Alumni of the Year

During a year in which so many of us continued to support each other, many Birmingham alumni have stepped up to do amazing things.

Our alumni have recently:

  • Created an organic vegetable garden on campus for students
  • Volunteered to help staff and patients in hospitals during the pandemic
  • Delivered safe drinking water for rural communities in Latin America
  • Helped parents find tutors to support their children’s learning
  • Provided expert advice to help people find a job during a pandemic

What have our Alumni of the Year done?

Our global community of more than 350,000 alumni makes a major impact in science, the arts, medicine, sport, business and public life. Our alumni of the year:

  • Embody the University values; persuasive, persistent and bold
  • Turn ingenuity into reality and make important things happen
  • Make a valuable contribution to the University, the community or their professional field

How it works 

  1. Anyone may nominate a graduate for the award using the form below, although self-nominations are not accepted.
  2. The University’s Nominations Committee decides who will receive the award against these criteria, and the award is usually presented at the Degree Congregations. Please note that the award would not usually be made where the nominee has already been awarded Alumni of the Year, or has received an Honorary Degree from the University.
  3. We would like to share details of the nomination with the nominees and will ask for your permission to do so.
  4. We will advise all those who made nominations of the decision after the University’s Nominations Committee has met.
  5. The Alumni of the Year will be announced at our degree ceremonies. 

The announcement of the 2020 and 2021 Alumni of the Year will be made at the next degree ceremony, owing to rearrangements of ceremonies in light of the pandemic.

Nominations for the 2022 Alumni of the Year are now closed.

Nominate your 2022 Alumni of the Year

Nominations are now closed.

Previous Winners

2019: Jack Garner (MSc Mathematics, 2018)

Left blind at the age of 11 by a genetic condition that was subsequently diagnosed, Jack Garner is the first member of his family to go to University and shrugged off any obstacles to earn a first class degree.

But that’s not the half of it. In October 2018, he became the first blind British person to climb Europe’s highest mountain, the 5,642m-tall Mount Elbrus, a spectacular achievement to add to his previous treks up Mount Kilimanjaro and to Everest Base Camp (significant feats in themselves) - and earning him the Alumnus of the Year award.

Of mountaineering, he says: ‘I like the whole experience of it; from planning the trip through to the climb itself. The expeditions bring together people from all different walks of life, all committed to reaching the summit, one step at a time. You soon get to know the group very well and I’ve come out of each trip having made some amazing friends.’

Jack is also part of the GB Para cycling foundation programme, a development pathway programme aiming to train athletes up to Paralympic standard. He has been on the radar of the GB Paralympics team and had the chance to compete in international events, like a World Cup event at the Olympic velodrome in London.

He is believed to be the first blind person to study Mathematics at the University, necessitating some adjustments to the teaching of the course. With help from Dr David Leppinen, the Head of Education in the School of Mathematics, they ensured he could access lecture notes, submit coursework and take his exams without being at a disadvantage.

As a student, Jack threw himself into the social scene, joining a number of societies and serving on the RAG committee, and describes his days at Birmingham as ‘a great experience’.

'Initially I was concerned about getting about and involved with things as much as I would like. But the more clubs and societies I joined, the more I felt able to do. I really enjoyed my degree, met some great people and made friends for life,' he says.

2018: Sam Decombel (BSc Biological Sciences, 2002; Phd Biosciences, 2006)

Sharing your experience and expertise can make a big difference to students and recent graduates. Sam Decombel, 2018’s Alumna of the Year, explains why she became a mentor.

Bringing Biosciences to life
'My love is genetics, so I chose one of the best courses in the country. Birmingham supported me at every stage of my journey, from undergraduate to PhD and beyond. I spent an extra year as a Medici Fellow at Birmingham to learn how to get cutting-edge science into the hands of those who could benefit from it.'

Me and my mentor
'Shortly after I graduated, my father died from oesophageal cancer, and I realised that life is too short not to pursue your dreams wholeheartedly. I wanted to start my own science business, but I needed some serious advice…

'Supported by the University, mentoring gave me the skills to make it happen, great guidance without dictating what I should do, and the confidence to throw everything I had into my business. The lessons my mentor taught me, I still use today.'

