Alumnus of the year 2016

Amy Woolf

Amy Woolf Alumnus of the Year 2016

Our Alumna of the Year, Amy Woolf, is Chief Executive of MS-UK. Since 2014 Amy has played a leading role at the national charity, which is based in Colchester and is dedicated to helping people affected by multiple sclerosis to make the most of today and live life to the full.

Throughout her career she has dedicated her life to improving the lives of others and wants to inspire more people to do the same.

Amy completed her BA Social and Cultural History in 2006 and took on a role at Coram Children’s Legal Centre. She quickly worked her way up through the charity becoming manager of the Child Law Advice Line and under Amy’s leadership the service provided free legal advice in family, child and education law to more than 120,000 parents and carers each year.

Now as CEO of MS-UK her role includes overseeing 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.

Since joining MS-UK, Amy has worked to ensure MS-UK remains true to its values. MS-UK empowers people to make their own choices, not be afraid to discuss taboos and challenge accepted beliefs and actions – something she says she learnt a lot about at Essex.

Oration

Oration by Alison Rowlands, Department of History

It is my great honour to deliver the Alumna of the Year oration for Amy Woolf, particularly as Amy graduated from the Department of History with a (very good) BA in Social and Cultural History in 2006, and because I had the pleasure of teaching her throughout her final year. Amy was an exemplary and excellent undergraduate student of real scholarly ability; the markers of her undergraduate dissertation, on popular petitions produced in England in the early 1640s, for example, clearly thought that she could have gone on to postgraduate study, noting that her dissertation was ‘ a fine study, which could have formed a platform for future research’. In conversation recently with Amy she said that her historical interests were in ‘ordinary people’, rather than ‘kings and queens’. The modules she chose to study with us - such as those on the histories of witch-persecution, black America, poverty, and popular politics – reflect these interests and Amy’s burgeoning commitment to fairness and justice for all members of society. Another hallmark of Amy’s character – her exceptional determination to succeed, whatever the odds – was also evident as a student. She came to Essex to study History from an Access Course at Colchester Institute, after having ‘dropped out’ of sixth form college, having realized that her initial plan of studying A-level law was not the right one for her; she also had to work part-time throughout her undergraduate years to help fund her studies (and was even known to walk onto campus from Wivenhoe to save her bus-fares!)

After graduating from Essex Amy began to work for the Coram Children’s Legal Centre, the UK's leading children's legal charity (then based at the University), which is committed to promoting children's rights in the UK and worldwide and to providing free legal information and advice to young people and their carers. Amy worked there for seven years, starting as a receptionist and then working her way up to become manager of the Child Law Advice Line. Under her leadership this service expanded its reach to the point where it was providing free legal advice in family, child and education law to over 120,000 parents and carers per annum. Amy was instrumental in improving the service by recognizing the importance of using digital channels and campaigns (such as a web-chat service) to reach out as effectively as possible to young people. Her talent for having good ideas and – more importantly – for being able to implement them effectively by carrying other people along with her was clearly already in evidence.

In 2014 Amy was appointed the Chief Executive Officer of MS-UK, the national, Colchester-based, charity dedicated to supporting people affected by multiple sclerosis. Its three core activities centre on a national advice helpline; New Pathways, a bi-monthly magazine with a worldwide readership; and Josephs Court, in Colchester. Josephs Court is a Wellness Centre for local people affected by MS, with equipment designed to create strength and muscle tone and to improve their general fitness, thus giving them the chance to manage their condition and maintain their independence. Amy’s leadership and drive have seen a significant increase in the numbers of people using the national helpline and the facilities at Josephs Court in the two years she has been at MS-UK.

Amy is an inspirational person who is absolutely committed to using her skills and talents to improve the lives of others and to empowering people to make the best-informed choices possible about their own lives and situations. She is that rare being - a ‘pragmatic visionary’, who not only has good ideas but the ability and all-important tenacity to see them through in practice. She is keenly aware of the importance of team effort and of channeling colleagues’ commitment to a shared cause, and is strongly committed to a leadership based on ‘getting people on board’ rather than on ideas imposed ‘from above’. I hope Amy won’t mind me concluding this speech by sharing with you the two aspects of our recent conversation that I found most inspiring. The first was a comment, which she repeated several times in relation to her education and career, that ‘I don’t believe in barriers, just challenges to be overcome’. Whatever our walk or stage of life, I think we could all learn from this extremely positive forward-thinking and problem-solving outlook. The second was when Amy told me how thrilled and moved she had been by a phone-call from someone with MS, whose mobility and quality of everyday life had been improved by attendance at the Josephs Court wellness centre. Clearly to Amy each of the people MS-UK helps is, and remains for her, very much an individual, for whom (as Amy put it) ‘little things can make a big difference’. I am sure that the core values that Amy espouses – her commitment to fairness and to empowering individuals to make the best of their lives, and her determination to overcome challenges and to help others to do so – were developed while she was a student here at Essex. We are very proud indeed to have counted Amy as a member of our Department and our University.

Pro-Chancellor, I present to you Amy Woolf.

Response

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!