Sunderland mum overcomes overwhelming challenges to be named Student of the Year by University of Sunderland
A mum who gave up her full-time job to build a better life for her family while looking after her ill son and meeting the needs of her disabled husband has been honoured by her fellow students.
Vijayalakshmi - or VJ to her friends - risked it all for a better education to help herself, her family, and those around her.
Giving up a fulltime job as a catering supervisor for school meals with Sunderland City Council, she decided to return to university in the hope of building a better life with husband Selvakumar and son James.
Her husband Selvakumar had been diagnosed with polio when he was just one month old, meaning he has spent his life in a wheelchair.
Her son James, who is just three-years-old, has been in and out of hospital suffering with asthma, eczema and also having been diagnosed with autism.
But despite all the obstacles she has faced in life, VJ, 33, has always been keen to put others first and, since enrolling at the University last year, has been supporting her fellow students, organising events and keeping everyone on the right track.
VJ, who is studying MSc in Environment, Health and Safety, arrived in the UK from India in 2009.
Her kindness was repaid when friends Kojo Basoah Fobri, 24, Muhammab Syafiq Afham, 22, and Brian Martin, 30, nominated her for Rate Your Mate, the university’s campaign aimed to find those who are not only dedicated to their studies, but who go above and beyond to help or support others.
She was named Student of the Year after her story impressed judges.
“I can’t believe I’ve been named Student of the Year, I’m still shaking, it’s such a real honour,” said VJ, who lives in Hendon, Sunderland.
“Both my husband and I know the true value of a good education. He is my inspiration.”
She added: “It wasn't easy coming back to studies after 14 years. It’s challenging to meet Selva's needs due to his disability, James's health condition and keep up with university studies.
“I’m thankful and happy that some of my friends have identified and recognised me for this award nomination, but the real success is someone getting inspired by my story, to come out of their home to develop their qualifications and enhance their skills.
“I am a first generation graduate in my family and I truly believe education is the most powerful tool to guide our future generation. In future, I will keep taking every single opportunity to spread the awareness and support.”
VJ said, who was born and raised in a village of Tamilnadu, India, said she is a prime example of the importance that education plays in life.
“(At home in India) we did not even have our own toilets until I was 21,” she said.
“Even though we were struggling with just basic needs, my dad could put me in a convent school.
“I did not have much opportunity to learn new skills in a small village. But I did reasonably well in my studies.
“I wanted to do engineering in computer science but I could not get in to university because we couldn’t afford it. But I ended up getting a place in BSc in Catering Science and Hotel Management with a scholarship, so my dad had to pay only a little bit of money to a university education.
“I ended up in the UK in November 2009 and have gone through quite a challenging time.
“My husband Selva is a short story writer and blogger. I used to read his stories, became his fan, then we became friends and we got married and our James was born.
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“We love to integrate with the local community and those friends have always been a great support all these years. Sunderland has always been a welcoming home for our family and we would like to give something back to society in our own way.”
Other Rate Your Mate finalists:
John relocated from his home in Kenya to study Sports and Exercise Sciences at the University and brought with him experience as a semi-pro football player, skills which he is today passing on to spinal and brain injury patients from charity Headway.
Fine Art student Linzi Saunders, 21, has had her life saved three times thanks to transplant surgery and took it upon herself to nominate friend Kevin Rudkin who supports her and keeps her spirits up.
Biomedical Science student Amanda, 32, was nominated her friend Bethany Lamond who was in awe of how she so successfully juggles raising three young children with her studies - as well as holding down a job.
When Liam Murray decided to return to studying in his late 30s, walking into university could have been a daunting experience. But it was a challenge he was more than able to overcome thanks to 20-year-old Thomas Crosby. Also starting a degree in Performing Arts, Thomas was the first person to speak to Liam and the pair became instant friends, despite coming from very different backgrounds.
Rebecca, 25, has spent the past two years performing the ultimate juggling act – working fulltime, giving birth to two children and fitting in her Social Work university studies.
Nathan, 22, has fought tooth and nail to achieve his dreams of becoming an accountant. But the accountancy student has always known the importance of helping others.
New mum Konstantina, 25, is performing the ultimate juggling act – being a new mum and fulltime student. Daughter Agape only arrived in the world last year, just as her mum was working on her dissertation.
Niyla Javaid and Aimee Cameron
Niyla, 34, and Aimee, 22, are worth their weight in gold. The pair are student reps for their MA Design programme and play a vital role in supporting and helping their friends stay organised.
Film and Media degree student Abigail, 20, has been juggling her studies alongside helping her mum who is recovering from neurosurgery.