The Neil and Gina Smith Student of the Year Award

The Neil and Gina Smith Student Of The Year Award comprises a cash award of £5,000 to recognise a student of outstanding achievement at Keele University. It is open to all undergraduate final year students.

Photograph of Aaliyah Gibbings-Gardner

Aaliyah is currently studying Media with Sociology, and plans to continue her academic studies with a Masters degree at Keele University. 

In October 2022, Aaliyah co-founded the Earth Stories Film Festival, dedicated to providing a platform for students and young people to articulate their concerns about the climate crisis and sustainability. This project sourced funding from former Keele University students through the Alumni Keele Key Fund. Since then, the project has received over 4000 submissions from young people across 118 countries. Aaliyah stepped into the role of Director and coordinated over 75 student volunteers to organise the festival and judging process. The project is now firmly embedded within the University and has gone from strength to strength. In recognition of the success of the project, Aaliyah was awarded the ‘Entrepreneurial Student of the Year Award’ at the Keele University Breaking the Mould Awards. The festival itself was awarded the 'Environmental Sustainability Award' in the Keele Excellence Awards, and was also nominated in the Totally Stoked Awards. 

Following the success of the project, Aaliyah has gained employment within the University as Community Coordinator for the Earth Stories Film Festival. Aaliyah has been developing a school strategy, filmmaking clubs and Saturday clubs, alongside many other projects, with the aim to create even more opportunities for young people to engage with sustainability. 

In addition to this, Aaliyah has acted as a Student Voice Representative for her course and completed an internship as a Media Producer for SPLaT-19 on their SPLaTTooN research project, aimed at raising awareness of the effects of Long Covid on children and young people. As a Student Representative, Aaliyah helped to develop a Humanities Ball and implemented a standardised use of the Keele Learning Environment across modules to improve students’ access to academic resources. 


Photograph of Charlotte Kirkham

Charlotte is currently studying Criminology and Psychology, and plans to embark on a Psychology research placement in Copenhagen later this year. 

During her studies, Charlotte completed an international year at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, where she was invited to join the National Society of Collegiate Scholars in recognition of her academic achievements. On returning to Keele, Charlotte volunteered with the University’s Global Opportunities team as a Peer Advisor, inspiring and guiding fellow students to pursue opportunities to study abroad. Charlotte has supported Global Opportunities drop-in sessions, answering questions, advising on applications and providing reassurance to students who are interested in studying abroad. Charlotte has also chaperoned visiting international students and staff, supporting their arrival and departure, providing a welcoming atmosphere and overseeing visits to the local area. 

Alongside this, Charlotte has also acted as a Lead Student Voice Representative for her School and has been involved in working groups across the University in relation to improving student voice opportunities. Within this role, Charlotte has lobbied for clearer assessment feedback and restructured research methods. In addition, Charlotte has acted as an ambassador for the School on University Open Days, and has shared her experiences on the course with prospective students and applicants. 

Charlotte has led the Keele Panthers Cheerleading Club as Vice-Captain and, through this, has raised approximately £4,000 for Team England’s adaptive abilities cheer team to support initiatives to promote inclusivity in sport. Further to this, in her first year, Charlotte led a group of students to found the KeeleSU Make a Smile charity-affiliated society. Society members volunteer their time to dress as fictional princesses and princes to provide happy experiences for children with disabilities and illnesses. In total, Charlotte has logged over 800 volunteering hours across her endeavours. 

Photograph of Esther Thornton

Esther is currently studying Psychology with Neuroscience, and plans to continue to pursue her dream of helping people. 

Esther overcame significant adversity to access Higher Education. Prior to university, Esther was extremely unwell and was hospitalised for several months in a hospital over 100 miles away from home. While in hospital, Esther had no access to teachers who could speak her first language of Welsh but persevered to ensure that she could access the course she really wanted. Esther now works as a Senior Student Ambassador for the University, in which she gives talks at Open Days to support others in their journey to accessing Higher Education. 

