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Donna Smith: Keelite of the Month December 2014
1997 Law and Criminology
What am I doing now?
I am a writer and a member of Wrekin Writers’ Group (Shropshire). I write regularly for my blogs – ‘Moving to Shropshire’ chronicles family life following our move to England after eleven years in Ireland and ‘Donna Smith – Writer’ charts my journey as a writer. I am currently participating in the National Novel Writing Month challenge and my goal is to write the first draft of my first novel.
How did you get to where you are now?
After Keele I went to Cambridge University to do a Master’s degree in Law. I loved academia so I postponed my plans to train as a barrister and stayed on to do a PhD in international family law. My thesis concerned the law and practice relating to international parental child abduction. I wrote a chapter of a family law book - ‘Children and Their Families: Contact, Rights and Welfare’ - and Sir Bob Geldof was a fellow contributor! I also worked for Reunite, the world-renowned international parental child abduction charity. Unfortunately I became very ill during the final year of my PhD and my temporary leave of absence has become indefinite.
Those dark years health-wise were alleviated by great joy in my personal life: in 2002 I moved to Ireland to be with my partner Declan; my two daughters were born in 2003 (Caitlin) and 2004 (Aoife); and we were married on Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 2010. I also trained as a volunteer Adult Literacy Tutor - one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
By 2012 it was clear that my health problems would be permanent and my future career might not be the one I originally planned. At the age of 6 I wanted to be a writer and I have always been a voracious reader and loved English language and literature so I joined a local creative writing project. I have had some poetry and prose published and I attend every creative writing workshop and course for miles around. Being a writer was not at all what I planned when I left Keele in 1997 but I am now following a very different dream. As Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Photo left: Donna's Graduation Day 1997.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
My biggest achievement in my personal life is my two lovely daughters. In my professional life my biggest achievement has been my academic success: First Class Honours LLB in Law and Criminology from Keele and a First Class LLM Law from Cambridge, winning several prizes and full scholarships for my postgraduate studies (LLM and PhD). I am immensely proud of what I have achieved and my graduation photos still make me smile with joy!
And your biggest mistake?
I remain relentlessly positive and firmly believe that there are no ‘mistakes’ in life. If you choose a path and it later transpires that it was the wrong one, it can nevertheless be a positive experience because you will have learnt valuable lessons that help you along the next path that you take. It is no exaggeration to say that ill health decimated my original career plans to be a barrister and academic. That hurt. A lot. And it continues to do so… but I’m doing my best to live a fulfilling life – not the one I planned but a good life nonetheless.
What are your ambitions now?
I will definitely continue writing, blogging and building up my portfolio and I am writing my first novel. Since I am lucky enough to be only 40 minutes away, the Keele MA in Creative Writing is a possibility! I am very disappointed that I did not finish my PhD and there are days when I feel like it will always haunt me - and I still have a huge PhD box in my office. I feel a strong need to be part of a recognised profession. I love studying and have wholeheartedly embraced the concept of lifelong learning so the prospect of retraining would be positively exciting.
Photo right: Aoife, Donna, Declan, Caitlin - Wedding Day
What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in a similar field?
I don't feel at all qualified to give advice to anyone, given my career path! However, I hope my story shows that it is still possible to live a fulfilling life despite ill health and shattered dreams. “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” (George Elliot)
Photo Right: Graduation Day at Keele 1997
What made you choose Keele University?
I came to Keele on an Open Day and my nerves and lack of confidence were completely forgotten - everyone I met was so friendly, I fell in love with the beautiful campus and I felt excited at the prospect of spending the next three years studying Law and Criminology
What kind of student were you?
I was a complete and utter swot! Being 26, I didn’t care whether that was cool or not! I had a career before Keele – as a Housing Officer for a charitable housing association with responsibility for domestic violence and racial harassment cases - and I knew that I wanted to retrain as a lawyer. So I was extremely focussed and motivated to do well. I loved the academic life, the intellectual stimulation of lectures and tutorials in particular, and I knew exactly what I needed to do to get to where I wanted to be; I wanted to be a barrister and I was utterly single-minded about achieving it. I was very tidy and highly organised, and my collection of arch lever files was the stuff of legend – by the final year I had 18 arch lever files, all identical and all labelled with the same pen (one per module) on my shelf in Lindsay Court.
Photo Left: The Famous Files
I was involved in lots of extra-curricular activities such as mooting, client interviewing and mock trials. I also loved being a volunteer on Open Days, especially opening up my room in halls and chatting to prospective students and their parents, as I was so proud to be at Keele. As finals approached I counted down the days with horror and dread as I was so sad to be leaving Keele. It was my always my dream to return one day as Professor of Family Law, following a highly successful career as a barrister!
How has Keele influenced your life?
Immeasurably! I am so proud of what I achieved at Keele and I enjoyed every minute. I was always academic and book-obsessed so I thrived on the intellectual challenge and relished every opportunity. Keele enabled me to be my true self for the first time in my life – I felt like I had indeed come home!
What is your favourite memory of Keele?
I have so many lovely memories of day to day life at Keele but the big stand-out event was my graduation – I thought I would burst with pride!
What is your impression of Keele now?
We are lucky to live only 40 minutes away from Keele, enabling us to visit regularly. My daughters have attended lots of Family Fun Days at the Sustainability Hub. We also attended the Community Day in June this year which was an absolute triumph with an incredible range of activities, friendly and helpful staff and ambassadors, wonderful atmosphere and… the sun shone… all day! There has been a great deal of change since I left Keele in 1997 - the university has grown and there are lots of very impressive new buildings. Yet the intrinsic Keele-ness does not seem to have diminished at all – the campus is as beautiful as ever and just as friendly.
Photo Right: Donna and Keele Hall lawn in the Snow
Anything else you would like to add?
I fell in love with Keele twenty years ago and my heart still fills with pride every time I visit.