Continuing the chain of support
'I leapt at the chance to become a mentor myself. Mentoring is often about learning from the mistakes of others! You can often help people avoid making the same ones you did. I believe mentees also need to learn to recognise when one idea isn’t working, so they can move onto the next. My first business offered personalised DNA portraits, but customers didn’t know what to do with that knowledge. My second business now focuses on fitness, identifying genes for endurance, fat burning etc, then creating a tailored workout plan.'

What mentoring involves
'There is no set way or schedule for it. Some students want regular meetings to explore ideas, others just get in touch when they have a specific question. It only takes about an hour a month. The personal reward of giving something back is incredibly uplifting.'

Becoming Alumna of the Year
'It was a tremendous honour to be chosen for Alumna of the Year 2018, and it meant so much to receive it at the same ceremony where my current mentee Melissa graduated. I used my acceptance speech to share the three most important lessons I’ve learned; learn from your mistakes, stand up for what you believe in, and cherish and nurture your support networks.'

Beyond mentoring
‘If mentoring isn’t for you, there are lots of other ways to share your expertise. I’ve advised on student projects, provided internships that offered amazing support for my company, and much more. It’s a genuine pleasure to sit down with such bright students and hear their thoughts – I’ve got a lot of hope for the next generation.’

2017: Darren Ryemill (BEng & BCom Manufacturing Engineering and Commerce, 1999)

Ask Darren what the future holds in IT and recruitment and the 2018 Alumnus of the Year is unequivocal – Artificial Intelligence is coming. 

The founder and CEO of Opus Recruitment Solutions has always emphasised the need to keep abreast of upcoming trends in the market and he does so by maintaining strong networks and contacts with industry leaders. 

He says: ‘Artificial Intelligence is absolutely flying and AI computers are doing incredibly clever things.

‘Anything currently being done by a human being relating to IQ will eventually be phased out, whether that happens over the next 20 or 100 years. We can replicate IQ through robots and computers: anything can be modelled better and with more accuracy by a computer than probably even the human brain. 

‘Where people survive and add value that a computer simply cannot is through EQ – emotional intelligence. People will still be the puppet-masters as long as they can make sure their EQ skills are enhanced and developed. Ultimately, people will still be behind every decision made by a machine.’

Since founding Opus nine years ago, Darren has seen the business grow incredibly quickly. Turnover for 2017 is projected to exceed £100 million and with international offices in New York, Sydney and Amsterdam, he has ambitious plans to establish Opus as ‘the world’s leading strategic talent consultancy’. 

This success means he has a number of business awards on his mantelpiece but in his words: ‘This is the one that’s hit me the most. ‘To think I’ve gone to the same institution as heads of state, Nobel Prize winners, lawyers, surgeons and athletes is humbling enough. I was really taken aback when I was named alumnus of the year, and very, very proud. 

‘My time at University was all about friends I made. I was skiing earlier this year with two people I met here, so that’s how I remember Birmingham – being around great people and making lifelong friendships.’

2016: Dr Yasser Abu Jamei (MSc Clinical Neuropsychiatry, 2011)

It says much for the strength of character of Dr Yasser Abu Jamei that he refused to let personal tragedy stop him working to ease the pain felt by his community in Palestine.

As Director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme (GCMHP), Yasser and his team provide mental health services to the people living in the Gaza Strip.

Since its foundation in 1990, the non-governmental organisation has treated more than 20,000 patients from three community centres in the region with psychotherapy, rehabilitation, occupational therapy and physiotherapy.

In 2014, the conflict hit Yasser’s extended family, when an air strike killed 28 people as they prepared to sit down for their evening meal.

Through his grieving, he resolved to continue his work and help others affected by violence and said: ‘I was very fortunate to have so many people across the globe willing to offer their help and support.’

Despite the harsh living conditions and the demanding nature of his job, he added: ‘We have many good days. For example, helping a child to return to school or to stop wetting their bed are rewarding moments for us.

‘It is true that we live in hardship but I believe we must all keep working to help the community. It is crucial that we find elements of hope in peoples’ lives and encourage them to invest in their strengths and keep on moving forwards.’

As part of its work, the GCMHP runs a school mediation programme to reduce incidents of violence among pupils, which can manifest as a result of the psychosocial effects of living in a conflict zone. Children are taught peaceful conflict resolution techniques and school counsellors, teachers and parents trained in mediation techniques.