During her time at Keele University, Esther has volunteered with KeeleSU on a range of sustainability projects, including the Great Donate project, which provides opportunities for students to donate used kitchen items and clothing to be re-distributed to other students. Esther has also supported the Hedgehog Friendly Campus project, which aims to protect hedgehogs and their habitats. In addition, Esther has ran a number of campaigns to raise awareness of eating disorders and the support available for those who experience them. Notably, Esther has written a blog for Keele University titled ‘From Treatment to Treating’, based on her own journey, and led the ‘Worth More Than Two Hours’ campaign, aiming to increase the training available for medical students on eating disorders. Esther has also organised talks for students from an external speaker from BEAT, a charity which supports people affected by eating disorders. 

Alongside this, Esther has helped to re-establish the Keele Psychology Society and currently acts as President. As part of this role, Esther has organised a variety of social activities for Psychology students, and arranged external speakers from academics and local organisations. The society won the ‘Best New Society Award’ from KeeleSU last academic year, in recognition of the inclusive community that the society has created for the School. 

Photograph of Grace Buffery

Grace is currently studying Geography, having completed a Foundation Year at Keele University, and plans to continue her academic studies with a Masters degree in Human Geography and Sustainability. 

Since second year, Grace has volunteered with Glow, a local charity which provides vital support to victim-survivors of domestic abuse, and has recently gained formal employment as a Domestic Abuse Children and Young Person’s Relief Worker. Through volunteering and working with Glow, Grace has visited schools to teach young children about healthy relationships and recognising abusive patterns of behaviour, provided safe spaces for children to talk about their experiences, taken referrals to provide 1-2-1 support after witnessing or experiencing abuse, and created reports about the impact of domestic abuse support. Grace has also fundraised for Glow, to ensure continuation of the vital support the charity provides for people in the local area. Grace has subsequently chosen to base her dissertation on the spatial barriers of accessing support for domestic abuse victim-survivors in the local Staffordshire area.  

During Grace’s time at Keele, she has worked within KeeleSU as a Team Leader and First Aider. Within her first few months in role, she won the ‘Friendliest Person’ KeeleSU Staff Award, in recognition of her caring nature. In addition to this, Grace has also worked as a Student Ambassador for the University, in which she has given talks at Open Days alongside the Vice Chancellor to tell prospective students and applicants about her experience at Keele University. 

Alongside, Grace has acted as a Student Voice Representative for her course and a Foundation Year Experience Mentor, providing guidance and support to new Foundation Year students as they build their confidence during key transition points. 

Photograph of Miriam Culy

Miriam is currently studying Philosophy, and plans to continue her academic studies with a Masters degree in Creative Writing and Publishing at the University of Bournemouth. 

Miriam has experienced significant health difficulties throughout her studies, but has been determined to complete her course and engage in a range of extra-curricular activities and internships alongside.  

Outside of university, Miriam is passionate about creative writing and uses her works of fiction to highlight characters with disabilities, challenging misconceptions and championing inclusivity. Miriam’s novel manuscript titled ‘The Resilient’ was longlisted for the 2020/21 #Merky Books ‘New Writers Prize’. 

During Miriam’s time at Keele University, she has held committee roles for a number of KeeleSU societies, including Keele Christian Union and Keele Show Choir. More recently, Miriam has acted as Social Media Officer and British Sign Language (BSL) Officer for the KeeleSU Make a Smile charity-affiliated society. Society members volunteer their time to dress as fictional princesses and princes to provide happy experiences for children with disabilities and illnesses. In this role, Miriam planned and led a 10-week beginners’ BSL course for Make a Smile volunteers from universities across the UK. 

Miriam has also been a member of the Keele University Gospel Choir and Keele Drama Society, participating in the performance of ‘12 Angry Men’ and ‘As You Like It’. As a member of the choir, Miriam recently competed on a national level in the University Gospel Choir of the Year Final, in which the team came in second place. Despite her disability, Miriam was determined to both stand and dance for the performance and was highlighted by the judges for her commitment and determination. 

