Tag Archives: #NeilBaldwin

25 Years at Keele: Then & Now

A quarter of a century is a long time in the life of a university and although much has changed at Keele, some things have remained reassuringly the same.

The basic infrastructure of the campus has been kept in place with the same ring road linking everywhere. However the entrance has been moved to nearer the brow of the hill rather than the gatehouse at Barnes. Visitors will find all the “old buildings” still on site but with the addition of newer facilities, such as a medical school, several innovation centres (for business) and a research centre located between the library and Geology. Several of the older buildings have undergone some form of interior re-design over the years, with Chemistry having gained new laboratory suites for example, and the Home Farm complex is now a Sustainability Hub, whatever that is! The Union downstairs area is almost unrecognisable from when I first saw it 25 years ago. Of course this “renewal process” has meant that at various times, in multiple locations, the campus has been a building site. At present the Life Sciences building is being extended and new accommodation is being added to the Barnes site. Once the new student residences are available at Barnes, I’m sorry to say that the Hawthorns site will be demolished. After years of protracted arguments the “death knell” was given for Hawthorns to be transformed into a huge housing complex. The golf course has been allowed to go to seed as well, and after messy negotiations falling through between potential buyers and the council , it looks like that area could well be turned into housing too!!! So the campus may find itself in the middle of a “house building” sandwich in the very near future (finances permitting), with none of the surrounding roads having been remotely improved to deal with the extra pressure from building, or the addition of new people to the area. To add insult to injury, many of the proposed house designs are NOT going to be in the price bracket of your average lowly paid local Staffordshire resident.

Keele still remains largely a dual honours university, although more courses are available as single honours from the beginning of a student degree. So in addition to the Biomedical Sciences course of yesteryear, there are now courses in Midwifery, Nursing, Pharmacy and Physiotherapy. Subjects like Chemistry in an attempt to survive developed an additional Forensics course, whilst a few staff members formed the core of an independent Pharmacy department. Other courses have disappeared altogether such a Principal Languages, Electronics and my beloved Classical Studies.

The student population has definitely doubled and quite possibly trebled since my arrival in 1991. With more students to deal with, the university has begun attempts to simplify the timetable by making less option combinations available. So very soon it will only be possible to study Chemistry in combination with another science for example. Both Rob and I can see the beginning of the end of dual honours in this decision making, which is a great shame because that is what has made Keele so distinctive over the years. It certainly means that I may well be the ONLY person to ever graduate from Keele University in Chemistry & Classical Studies. A friend in the Alumni office dug around the records a few years ago and couldn’t find anyone else with that combination degree. Knowing the pressures this almost split-personality degree type puts you under, I’m not surprised. But I’ve always had the mantra “why be a sheep if you can be a shepherd”, and my degree fits this perfectly.

Far more students these days travel into the university on a daily basis than when I was an undergraduate. So the campus can look like an oversized out of town shopping car park, whilst the buses feel more akin to the London Tube during peak time travel. And the Chancellors Building is a bit like Piccadilly Circus with the throng of people leaving/arriving for lectures. Particularly noticeable to me is the obvious recruitment drive that Keele has had in the Far East. From what I hear this has made a rod for the university’s back with the difference in cultures and their interpretation of learning causing problems.

The library is now open 24/7 for students during the semester as well as exam time, when I’m told there is provision of fruit and bottled water at regular points to aid study. In an attempt to alleviate exam stress, I believe this year puppy therapy was offered in the Union as well as free relaxation exercise classes in the Sports Centre. Rather a big difference to my time as a student.

Neil Baldwin (the first person I met at Keele) can still be found loitering in the Students’ Union or the Sports Centre. His extraordinary life story was immortalised in the BBC docu-drama “Marvellous” aired in 2014. As a consequence Neil is in demand for personal appearances elsewhere, but I’m sure he still attends Chapel whenever possible. I was very sorry to recently hear of the demise of the Student Led Services, the first of which was held on February 9th 1992. I was at the forefront of this initiative being the Free Church leader that day alongside my friend Angela Oakey-Jones (now a real life Church of England Reverend).

As for me, the shy girl who could hardly say a word in class or at work, who was literally afraid of her own shadow, is somewhat different today. Through shared experiences with fellow students, I made lifelong friends and grew in confidence as I faced, and overcame difficult situations. The young lady, who was overwhelmed by a professorial personality in her interview, can now speak with ease to anyone of any rank or status. In P1 my fear of the Cambridge/Oxford swagger of two Classics lecturers meant I could barely put a sentence together for their essays. Wise council from the Classics head Richard Wallace sorted me out so much, that in my final year, I gave a seminar with such conviction and depth of research I was told I’d managed to teach the lecturer something new. I literally found my voice at Keele through the Chapel and Classical Studies. Today that voice rings out on Hospital Radio Leighton in Crewe, where I present a music show, a patient request program and play my part in the Crewe Alex football commentary team.

