Helen Thornhill

Helen Thornhill is at the heart of a busy family. With a husband, four children and seven grandchildren, there’s always lots going on. Despite this, Helen has just finished six years as a part-time student on the University of Bristol’s BA in English Literature and Community Engagement degree. And she will be graduating in just a few days.

“I originally read law at the University of Bristol back in the 1960s, worked as a legal editor and then became a city magistrate when I moved back to Bristol in the 1980s,” said Helen.

On retirement, she signed up for a number of short courses at her old University, before finding out about the new degree.

“I’d always had an aptitude for English,” she says, “and here was my chance to do an English degree. I applied and became part of the very first intake of students in 2008. I attended classes from 6 pm to 9 pm every Wednesday evening, as well as occasional weekends, which I was able to fit around my other commitments.”

Helen loved the course, including the community engagement side, for which she ran a reading group at Bristol Drugs Project.

“I was very nervous at first,” recalls Helen. “But I was accompanied by a project worker and it quickly became the most rewarding thing to do. I learnt a lot from the group members and would love to do it again.”

The group’s first book was Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001) and, over time, the level of group members’ involvement increased, from either choosing content themselves or on occasion, former addicts leading the group.

And then there were the essays. “Of course I found them challenging,” said Helen. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like that. Sometimes my marks were terrible, which was depressing and confidence-sapping, but once I won a prize for the best essay on Victorian literature and that was a terrific boost.”

“The teachers are always on hand with support and advice to help you too,” she adds.

“The course is geared to developing self-confidence and self-belief,” she continues. “I’m certainly more confident now and much more knowledgeable about literature.”

She loved it so much that she’s thinking about continuing on to an MA in English Literature.

“It’s been amazing having this opportunity at my time in life. The past six years have just flown by,” she says. “It just goes to show that life’s not over when you think it might be. It just takes a new turn, and sometimes, can take you on unexpected but beautiful journeys.”

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