Photograph of Tyler Davidson

Tyler is currently studying Criminology, and plans to continue his academic studies at a Masters level before progressing to a Doctoral level. 

Tyler has experienced significant health difficulties throughout his studies, but has been determined to learn how to manage his disabilities and complete his course. 

Throughout his course, Tyler has balanced his studies alongside caring responsibilities for a family member with multiple significant disabilities. Tyler has regularly travelled between his term-time accommodation and family home, providing care whilst there and coordinating care for when he is not able to be at home. In addition to the time spent providing care, the frequent travel and long distance has meant that Tyler has often needed to study while on the move on trains. Despite these challenges, Tyler has achieved, and consistently maintained, excellent grades on his course. Outside of university, Tyler has volunteered as an archery agent in Disabled Archery with Archery GB, supporting the family member for whom they care and raising awareness for inclusivity in sport. 

After seeing the impact that disability assistance dogs can have for people with disabilities and those around them, Tyler has been working with the charity Support Dogs to raise and train assistance dogs. Tyler has also been involved in fundraising for the charity, including supporting activities at Crufts and coordinating participant support and monitoring during a charity Snowdon climb which raised over £4,000. 

Having experienced gender dysphoria first-hand, Tyler has shown commitment to raising awareness of the need for inclusivity and belonging; Tyler has provided advice to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman on respectful ways to talk about gender and the usage of pronouns, for the benefit of UK government departments, other public organisations and the NHS in England.

2023: Harriet Scott

Harriet has studied Medicine at Keele and is due to graduate in July 2023. Harriet has earned merits for both knowledge and practical assessments, and is currently in the second decile of final year medical students Throughout her course, Harriet has been a member of Keele’s Talented Athlete Programme, balancing her studies with her professional and international football career.

Prior to studying at Keele University, Harriet was selected to play professional football for Birmingham City (BCFC). When Harriet was offered a place on the Keele University Medicine course, she took the decision to pursue both careers concurrently. This has involved balancing studies, exams and placements with training, matches and international tournaments. Harriet has played professionally in the highest club league with BCFC, but also internationally as a defender for the Republic of Ireland. Harriet has 22 international caps and has won the Senior Women’s International Player of the Year. Further to this, in the last year, Ireland have qualified for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, making Irish history.

Alongside her studies and football career, Harriet is also an ambassador for the Red Cross UK and British Heart Foundation charities. She has been able to use her growing social media presence to promote other important healthcare education topics, such as raising awareness of breast and menstrual health. Harriet has used sport to engage and encourage women to talk about their health. Harriet has also used her platform as club captain at BCFC to advocate for improved standards, professionalism and opportunity for women, and to inspire future female players.

2022: Lincoln Gombedza

Lincoln studied Learning Disability Nursing. The passion for his work was demonstrated by his continued involvement on a voluntary basis of a number of workstreams, some of which are at a National Level.

Lincoln undertook Resilience Base Clinical Supervision commissioned by Health Education England which was to support the health and wellbeing of learners. From this he was invited to become a Subject Expert with the Florence Nightingale Foundation and this group highlights the importance of clinical supervision for nurses and midwives at a national level.

Lincoln is also a member of the NHS Digital Shared Professional Decision-Making Council and the Learning Disability Nursing National Shared Professional Decision-Making Council, representing people with Learning Disabilities across the UK by sharing his ideas of new ways of working clinically, and operationally with regards to the benefits of emerging technologies such as Artificial Intelligence.

Lincoln also joined the Nursing and Midwifery Council Standards Development Group setting out how nursing and midwifery courses should be delivered to ensure that programmes leading to registration are fit for purpose. Another recent appointment is that of the new Communications Lead for the Chief Nursing Officer’s Black Minority Ethnic (BME) Strategic Advisory Group, focusing on the governance of issues affecting BME staff and patients within the NHS. Lincoln is also a NextGen Nurse Learning Disability Ambassador with the NHS where he talks to Secondary School and College learners to encourage them to consider a career as a Learning Disability Nurse.

