Belfast Telegraph

It's smiles all-round as graduates make it to big day

As thousands of students graduate from university this week, reporter Lindsay Fergus speaks to five - from all ages and walks of life - whose stories are not only an inspiration but testimony to the academic excellence on offer in Northern Ireland's two universities, Queen's University and University of Ulster.

They tell how they overcame life threatening illnesses, attained a first class honours after leaving school at 16, met the love of their life at university, made it a family affair, made wrong choices and right choices. Here are their tales...

Gemma’s dad would be proud of her progress

When Gemma McIlwaine graduated from the University of Ulster yesterday there was one person who was absent – her father Billy, who had died days before she was due to start university.

But he undoubtedly would have been immensely proud of his only child, who bravely dropped out of medicine after realising it was not the right career choice, only to graduate with a first class honours in accountancy and law, as well as winning a string of awards.

Gemma explained: "Medicine was just something I thought I had wanted to do from going to a grammar school and because I did well academically.

"It was the career people wanted to go into. I thought I wanted to do it."

And after achieving seven A* at GCSE and three As and three As at A-Level it's not surprising Gemma had thought medicine would be a good career choice.

Her dad had taken a brain aneurysm shortly after she had completed her GCSEs and she believes that had also influenced her decision.

Then, just days before she was due to start her degree, tragedy struck.

"Dad died in September just a few days before we were due to enrol," said Gemma, who delayed starting her course.

"I think I did a week and thought I can't do this. I just took the rest of the year off. I got a job and worked in HMV.

"At 18, leaving school, going to university and my dad died; there was just too much going on and I needed a bit of a break."

Instead of rushing back into another wrong choice, the Ballyclare woman took a few years to figure out what she wanted to do with her life.

"I believe everything happens for a reason. I knew I did not want to be a doctor at the end of the day," she said.

"It just seemed like a really simple decision. It just completely felt right. I knew I would rather be happy than struggle through something I would never do anything with.

"I worked full-time and figured out what I wanted to do and I am much happier for doing that."

The 29-year-old had always enjoyed maths so when a new course was launched by the University of Ulster, she applied.

"As I read about the course, the possibilities it could open up and heard from my friends about how much they loved studying there, I knew clearly for the very first time what I wanted to do and achieve in my career," she said.

Last summer Gemma won a student prize from accountancy firm EY and spent a few days working in its transaction advisory service department on restructuring, insolvencies and takeovers.

EY was clearly impressed, and in November 2013, even though Gemma had another six months of university ahead, she was offered a graduate position by the firm.

"The university has been really flexible so I was able to work at EY one day a week during my final year.

"This helped me to gain practical experience and develop key industry skills that have given me the confidence to make the very most of my career and talents."

And Gemma, who can now start planning her wedding in August 2015, added: "I'm so excited about what the future holds."

High-on-life Stephen makes it a triple celebration

There is no doubt that Stephen McCaffrey is happiest behind the wheel of a car. So when it came to choosing a degree, mechanical engineering was the natural choice.

The Omagh student started Queen's University Belfast in September 2009 with his sights firmly set on securing his degree and getting a job in England where he could pursue his love of racing.

But in his final year his plans were stalled when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphona.

"I was fine up until January 2013, which should have been my final year," explained Stephen. "I was in the middle of an exam and I got stuck on a question and was literally scratching my head and neck when I discovered a massive lump on my neck."

As the 23-year-old had no symptoms he wrongly presumed he had mumps. He continued his exams and coursework before finally going to see his GP in March.

Stephen said: "After I got an initial scan my GP called me in. He was being cagey and I said 'if there's something just tell me'. He said 'we think it's lymphona'."

Stephen refused to let the illness stop him in his tracks. "I was like, okay I have this, treat me for it and let's get on with the life plan. My attitude helped me massively. I still had the big life plan, I was still aiming for this move to England. It was just a small bump on the way."

His chemotherapy started in May 2013 just days before his final exams.

"I moved home to Omagh because I was getting treatment in Altnagelvin. I used the time off as much as I could. I started doing a lot of projects I had been planning for a long time, which helped me."

One of those projects included preparing a car for racing. "The treatment attacks your immune system, a common cold would have been very dangerous to me at that time.... and I was lying under a 20 year old car," he laughed.

Amazingly after just three and a half months chemo and Stephen was given the all clear.

Today will see the realisation of part of his dream when he graduates from Queen's with a Masters in engineering knowing he has already secured a job with Jaguar/Landrover in Gaydon working on future models.

"Graduation is a triple celebration for me. I am graduating with an honours degree, I have been given the all-clear and I have landed a great job. I am just over the Moon."

Two big days in row for groom Jonathan

When Jonathan Stewart graduated from Queen's last night with a degree in medicine, it was literally his bachelor party – for the Castlerock student gets married today.

Graduating alongside the 24-year-old were his four groomsmen while his twin sisters, Catherine and Helen, who are his bridesmaids also graduated yesterday.

However, it wasn't down to poor planning on Jonathan's part that his graduation and wedding were just hours apart.

