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Hats off to crafty student who made her own graduation gown

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Published on 22 July 2021

Jenny Goodfellow
Jenny Goodfellow

It’s one of the proudest moments of a student’s life - donning a cap and gown and celebrating all that hard work paying off, but what happens if you can’t afford those all-important graduation robes?

That was the case for 39-year-old Jenny Goodfellow, who has had to overcome adversity and many a financial hurdle to complete her Photography, Video and Digital Imaging degree at the University of Sunderland.

Unfortunately, she was unable to attend her online graduation ceremony and found hiring a gown too expensive. Not being defeated, though - Jenny decided to put her creative skills to good use and make her own academic robes, complete with scroll!

“I realised that I wouldn’t have got through my degree or got the grades I did without a lot of my own resourcefulness and resilience, so I decided that I could mark my graduation in a way that was mine and a little bit unconventional to reflect the sort of person I am,” Jenny said.

“Throughout my degree, and especially during the Covid-19 lockdowns, I have tried to make the best of things and do what I can with what I have. I built a miniature photography studio out of a cardboard box, tracing paper, and household lamps to complete one of my modules, and I have always been fond of using things found around the home or adapting tools to get the job done. I figured that if I couldn’t do things the official and expected way, I may as well do it my way.”

Jenny’s “robe” is actually a theatrical frock coat belonging to her partner, the hood is a jumper from her time as a Student Ambassador and for the cap, she used the lid from a black cardboard box, which contained materials used to make prints.

Jenny’s Journey

Jenny started out at Sunderland as a part time student in 2017. She was living in Newcastle with her then husband, working full time in the public sector and had a mortgage to pay for. However, after her first year at the University, things started to unravel. Jenny was made redundant and her marriage ended, and she moved into student accommodation.

Jenny, who is originally from Merseyside, said: “I had to leave my past life behind, as well as possessions and things that I had worked hard to afford or acquire, and I found myself starting again at the age of 36.

“Despite this I knew that my studies and plans were the best chance of getting grounded and forging my new path, so I stuck around and dedicated myself to doing the best I could with the resources I had available.

“While at university I worked as a Student Ambassador, and later as a student mentor with the North East Raising Aspirations Partnership. I also did freelance photography and voluntary work with the North East Photography Network, Sunderland Futures, Spark and Team Sunderland.

“Once the first Covid-19 lockdown started I suddenly became unemployed again and really struggled to make ends meet or find work, but I became very good at budgeting and stretching my student loan! My partner was also suddenly out of work as he works in live music as well as photography, so it has been very hard making ends meet but somehow we’ve managed.”

Jenny, who switched to studying full time in her final year, now joins thousands of students who are graduating from Sunderland this summer, with celebrations taking place online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The University also loaned her a proper graduation gown after seeing her homemade version on social media.

And the good news doesn’t stop there – despite having just graduated, Jenny has already landed her dream job working as a medical photographer for the RVI in Newcastle. The role is part time, which means she will also be able to throw herself into her Philosophy Masters (MPhil) at Sunderland later this year.

Professor Arabella Plouviez is Academic Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries at the University of Sunderland.

She said: “Jenny has been exceptional throughout the time she has been at the University, always getting involved and helping others. Her creativeness is also really evident in her photography, where she has explored complex themes with carefully made images. Jenny has been a real asset to the course and the University, and we wish her all the best in her new role.”

So, what advice would Jenny give to those who are struggling and feel their dreams are out of reach?

“Life changes, situations change, and all we can really do is to keep going,” she said.

“Do not be afraid to ask for help. I have used the University’s counselling service and it really helped to bring some perspective and also to acknowledge my experiences and how best I can move forwards.

“Possessions and status are just things, and do not make a person, so always try to be true to yourself and who you are.

“If you have nothing else to lose, just go for it and try as much as you can. If you find yourself on a path that you realise is not right for you, you can change things and it will only add to the richness and variety of your life.

“And remember – warriors aren’t born, they’re forged.”