Yasser’s knowledge in the area has seen him act as a consultant on the Palestinian (Gaza) Ministry of Education’s five-year strategic plan to combat the problem.

He said: ‘Studying in Birmingham was warm and comforting and a retreat for me from the environment of Gaza. I have never felt so at ease as during my time there.

‘I had to read the email telling me I had been chosen as alumnus of the year twice. Just graduating in 2011 was a great memory – to be honoured in front of a class of graduands was a tremendous honour.’

2016: Charlotte Hill (BA International Studies and Philosophy, 2001)

Charlotte Hill‘I absolutely love what I do. I get to see the best of life – young people being a catalyst for good in their community and driving change.’

Alumna of the Year, Charlotte Hill, was compelled to attend the University of Birmingham by the subject matter of her course. It allowed her to learn the practical and theoretical sides of answering: how do we tackle life’s big issues? She’s now putting her studies into practice and working hard to improve the lives of others.

Charlotte’s professional journey started while she was still at University when she met MP, Richard Burden. That led to working part-time for him and got her involved in grassroots politics. After graduation she held several jobs at Westminster, including advisor to Rt. Hon Harriet Harman, QC MP and in policy and public affairs at the NSPCC. After travelling around the world working in various roles including teaching English in an orphanage in Cambodia, Charlotte settled back into England working as the youngest ever CEO of UK Youth.

Currently, Charlotte is the CEO of Step up to Serve, the charity coordinating the national #iwill campaign, which aims to get at least 60 percent of young people aged 10–20 taking part in social action by 2020. Social action includes volunteering, fundraising, campaigning or making a positive change in their community. Encouraging social action in youth means it is much more likely to become a habit for life.

Charlotte also embodies the ideals she promotes by being an active volunteer herself. She currently gives her time to The Football League Trust, Whole Education and a local youth club in her neighbourhood of Peckham in London. Her keys to success are: say yes to things, cherish your network, be confident in your own abilities and find what you’re passionate about.

As for the future, she doesn’t have a concrete plan after the end of the #iwill campaign (which will close in 2020). However, as long as she feels stretched, meets interesting people and does something she is passionate about Charlotte says she will be happy and will continue to make a big impact.

‘It was an incredible honour to be awarded Alumna of the Year. I have such an emotional connection to the University and I feel strongly that I only got this far because of its contribution.’

Find out more about the #iwill campaign by visiting the website.

2015: James Eder (BCom Commerce, 2005)

James EderEntrepreneur James set up his business, The Beans Group, soon after graduating from Birmingham, after identifying an opportunity for students to have a single online hub they could visit for offers and discounts from retailers, restaurants and businesses. It has since expanded to incorporate three different strands, with more than 40 employees and offices in both Birmingham and London.

James regularly returns to the University to give guest lectures or run training courses and said: 'Birmingham was hugely important in providing me with the opportunities to learn the skills necessary to run a business.'

His latest venture is a location-based app, Causr, connecting professionals on the go. He said: ‘I wanted to enable people to create connections that would otherwise be missed. Causr does this by giving people enough information to provide a bit of context, for example knowing the school someone went to is enough to break the ice. Causr empowers people to connect in real time, face-to-face.'

2015: Billie Major (BSc Geography and Physical Education, 1980)

Billie MajorAfter graduating, Billie expected to pursue a career in sports science but retrained in IT and worked her way up the company ladder, gaining valuable insight into the roles and responsibilities of the 2,000 IT professionals she now leads at the £700 million business Capgemini Aspire as Corporate Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.

She was delighted to receive the joint award of 2015 Alumni of the Year and offered the following advice to achieve success: 'Be resilient and persistent, listen to other people's opinions and surround yourself with very capable people.'

2014: Amanda Beaufoy (BA English/History, 2000; MA Social Work, 2010; OccUG Social Work with Children, Young People and Families, 2013)

Amanda graduated from the University of Birmingham in 2010 with an MA Social Work degree.

She currently works for Worcestershire County Council as a Children and Families Social Worker and has done so since graduating. In November 2013 she won the National Children's Social Worker of the Year award for her work with children and families. The judges particularly commended her on her communication skills as she is profoundly deaf.

2013: Matthew Clark (BSc Sport and Exercise Sciences, 2002)

Matthew ClarkMatthew Clark was named Alumnus of the Year 2013 for making an outstanding contribution to society and community life.