Jonathan explained: "It should not have happened.

"When we got engaged two years ago I phoned Queen's to ask them if they knew when the graduation could be.

"I was told it would definitely not be a Friday or Saturday and would probably be a Tuesday, so we thought the Saturday would be safe enough – instead we have 12 hours to get organised."

And Jonathan who is starting work as a junior doctor in the Ulster Hospital next month, was warned to be on his best behaviour last night following the ceremony at Queen's.

"My fiancée was supposed to be there but it was just too much.

"She was going to go up until three or four days ago and realised there was too much to do before the wedding. She would have loved to have gone."

So Jonathan is keeping with tradition by not seeing his bride-to-be, chemistry teacher Megan Dees, before the big day.

But he vowed to drag his groomsmen away from the party and make it safely to Omagh last night.

He laughed: "We were not trusted, Megan's mum booked us into a hotel in Omagh.

"Today is the first day that I was nervous. I was fine until I got a reminder on my phone saying I was getting married tomorrow," Jonathan said.

"Adrenaline has pretty much kicked in. Megan and her mum worked so hard so I just hope everything goes well tomorrow," he added.

Commenting on seeing his bride today, he said: "I can't wait. I have been waiting so long. I can't wait to see Megan, I have hardly see her the past two weeks."

Jonathan, whose parents also studied medicine at Queen's, said the university holds a special place in his heart.

"It's only when you look back you realise the entire family, and Megan's entire family went through Queen's. Megan and I would not know each other if it had not been for Queen's."

First class mum Madi a true survivor

Having survived a car accident that left her hospitalised for almost a year and a marriage breakdown, there was no way Madi McKnight was going to allow a cancer diagnosis to stop her from attaining her much longed for degree.

And what makes her story all the more remarkable is that she left school at 16 to go to college to do a secretarial course.

On Wednesday, the Lisburn woman and mother-of-three will graduate from Queen's with a first class honours degree in criminology.

Madi, who started her degree when she was in her 40s, said: "I got married at 28, then we had our first child at 29 and the others at 31 and 33. I had been working in the probation board as an administrative officer. That's what got me thinking – I do not want to be sitting on this side of the desk anymore but I knew I would not get a job as a probation officer unless I was qualified."

In 2007, she started Queen's having beat off hundreds of young students for a coveted place on the new course.

Madi enjoyed her chosen subject so much that she took a year out to study at the University of south Florida.

But while she was living in the sun-kissed state she developed an itch, which eight months later was diagnosed as leukaemia.

Madi said: "By the time we had moved home in August 2010 for the final year of my degree I was already ill. I was in agony all over my body. It started with this itching on the soles of my feet. It was creeping up my body.

"At first I thought it was an allergy to the washing powder. It spread to my hands, arms. I had lost so much weight but I thought it was because of the humidity.

"I went back to Queen's and continued until November. I thought I was going to die."

And despite learning she had cancer, Madi said: "I was glad when they told me, I just wanted to know what I could do to get rid of this pain. I just wanted to get better."

She underwent chemotherapy from December until January 2011 forcing her to postpone her final year.

Finally in 2013, Madi was able to return to Queen's to finish her degree – and graduates a week before her daughter, Melissa.

She said: "I never would let anything best me. I should have died in a car accident at 17. I survived all that and had to learn to walk again. I survived the break-up of my marriage. I survived cancer so I was definitely finishing this degree."

Family occasion like no other for Lisks

A lifetime love of learning became a family affair for one Ballymena clan. This week Eileen Lisk, her husband David and her son David all graduated from Queen's with doctorates.

Eileen, a former principal of Cambridge House Grammar School, explained how the Lisk family all ended up studying at Queen's at the same time.

"I have studied all of my academic qualifications at Queen's University. My husband undertook his academic qualifications at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. Our son studied for his joint Masters Degree at Queen's University and also at Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufacteurs in Paris.

"It was just down to chance that we were all studying together at Queen's University for our Doctorate degrees."

However, the experience proved a rich one for the family.

"Doing a Doctorate is an intensely challenging yet extremely interesting and engaging experience. With each of us individually studying our particular specialisms at such a high level, we found that we actually provided each other with emotional support, particularly at key milestones or when deadlines were approaching," said Eileen.

And was there any competition between the trio?

"Often, usually over the dinner table, we chatted about who might graduate first," revealed David senior. "There was a bit of light-hearted family competition about who would pass the winning post first and, as it turned out, we all graduated together this summer."

It ended up that Eileen and David, who graduated on Thursday, pipped their son to the post by just two days.

David junior said: "The family graduation this week at Queen's University was a really unique and amazing event.

"It was so wonderful to be able to share the day with so many family and friends.

"The ceremony was a very moving experience. We all really enjoyed every minute of it including the garden party, with the strawberries and cream, held afterwards in the Lanyon Building quad. We are all very proud of each others' achievements."

David (senior) and Eileen graduated together on Thursday having undertaken Doctorates in Education while their son who had undertaken his Doctorate with the Queen's University School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, graduates today.

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