 2021: Jenna Volpert

Jenna joined the talented athlete programme and in 2017 was selected for the English Universities team. Jenna is now the highest capped women’s hockey player in the programme and also held the role of Vice Captain. During Jenna’s time at Keele, she captained both the Women’s first XI and the Medics hockey team, whilst also helping with coaching and mentoring younger players over the years. Jenna was recognised for her sporting efforts by winning the AU’s ‘Female Sportswoman of the Year’ award. 

Jenna is passionate about equality and held roles such as President of ‘Students for Global Health’, founder of ‘Women in Surgery Keele’ and as a student ambassador on the Medical School Exclusivity Committee. Jenna organised workshops with local charities to help medical students feel more empowered to contribute to improving health inequalities. 

With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Jenna organised an informational event run by SFGH Keele in collaboration with Public Health England. Over 100 students and staff attended followed by PHE ‘Covid – A year on’ follow-up event, analysing what we had learnt and lost. When Jenna’s medical placements were cancelled, she worked as a medical assistant on the front-line filling in shifts at her local hospital suffering from staff shortages.

2020: Euan Malpas-Vernon

Euan studied Geoscience which required not only extensive laboratory classes but extended periods of fieldwork, which can be challenging and exhausting for most students. Euan though suffers from chronic pain syndrome as well as cancer which has resulted in the amputation of his right arm along with undergoing more than 5 major operations during his time at Keele, all which required long periods of recuperation.

As a result, Euan took strong pain medication that has adverse effects on his concentration, daily energy levels and mobility.  Despite this though, Euan remained cheery and positive, determined to get a good degree and go on to a PhD in palaeontology at the University of Manchester.  

Independently of his degree, Euan has written several scientific papers for future publication in journals.  Euan was nominated for, and won, the 2018 Jones-Fenleigh award for Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, where Euan’s research was presented at the International SVPCA conference.  Euan is the only undergraduate ever to win the award, and had to compete with other candidates all of whom were at MSc level or beyond.

Beyond Euan’s studies and University, Euan was chosen for the Paralympic Great Britain pistol shooting team - all achieved despite Euan’s health complications.

2019: Alice Gwyn-Jones

Alice had been the Chair of the Keele Trauma Course Society and an active committee member for several years prior to that. The Society was responsible for organising an extremely successful 1 day trauma course for around 100 medical students, junior doctors and allied health professionals. Alice was instrumental in the organisation, building links with partner organisations and for writing the course manual.

Alice studied Medicine at Keele after already completing an undergraduate course. Despite the demands of a busy medical course, Alice was also on the committee for the successful second Keele Anaesthetics and Critical Care Conference in 2018. On top of this, for the past 4 years Alice has also been a member of the Keele community first responders (CFR), a charity that works in the local community attending 999 calls in order to reduce the pressure on the ambulance service. Both through this charity and running the pre-hospital emergency medicine society, Alice has organised and been a part of multiple sessions teaching university staff and students, the local parish and primary school children basic life support and CPR.

Alice was also a Resident Adviser, working for Student Services in the evenings supporting students who live on campus with a range of issues and providing advice and guidance to them.

2018: Lauren Mullan

Lauren studied Psychology. She showed drive and resilience throughout her education due to becoming estranged from her family at a young age and taking on the caring responsibilities of her now late grandmother.

This drive propelled Lauren into succeeding academically, reflecting a combination of sound intellectual ability, self-discipline and time-management. This was also shown in her non-academic work,
progressing from working in the SU bar as a member of staff, to bar manager and now duty manager.

Lauren was an advocate for students facing similar situations as herself and has worked with Student Services to write a blog encouraging others to pursue university.