Matthew graduated from the University in 2002, and went on to study medicine at Cambridge University. During his studies he undertook an elective at the Ola During Children’s Hospital in Sierra Leone, where his experiences drove him to become the co-founder of the Welbodi Partnership, a UK-registered charity.

The Welbodi Partnership aims to improve the quality of healthcare for children and mothers in Sierra Leone and works with the government, clinics and hospitals to promote a locally-led sustainable healthcare system.

The charity has raised more than £1 million since it was founded. As well as continuing as a Director for the Partnership, Matthew also works as a pediatrician within the NHS.

He said: 'I was honoured and surprised to be named Alumnus of the Year. It was an opportunity to reflect on all that has happened since I graduated from Birmingham. I also felt that the reward was an opportunity to thank the many people who had supported me.'

2012: Christine Arthur (BA English and Communications, 1988)

Christine ArthurChristine Arthur (BA English and Communications, 1988) was Alumna of the Year in 2012 for her valuable contribution to the University community.

As Managing Director at McCann PR, the world's largest marketing and communications agency, she has helped build and protect the reputations of influential clients including Vauxhall, Siemens, Stanley Black & Decker and National Express. Prior to her work with McCann, Christine was Managing Director for both Key Communications and Citigate SMARTS.

Christine remains highly active in the University, talking to students at the University’s ‘Careers in PR day’. Furthermore, her work with the Arts and Law careers team has resulted in an active work experience programme and internships for students wanting to pursue a career in PR.

She said: "I was honoured to be awarded Alumna of the Year and continue to enjoy supporting the University with our work placement programme, which has resulted in us offering full time positions to two students this year!"

2012: Luciana Berger (BCom Commerce with Spanish, 2004)

Luciana BergerThe Alumna of the Year for 2012 was Luciana Berger (BCom Commerce with Spanish, 2004), nominated for her achievements in UK politics.

Luciana was Member of Parliament for Liverpool Wavertree from 2010 to 2019. Following her election, she was quickly promoted to Shadow Minister for Energy and Climate Change by Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. In October 2013, Luciana was promoted to Shadow Minister for Public Health (including mental health). She left Labour in 2019 to become part of the Independent Group. She rejoined the Labour Party in February 2023.

Before entering Parliament Luciana worked for top management consultancy Accenture advising FTSE 100 companies including Barclays and BP, as well as the London Stock Exchange. She then joined Accenture’s Government Strategy Unit supporting UK Government departments including the Treasury and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit.

After leaving Accenture Luciana was appointed Government and Parliamentary Manager for the National Health Service Confederation. And from 2007 to 2010 she was the Director of Labour Friends of Israel, a non-profit organisation working to achieve peace in the Middle East.

She said:“I was overwhelmed to have been chosen as Alumna of the Year in 2012. I loved my time as a student at the University and I have kept in touch with a number of academics who taught me. It was because of the opportunities on offer at Birmingham that I’m doing my job today. It was a very special occasion to come back to the campus, address the graduates and receive the award. My Dad came too and he was really proud.”

You can follow Luciana on Twitter @lucianaberger

2011: Christopher Adams (BA Russian Language & Literature, 1992)

Christopher AdamsChristopher Adams (BA Russian Language & Literature, 1992) was named the 2011 Alumnus of the Year for his insightful work in finance journalism.

Chris was appointed Markets Editor at the Financial Times in 2010. In this role he oversees markets coverage, managing and editing the FT's news, analysis and commentary on global markets. He also conceived and helped launch the new 24-hour fast FT breaking news service, which went live in May 2013.

Chris joined the FT in 1996 as insurance correspondent. Since then he has been economics correspondent, employment correspondent, political correspondent, leader writer and most recently assistant news editor. Before joining the FT, Adams was energy correspondent and then UK equities correspondent at Reuters, and before that a reporter with Petroleum Argus.

He said: 'I loved my time at Birmingham and it was great preparation for a career in journalism... bashing out stories on the old Apple Macs late into the evening, crammed into a tiny office in the Guild basement. The buzz is just the same now.'

