Penman writes a new future

Shelby Penman with Steve Watts, Head of the School of Culture

Published on 11 July 2019

Shelby has been awarded the Blackwell’s Prize for Most Outstanding English Literature student for her continued performance and highest mark for her final year dissertation she was awarded her prize during this year’s summer graduation ceremony at the Stadium of Light.

What makes the 28-year-old’s achievement even more remarkable, was Shelby completed her course while raising her three young children, aged four, five and seven at the family home in Houghton-le-Spring.

Shelby said: “I am shocked but also honoured that I have won the Blackwell’s Prize. It was an absolute delight to receive the news. I am so grateful that my faculty would consider me. It is a wonderful way to end my undergraduate degree!”

Shelby moved to the North East from Detroit eight years ago, after meeting husband Andrew from Houghton-le-Spring. Following an extensive career in healthcare in the US, she decided the time was right to sign up for a degree and follow her passion for English.

She explained: “The timing of the course worked very well for my family; when I looked on the University of Sunderland’s website, there was a lot of detailed information. I was able to read about many different courses before deciding on English BA (Hons). The hours and module catalogue suited, and I was able to communicate via email with lecturers before making a final decision about my course. All my questions were answered prior to applying, which eased my mind. 

“I chose the course for many reasons. It worked around my family’s busy schedule and I was able to plan my study time around that. Most importantly, I have always loved English as a subject. Reading is my favourite hobby and I am very passionate about literacy. I thought that it was best to enrol on a course which kept me interested and challenged me, and that is exactly how I feel now that I’ve completed my course.” 

Despite the challenges of studying her degree whilst being a parent, Shelby committed herself to working from 4am, before the family awoke, and admits she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I have loved every minute of my experience at Sunderland,” she said. “As a mature student, I was incredibly nervous at the start, and I also found that I had forgotten so much in the years since I had left school. Additionally, my curriculum in America had been vastly different from what my course mates had studied, so it took me a while to catch up. My lecturers were always supportive, helpful, and willing to answer my questions. They helped me grow immensely in confidence and encouraged me to broaden my thought process.

“By the end of my third year, I felt comfortable enough to branch out and try new things such as creative writing. I found choosing and writing my dissertation to be a very fulfilling experience, one which required all my University-acquired skills.”

Shelby also made sure she enriched her experience at Sunderland by becoming a Student Representative during her three years, which she described as a “rewarding and insightful experience”, and would encourage future students to pursue the same path to build their confidence.

“It helped me to build a relationship with my peers and lecturers, to develop my professional/problem solving skills, and it allowed me to become more confident with public speaking,” she said. “I also found the syllabus for my modules to be enjoyable and engaging as well as pertinent to my degree.”

Shelby will begin her PGCE PCET teaching programme next year, and hopes to lecture in English, with future plans to complete her Master’s and PhD, both at the University of Sunderland.

Dr Barry Lewis, Programme Leader for BA English at the University of Sunderland, said: “Shelby has been an exemplary student: keen, participative and mad about literature.

“Her final-year dissertation on David Foster Wallace and James Joyce was of a very high standard. Indeed, our External Examiner thought it was comparable to published academic work on Wallace.”

Steve Watts, Head of the School of Culture, added: "The School is delighted that Blackwell’s Bookshop has donated this prize to recognise outstanding student achievement in English Literature at the University. Shelby had done extremely well studying with the English Team in the School of Culture and is a worthy winner of this prize."