months before getting a job at the BBC nine years ago and I've been there ever since."

Interviews by Kerry McKittrick

Belfast Telegraph

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