2011: Sarah-Jane Marsh (MA Russian and East European Studies, 2000; MSc Health Care Management, 2005)

Sarah-Jane MarshSarah-Jane Marsh (MSc Russian and East European Studies, 2000; Health Care Management, 2005) was awarded Alumna of the Year in 2011. She was recognised for her inspirational leadership as CEO of Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

“I felt very proud to be named as Alumna of the Year, especially at the moment I was addressing the graduands at their Degree Ceremony.  My hope is that in some small way, I might have inspired them to go on and make a difference, whatever their chosen path”.

She joined the NHS via its Graduate Management Scheme and was quickly recognised as an emerging talent. She became Chief Operating Officer at BCH in December 2007, and Chief Executive Officer in March 2009.

She has a special interest in quality and service improvement and a desire to make a difference to people’s lives and provide services for local people, for children, young people and their families. 

As well as her CEO role, Sarah-Jane coaches senior and emerging leaders from across the region.

2010: Jane Slowey (BA French Language & Literature and Italian, 1974)

Jane SloweyJane Slowey CBE was named Alumna of the Year in 2010 for her work supporting young people. Jane passed away in October 2017.

Jane joined the Foyer Federation as Chief Executive in 2004 and helped position the organisation as a champion for new ways of working with young people struggling to make the transition to adulthood. 

Jane described her leadership journey as more of a meander than a traditional career path, taking in voluntary action, community activism and local politics including eight years as a Birmingham City Councillor and six years as CEO of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council. She had wide experience as a trustee, is a former Vice Chair of the National Council for Voluntary Services and helped develop and influence policy at local, national and regional level.  

Jane received a CBE for services to disadvantaged young people in 2009, sang in a choir and enjoyed spending time with her family.

After receiving her award, Jane said: "Being recognised by the University was a great honour in itself but, more than that, being Alumna of the Year gave me an opportunity to try to share something of how important my time at Birmingham has been throughout my life with a group of young graduands just starting out on their journeys. What a privilege."

Jane became a trustee for the charity Commonweal Housing in 2007. The charity, which works to find housing solutions to social injustice, has partnered with the University to offer a student bursary in Jane's honour. Two undergraduates in the School of Social Policy who have a focus on housing in their final year dissertation will receive support in 2018. From 2019 to 2021 the bursary will be open to three students.

2009:Dan Jones (BA Cultural Studies, 2001)

Dan JonesDan (BA Cultural Studies, 2001) was the University’s Alumnus of the Year in 2009, awarded for his contribution to the world of entertainment.

Dan heads up Maverick Television’s digital division as Creative Director for the digital elements of prime time shows including Embarrassing Bodies, Grand Designs and Was It Something I Said?

Under Dan's stewardship, Maverick has been awarded four BAFTAs, an Emmy, five Royal Television Society Awards a World Media Award, and numerous others, along with nominations from the likes of the Emmys and Rose d'Or.

Before joining Maverick, Dan was a multiplatform producer with an eye on innovation. He also founded the 4Talent awards and was Editor-in-Chief of 4Talent magazine, as well as launching Rolling Stock, the world's first film festival using newly installed screens on trains.

Dan said: “Being named Alumnus of the Year meant a great deal to me alongside the honour itself, having been born in Birmingham and then having made the city my home for nine years following graduation. Aside from offering me a great education, through an internship the University also introduced me to my current employer, Maverick Television, where I've enjoyed working for the past thirteen years.”

In 2013 Dan was named a Future Leader by the Royal Television Society.

2009:Paul Manning (BSc Geology, 1996)

Paul ManningPaul was awarded Alumnus of the Year in 2009 in celebration of his professional cyclist career which culminating in a Team Pursuit Cycling Gold Medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

With his team mates Ed Clancy, Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins, he reached the finals of the Team Pursuit competition in style, setting a new world record in their semi-final ride against Russia. In the final against the Danish team they then shaved a further two seconds off that time, overlapping their opponents in the process. 

"Being made Alumnus of the Year, was a massive honour and something I will always be very proud of. Such recognition from the University made my Olympic achievements even more special as my time at the University gave me the platform and confidence to move forward with my athletic ambitions"

In addition to his Olympic gold, Paul also won bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the World Championship title in 2005, 2007 and 2008. He was awarded the MBE in 2009. Since retiring from professional cycling after the Beijing Olympics, Paul has developed a successful career as a coach, working with the Women's endurance squad during a successful London Olympic campaign and, since 2013, responsible for Men's endurance performance for the GB cycling team.