In conclusion, I got the degree I so desperately craved but from a country and university I never originally considered, in subjects I never contemplated studying. And I married the kind of man I always hoped existed but never dreamt I would meet. So when all is said and done I think it’s true to say “I was born in Scotland but I was made in Keele University”.

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25 Years at Keele: University Arrival

Twenty-five years ago this week (5th October) I arrived at Keele University as a 21 year-old fresher registered for a four year foundation course. I knew nothing about my new home having never experienced an open or visits day, in fact I’d spent about an hour in the area before I arrived. As a mature student I had won my place through an interview in May of 91, which turned out well with having to work three months notice from my job in the Clydesdale Bank.

My 5ft 2 inch eight stone frame hauled a thirty inch wheeled collapsible suitcase and a twenty inch rigid case, with duvet strapped to the side, off the 85 bus from Crewe. As I staggered into the students’ union building I heard a deep monotone voice boom out “boys”, and immediately I had assistance with my bags. I had come upon a Keele institution in the form of Neil Baldwin, the first person I met on my first day. His “boys” were his football team members, who he had marshalled to help ease the arrival of new students. Neil helpfully pointed me in the direction of where I collected my keys, assured me my bags would be safe, and that he would be waiting for my return. Discovering I was to be housed in the Hawthorns residence in the village, Neil said I’d just missed the mini bus and had half an hour wait for its return. I’d noticed Neil wearing around his neck a wooden cross pendant on a leather braid. As my eyes glanced at that simple but distinct sign of faith Neil asked “so are you a Christian then?” I replied “I’d like to think so” and mentioned I hoped to join the Chapel Choir. At that Neil promptly whisked me toward the Chapel, introduced me to the chaplains, gave me a quick tour of the building and made sure I knew where and when to go for the first choir practice. This was all before the mini bus arrived and I departed for the Hawthorns to see my room!!!

After I had unpacked, I remember sitting on my bed and giving myself a good talking too. I knew I carried two massive Grand Canyon chips on my shoulders called “Mam and Dad hang-ups”. I asked myself if I was going to be the person that had left Cleland OR the person I thought I could be, given a chance. I decided on the latter choice, realising no one knew me here, it was a clean slate. So psychologically I began filling in those shoulder chips as I strode out into my new surroundings. Oddly for two days I never saw another woman, only guys wandering the beautiful vast campus area. It wasn’t until the Friday night as I left my room to attend a residence reception party; I came upon a gang of women gathering in the hallway of Hawthorns H block, with the same party in mind. It transpired that in the all female blocks everyone congregated in the kitchen to get to know each other, whilst the all male blocks did not have such a ritual, hence why they tramped around campus instead like me. My wanderings did give me a head start when it came to registration and finding buildings when term officially began, but I also heard the odd misguided mutter about “starting early with the fellas” as I waved/said hello to various chaps heading to class.

My lifetime ambition was to attend university, but I had no chance of applying directly from school with the spectre of “parental contributions” being a factor in the financial process. So I discovered if I could prove my independence from my parents for a minimum of four years, then I could apply without fear of them being a consideration. My Dad had never let my Mum know how much he earned, so there wasn’t the remotest chance he would tell me anything. Both parents were dead set against me leaving a pensionable job on a “bloody whim”, and the fact that over 800 people were made redundant from the bank within a month of my departure, made little difference to their disdain. Without a doubt I would have been one of the redundant, but my defence for my actions fell on deaf ears and my Mammy barely spoke a word to me for a whole year, she just cut me dead most of the time when I attempted a conversation. Later “small talk” was restored, but anything to do with Keele was NEVER mentioned by her at all.

Throughout my school years where I had shown reasonable ability, neither parent had shown much of an interest. So all the decision making on subjects, worry of making the grade, terror of exams, dealing with the onslaught of bullying, as well as the growing pains of trying to fit into a confusing world, fell onto my solitary shoulders. I had absolutely no emotional support whatsoever from “family” in school, and it was abundantly clear that this state of affairs would continue at university. My sole support team consisted of three old school teachers I had stayed in touch with, and my Cleland Baptist pastor Archie Ferguson and his wife Agnes. In fact it was Archie and Agnes who gave me the confidence to get the ball rolling, by encouraging me to fill in the UCCA form. But my relationship with the support team was from a distance, not the sort where I could “chew the fat” over numerous cups of tea and late night pizza, with a reassuring hug at the end.

Being used to dealing with most things on my own meant I was a solitary kind of person with few friends at school or work. When I left the only home I’d known in Parkside Cleland, no one considered waving me off at the local railway station. As I went by train to Glasgow and onto Crewe before catching the bus to Keele, I was literally in every sense completely alone as I made my leap of faith into tertiary education. Arriving at the university I met Neil Baldwin, who in his amiable way put a proverbial arm around me and welcomed me to my new home. His simple helpful gestures paved the way for me to start my new life in Keele, as the university student I had always wanted to be.