Alumni of the year

Our community of more than 300,000 alumni has made a significant impact around the globe in science, the arts, medicine, sport, business and public life. Each year, we recognise an alumnus who has made an outstanding contribution through the Alumni of the Year Awards.

The University of Birmingham is persuasive, persistent and bold. We encourage and empower people to turn ingenuity into reality and make important things happen. Our Alumni of the Year must embody these values, and will have made a valuable contribution to the University, the community or their professional field.

The University’s Nominations Committee decides who will receive the Award against this 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.

Anyone may nominate an alumnus for the Award, although please note self-nominations are not accepted. We would like to share details of the nomination with the nominees and will ask for your permission to do so. We will advise all those who made nominations of the decision after the University’s Nominations Committee has met in February 2019.

Nominations for the 2019 Alumni of the Year are now closed - thank you to those who have submitted. Our Data Protection Policy is also available.

2018 Winner

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.’

Previous Winners

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.’

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 added: ‘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.

Yasser will receive his Alumnus of the Year Award in the December degree congregations later this year and is looking forward to returning to campus.

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 will be a tremendous honour.’

Charlotte Hill (BA International Studies and Philosophy, 2001)

Charlotte Hill-landscape

‘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.’

If you would like to find out more about the #iwill campaign, visit Charlotte was presented with her award during the July 2016 degree congregations.

2015: James Eder (BCom Commerce, 2005)

James Eder alumni of year 2015Entrepreneur 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.’ Find out more about the app at

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

Billie Major alumni of year 2015After 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-Clark-resizedMatthew 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.'


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