2007: Simon Freakley (BCom Industrial Economics and Business Studies, 1983)

Simon FreakleyThe University’s Alumnus of the Year for 2007 was Simon Freakley (BCom Industrial Economics and Business Studies, 1983), awarded for his contribution to business and industry. 

Simon is Chief Executive of Zolfo Cooper Europe and has combined his skills of business turnaround, strategic consulting and mediation in the development and implementation of business recovery strategies for many high profile cases.

With more than 30 years of extensive experience, Simon has worked with companies to resolve their financial and legal problems - ranging in size from UK companies to large multinational corporations.

Simon was CEO of Kroll Inc. from 2004 to 2008, a global firm in 33 countries with an annual turnover of over $1 billion.

He said of receiving the Alumnus of the Year award: “I was delighted to be honoured in this way, especially as there were many others equally deserving of the title.

“I very much enjoyed my time at the University and have been fortunate enough to be in a position where I have been able to give back to an institution that has given so much to me. It is fantastic to still be a part of the University to this day.”

2007: Sajida Madni (BA Theology, 2002)

Sajida MadniSajida (BA Theology, 2002) was awarded the Young Alumna of the Year award in 2007, for her inspiring work in the community with Birmingham Citizens.

Birmingham Citizens is a collective of member institutions including mosques, churches, trade unions, schools and other community institutions that are committed to working together for the common good and helping local communities bring change to their neighbourhoods. Sajida is a professional organiser and Chief Executive for Birmingham Citizens, helping to bring these diverse groups together to improve the quality of life for Birmingham's residents.

Before joining Birmingham Citizens, Sajida worked as an English teacher and in 2003, at the age of 23, became Birmingham’s youngest Head of Faculty in English. She is also involved in leadership development work with many youth and community organisations. 

To add to her impressive list of achievements, Sajida is a keen footballer and played professionally for seven years. 

2006: Dr John Geater (MBChB Medicine, 1967)

John GeaterJohn (MBChB Medicine, 1967) was named Alumnus of the Year in 2006 for his work for PRIME (Partnership In International Medical Education), a worldwide organisation focused on developing values based clinical education for healthcare professionals, especially those in areas of greatest deprivation and now working in more than 30 countries.

He is currently International Director of the organisation, a position he has held since 1997.

His alumni award recognised his commitment to improving the quality and depth of international medical care, especially of patients in poorer situations.

He said: “At first I felt extremely embarrassed and even felt that the university must have got the wrong person! I then felt greatly honoured that the work of the organisation which I helped found and continue to serve should be so recognised. The award gave us further confidence in developing the work which has expanded year on year. I also feel closer to the University and interested in and supportive of new developments.”

His background includes several years in Bhutan as a hospital director and head of the national leprosy control programme and 21 years as a GP in Hastings. John was also a GP trainer and taught extensively on pre and post-graduate courses for doctors, students and other healthcare workers in Europe, Africa and South Asia.

He was awarded the MBE for services to charity in 2006.

2006: Michelle Arana (LLM Commercial Law, 2004)

Michelle AranaJustice Michelle Arana attended the University of Birmingham as a British Chevening Scholar in 2003 and was awarded the Masters of Law Degree in Commercial Law (Merit) in 2004. In 2006 she was the recipient of the Alumna of the Year Award in recognition of her achievement as the first female appointed to the Supreme Court of Belize.

Her role, as one of 10 judges on the court, exists to ensure fairness and equal treatment for all in Belize, upholding fairness, integrity and inspiring public confidence.

Michelle is a second generation Birmingham alumna. Her late father Gregorio Arana Sr. was also an alumnus of the University, having received his Master's degree in English in 1977 and his fond memories of Birmingham were a main reason for her taking up a place at the University.

“The Alumna of the Year Award (International) from the University of Birmingham is a singular honor of which I am very proud. It is an accolade which represents the profound recognition and respect with which this institution rewards the academic and professional achievements of its graduates, and it serves as a continuous source of inspiration and encouragement for me, my family, my country Belize, and for graduates of Birmingham all over the world. I am very grateful.”

Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Michelle was Registrar General and Registrar of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal of Belize. She has served on the National Women’s Commission in Belize and  has also acted as legal representative of the Belize Youth Enhancement Service. She became a Fellow of the Commonwealth Judicial Education Institute in 2008 and was appointed by the Chief Justice in 2013 as the Chairperson of the Belize Judicial Education Institute.  She presently also serves as the Supreme Court of Belize Representative on the National Committee for Families and Children.

2005: John McNamara (BA Drama and Theatre Arts, 1971)

John McNamara, alumnus of the year for 2005, smiles to cameraJohn McNamara (BA Drama and Theatre Arts, 1971) received his award in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the performing arts. As Principal of Elmhurst Ballet School, one of the premier specialist dance schools in the UK, John pioneered its relocation to a new state of the art teaching and residential campus in Birmingham in 2004. As part of the move, he established a formal link between the school and Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB), offering an immense contribution to education, performing arts and the cultural life of the city.

Founded in 1923, Elmhurst was one of the first vocational dance schools in the UK.

Its mission is to provide a world-renowned centre of excellence for the training and education of professional classical ballet dancers for Birmingham Royal Ballet and other national and international dance companies.

John explains: ‘In 1996, Elmhurst was admitted to the DfE Music and Dance Scheme (MDS), becoming one of four specialist dance schools in the country to receive grants and support with student fees directly from the government. This enables the most talented young people aged from 11 to 19 to attend the school regardless of their financial circumstances.

‘Through the MDS and the Dance and Drama Awards (DADA) Scheme (for students aged 16-19 years old), some 80% of the school’s students receive generous, means-tested, financial assistance to train and board at Elmhurst following a successful audition – a real meritocracy.’

John became Principal of Elmhurst in January 1995 and led its move from Camberley in Surrey, as well as establishing the association with BRB in 2002. BRB’s Artistic Director, Sir David Bintley CBE joined the school as Artistic Advisor, and the University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Michael Sterling, became the school’s first President. HRH The Duchess of Cornwall became school Patron in 2006, a role she still performs with enthusiasm as HM The Queen Consort.

He says: ‘Moving to Birmingham required four years of intensive planning, working closely in partnership with Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham City Council, Calthorpe Estates and the University. Nearly two decades later, the school thrives in its new home.’

A former Senior Lecturer in Drama at various universities with a specialism in teacher education, John was the Chief Examiner for the A-level course in Drama for five years. Prior to his appointment at Elmhurst, he was Director of Drama and Theatre Studies at Marlborough College, Wiltshire.

John retired in 2008 and looks back on his award with pride. He says: ‘I was delighted to receive this prestigious award as heralding Elmhurst’s relocation to the West Midlands and all that it promised.

‘It has become an essential component of the region’s dance infrastructure and its relationship with BRB has developed to great mutual benefit. Elmhurst graduates progress from training by artists of world class stature to professional careers with leading international companies, including the city’s Royal Ballet.’

He has fond memories of his time studying at the University and says: ‘It was an inspiring place to prepare for a career in the arts. I was able to grow and develop, learning how to avoid the easy routes and to take the more complex ones.’

2004: Polly Brooks (BA Russian Language & Literature, 1995)

Polly BrooksPolly Brooks was named the University’s Alumna of the Year for 2004 for her courage and determination to help others following the Bali bombings of 2002.

Polly suffered 43% body burns in the 2002 terrorist attack and also lost her husband Dan who was killed in the bombing.

Wanting to help in a practical way to support other burn survivors, Polly set up Dan’s Fund for Burns in 2003. The charity has raised over £1.5 million and provides ongoing support and resources including physiotherapy, rehabilitation equipment, job retraining and counselling. It also funds some research into new treatment strategies and therapies for Burns Patients.

Having worked in banking for 10 years for organisations including BNP Paribas, Polly re-trained as an interior designer and is involved in decision making and fundraising for the charity. She also has her hands full at home with her two children, Lawrence and Nicola.

Polly said: "It was a massive honour to be named Birmingham University's 2004 Alumna of the Year. The recognition from my Alma Mater for all that I had done and all that we had achieved at Dan's Fund For Burns was warmly received and I really enjoyed my trip back to the University to receive the award. It was great to be given the opportunity to speak to so many newly graduating students. I hope that I managed to inspire some and help others to face the challenges that life throws at us at times. It also gave me a welcome boost on my long journey to recovery. Thank you."

