First-class honours for Fife woman graduating 12 years after starting university
A Fife woman who has attended five universities during a “12-year rollercoaster” of health issues today (Thursday 15 June) celebrated her graduation from the University of St Andrews with First-Class Honours in Neuroscience.
After leaving Inverkeithing High School in 2011, Kirsty MacDonald went on to study at four different universities but had to leave each degree course before completion due to both mental illness and chronic physical illness.
In 2017, Kirsty looked at other options for continuing her studies and contacted St Andrews Lifelong Learning team before going on to apply for a part-time evening degree course in biology and psychology.
Kirsty, from Dalgety Bay, said she began her course with an open mind, having already studied various subjects. She said it was thanks to Dr Stefan Pulver in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience that she was encouraged to study neuroscience.
“I had already completed university credits studying elsewhere when I got in touch with the Lifelong Learning team. St Andrews was the only university I contacted that I felt was enthusiastic to have me finish my degree, and I have felt valued since day one.”
Kirsty commuted to St Andrews when she first started her course but felt she wasn’t getting the full experience of student life.
She said: “I fell in love with studying here so after year one I transitioned from the General Degree pathway to an Honours Degree pathway and moved to St Andrews. In my second year of the Honours course, I then changed to full-time study which was great. However, then the pandemic struck and I had to move home due to being immunocompromised. Learning went entirely online and my mental health suffered. I ended up having to defer some exams until later.”
By the time Kirsty began her fourth year she said her physical health was also suffering and she was diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis on top of the three autoimmune conditions and mental illness she was already living with. As a result, she was unable to complete her degree in time to graduate last year. She then went through a cancer scare and is still recovering from the impact of surgery.
Praising the School of Psychology and Neuroscience for their support, Kirsty said she was grateful to receive an extra year of extended study. She said: “There were times in the final semester that were incredibly difficult and I did not think I was going to finish my degree, including writing a 9000-word dissertation, but I did!”
In addition to academic support, Kirsty also received financial support enabling her to cover some of her costs. In addition to the Disabled Students Allowance, Kirsty received an award from the SAAS Independent Students’ Bursary while her tuition fees were paid by the Carnegie Trust, a fund for students at universities in Scotland. She was also awarded the £1000 Principal’s Scholarship for Academic Excellence. As a member of the Renaissance Singers, Kirsty received a scholarship which included free singing lessons at the University music centre.
Despite her health challenges, Kirsty was also able to fulfil her wish of being part of student life: she became a Student Ambassador, joined the Disabled Students’ Network, latterly becoming the group’s deputy convenor, joined various student mental health and wellbeing teams, and volunteered as a Patient Partner with the School of Medicine. Her efforts to help other students were recognised when she was shortlisted for the Elsie Howey Award for exceptional contribution to equality, diversity and inclusion. She has also been given an Honorary Life Membership of the Students’ Association.
Encouraging anyone who would like to do a degree but may face similar health challenges, Kirsty said: “I am still in touch with staff I met on the evening degree and they have cheered me on every year and celebrated my recent successes with me.
“Despite my ongoing illness and a global pandemic, I have loved my time in St Andrews, and will always be grateful for the positive response I receive to my enquiry back in 2017. Before I started studying here my impression of St Andrews was different. I almost did not enquire about degree routes as I assumed, being so prestigious, they would not want me here. I could not have been more wrong! I have been supported and encouraged and always felt valued as a student.”
Commenting on what the future may hold, Kirsty said: “At the moment my plans consist of recovering and figuring out what I’m capable of with my disabilities in the world of work. I’m keen to pursue postgraduate study at some point, but after 12 years on this rollercoaster, I’m in need of a break.”
Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.