Through great personal adversity, Lauren has responded in the best possible way to what Keele University offers. Whilst studying for her degree Lauren found a new and vibrant family in the Keele community and continued to contribute to this community when she took up her place on the Social Work Masters programme in 2018/19.

2017: Steph Lonsdale

Steph joined Keele as a mature student, returning to education after a 25 year break and with few qualifications.

Steph’s diagnosis of an Autism Spectrum Condition gave her the inspiration to study Psychology and since joining Keele has dedicated a great deal of time and effort supporting students and members of the community who share an autism diagnosis. Steph founded and was President of Keele SU’s Spectrum Society in addition to volunteering with the National Autistic Society. She also established new ties with LifeWorks Staffordshire including fund raising and organising an outreach visit. Through her hard work, Steph helped improve the lives of individuals with autism and received an Autism Ally Award in 2017.

Steph received the highest mark ever given in the module Psychology and Community Action, going above and beyond in her work with a resident in a local supported residence to produce a book for the “This is your Life” inspired module.

Steph also researched new and improved ways for staff and final year Psychology students to recruit participants for research. By linking up with the SU Volunteering scheme, research participants can now be rewarded for their time.

Steph won the runner up award for Peer Mentor of the year and also worked as an ambassador for the University.

2016: Adrian Craig

Adrian Craig graduated in 2016 after studying Medicine. Adrian's time at Keele was a little longer than an average student; taking a year out to read for an intercalated Masters in Medical Ethics and Law.

He volunteered with Marrow and Anthony Nolan during his time at Keele, eventually becoming National President, acheiving outstanding results in signing up students and others for the bone marrow register. He ran the London Marathon in 2016 with the aim of adding 34 new donors to the register.

Adrian was club captain of the Boat Club helping them to become the AU Club of the Year for its charitable and sporting efforts. He co-led and delivered the Keele International Anaesthetics and Critical Care Conference which saw students from across the UK and some students from Europe come to Keele for a day of lectures and workshops. And, as part of his degree in Medicine, Adrian undertook projects outside of the curriculum to further his interest in anaesthesia. This resulted in presenting at the World Airway Management Meeting in October 2015.

Adrian also volunteered with the Army Cadet Force and had done since before coming to Keele.

Neil Smith graduated from Keele in 1980 with a degree in Physics and Economics.  Neil was President of the Students Union (1979), President of the Athletic Union (1978) and Speaker of the Union (1980).  At Keele, he earned full colours in Rugby, Football and Cricket, ran the popular Keele five-a-side leagues, produced “Keele Over” on BBC Radio Stoke (before KUBE radio), contributed to Concourse and was Honorary VP of the North Staffs Physically Handicapped. 

After graduating, Neil became a journalist with Thomson, freelancing with both the BBC and the Sunday Times. In 1982, Neil won a Knox scholarship to take an MBA at the Harvard Business School.  He earned first-year honours and became the first British President of the HBS Student Association. 

After Harvard, Neil joined management consultants McKinsey in New York, where he met his wife Gina.  In 1991 he bought Midlands-based Tudor Dairies, owners of the Loseley ice-cream brand, in one of the UK’s first leveraged buyouts. Neil later returned to the USA to found consulting firm, EHS Partners, with 2 former colleagues. In 2009, Neil joined the former US Comptroller of the Currency to found Promontory Growth and Innovation, which helps Chief Executives of Fortune 500 companies to dramatically improve performance.  In 2012, PGI was credited with helping Bank of America improve profits by $8 billion a year - the same year Neil wrote his New York Times Best-Seller (co-authored with Keele graduate Rick Levak) – How Excellent Companies Avoid Dumb Things

Neil was President of Keele in the USA, the organization and network for American alumni of Keele University from the 1990's-2016.  With his wife, he founded the prestigious Gina and Neil Smith Student of the Year Award which recognizes Keele students for their outstanding achievements. 

Neil was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of the University by Keele University in 2015.

Neil, Gina and their 4 children (Brianna, Alexander, Caroline and Charlotte) live in New York.