2003: General Sir Mike Jackson (BSocSc Russian Studies,1967; LLD 2000)

General Sir Mike JacksonThe 2003 Alumnus of the Year was former head of the British Army, General Sir Mike Jackson (BSocSc Russian Studies,1967; LLD 2000), awarded in recognition of his illustrious military career.

Always a force to be reckoned with, Sir Mike has never been afraid to speak his mind.

Born into a military family, he was commissioned into the Army at the age of 19 before undertaking his degree course at Birmingham. After a few years with the Intelligence Corps he rose to command the First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment between 1984 and 1986. He also commanded the 3rd (UK) Division, spent two years at the Ministry of Defence and served in Berlin and Northern Ireland.

Sir Mike commanded a NATO division in Bosnia, before he commanded the Alliance’s Rapid Reaction Corps. He won a Distinguished Service Order for his leadership of the Kosovo Force in the successful operation to end ethnic cleansing of Albanians in the former Yugoslav republic. He ended his military career as Chief of the General Staff - the professional head of the Army.

He now has a number of charitable and business interests.

2002: Professor Sir Paul Nurse (BSc Biological Sciences, 1970)

Professor Sir Paul NurseSir Paul Nurse was named Alumnus of the Year in 2002 for his remarkable achievements in cell research.

Sir Paul’s discoveries enabled the development of new treatments and medicines for cancer and in 2001 he joined a select band of scientists when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology/Medicine for his work on the division and shape of cells.

He said: “My experience as a student at Birmingham was pivotal in my intellectual development and I was delighted to be named an Alumnus of the Year.”

Sir Paul’s current position is Head of the Royal Society, a fellowship of distinguished scientists set up to recognise, promote, and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

This role follows an illustrious career within the scientific community, with roles including Director General of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF), Head of Cancer Research UK and President of Rockefeller University in New York.

Since 2000 he has also been a member of the UK Council for Science and Technology advising government.

1999: Allison Curbishley (BSc Sport and Exercise Science, 1997)

Allison CurbishleyFormer international athlete and Olympian Allison Curbishley (BSc Sport and Exercise Science, 1997) was named Alumna of the Year, 1999. This award recognised her huge achievement as a Commonwealth and World Championship 400m and 4 x 400m relay medal winner.

After injury forced her retirement from sport, Allison turned her passion for all things sport to a new career, as co-founder of Extra Mile Media & Events. The company creates unique, bespoke sporting events, including the Kielder Marathon, Sunderland City 10K & Half Marathon and the Worcester City running events.

Allison runs Extra Mile with her partner, former athlete and Olympic silver medallist, Steve Cram.

She is also an experienced broadcaster and works as part of the BBC Five Live athletics commentary team.

Since retiring as a professional athlete in 2003, Allison has worked on three Olympic Games, Worlds, Europeans and Commonwealths.

She said: “Receiving the award of Alumna of the Year was a huge honour. My three years at the University of Birmingham was an important time in my athletics career progression. Being able to study in a World Class university setting where my athletics talent was nurtured was extremely important. Birmingham will always have a special place in my heart.”

1998: Karl Chapman (LLB Law, 1985)

Karl ChapmanThe Alumnus of the Year 1998 was awarded to Karl Chapman (LLB Law, 1985) for his entrepreneurial successes.

Karl has a long pedigree in starting, growing and managing successful companies. After university, he joined Guinness Mahon Investment Management (GMIM) where he excelled as a fund manager. He then set up consultancy, recruitment and training business CRT, which grew to achieve sales in excess of £400 million with 2,500 employees operating from over 200 locations.

In 2001 he set up AdviserPlus Business Solutions which provides HR, and H&S solutions to organisations ranging from FTSE 100 companies to SMEs and then in 2010 AdviserPlus set up Riverview Law to replicate the AdviserPlus model in the legal market. In 2011 Karl became the Chief Executive of Riverview Law while remaining the largest shareholder and a non-executive director of AdviserPlus.

He said: “I had a great time at Birmingham and I remember my time at the Uni with great fondness. When I was first contacted about the award I thought it was one of my friends playing a(nother) practical joke! But when I realised it was genuine I was really surprised; pleased but very surprised. It’s always nice to receive such recognition because it means so much to all the people I have and still work with – particularly since they’ve really earned it because they do all the work!!”