Response by Amy Woolf
Pro-Chancellor, members of faculty and staff, invited guests, and most importantly graduates; it is a great honour to be awarded Alumna of the Year by the University of Essex.
When I was asked to speak to you today though, I wasn’t sure what I would have to say. My journey has been an unconventional one based on learning from mistakes and finally following my passion.
Looking back, ever since a child I have always wanted to help other people. Other than that, I never really knew what I wanted to do as a career. It’s probably why I dropped out of college, twice, and am the only person I know to have studied seven A levels but never completed any of them! I followed what friends or family thought I might be good at, but found without the personal passion to keep me motivated, I didn’t see anything through.
So it wasn’t until I returned to education a few years later that I finally had a plan – I was going to become a history teacher. Now I know some of you here today already know that this is not what I do, so can tell there is a recurring pattern.
I decided to study Social and Cultural history as it focused on everyday people and their everyday lives, something I felt I could relate to and would interest me. What I found was that this proved to be a great opportunity for me to learn about society and culture and the importance of empowering the most disadvantaged to take control, make their voices heard and effect positive changes in their lives. I found the focus on people and the power they could wield together truly inspiring. So inspiring that for the first time in almost ten years I finally sat the exams I needed to and graduated!
Like I am sure many of you here today feel, I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I had this plan of becoming a history teacher, which required further training but did not know if I would be successful especially as the competition was so high. Then came the opportunity to travel around Australia, so away I went.
It was whilst I was away that I began to really think about what I wanted to do and how I was going to become a teacher. I decided that I would need to find a job for a while until the training would start and I found out about a role at a local children’s charity that would do just fine. I had no expectations for the role whatsoever, only that it would bridge the gap until I went in to teacher training. I could not have been more wrong.
I quickly found that the charity sector enabled me to fulfil my passion for helping others, and despite being offered a teacher training placement I decided I would stay where I was. Working at Coram Children’s Legal Centre was life changing. I loved what I was doing and that I was helping other people and quickly worked my way up through the charity becoming manager of the Child Law Advice Line. Under my leadership the service provided free legal advice in family, child and education law to more than 120,000 parents and carers each year and led the service to branch out in to new innovative technology to support more people than ever before.
Now as CEO of MS-UK, a national charity supporting people affected by multiple sclerosis, my role includes leading the charity’s national Helpline, a bi-monthly magazine, New Pathways, which has subscribers across the world, and in Essex, Josephs Court, a wellness centre enabling people affected by MS to take control in managing their condition and maintaining their independence.
So if I was to give you any advice based on my experience, I would say - be brave, choose the opportunities that are right for you and don’t be afraid to start over again until you find something you are passionate about – then you will find where you belong, be happy and truly thrive.
Good luck to you all and congratulations!