Inspirational Leeds single mum with autism in university degree joy aged 61

A Leeds single mum with autism is hoping to inspire others after achieving her lifelong ambition of earning a university degree aged 61.

Tuesday, 28th September 2021, 4:45 am
Susie Campbell Photo: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Former air stewardess Susie Campbell was 58 when she left her job as a train guard with LNER in Leeds and enrolled as a full time degree student at the University of York.

Mum-of-three Susie, from Moortown, said she has always known she was different, but did not have the confidence to go for an autism diagnosis until recently.

She has told of her experiences going through life as an undiagnosed autistic person and of her time as the oldest student at her university.

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Susie Campbell pictured while working as an air stewardess in the 1980s.

And she has spoken of her joy at being awarded a first class BA honours degree with distinction in Business and Management in August.

Susie said she hopes her story encourages others to pursue their dreams no matter what stands in their way.

"It hasn’t been an easy journey," she said. "I must certainly have looked out of place at the freshers fair, and felt quite lonely wandering around amongst the 18 year old students.

"When I started attending lectures and seminars I felt very isolated at first, no-one was really certain why I was there.

Suise Campbell during her time working for East Coast

"Eventually they got used to me, and although I was never invited to go clubbing, we got on really well and I loved being part of the group.

"There were tricky moments. I cried with despair during accounting lectures in my first year, but my lecturers were all wonderful and I gained a lot of confidence and felt I was able to contribute well.

"Hard work and determination to succeed carried me through."

Susie, the middle of three children, was born in Moortown, Leeds, in 1960.

Susie Campbell when she worked for Virgin Trains in Leeds

"I was the odd difficult one, preferring the company of animals to humans," she said.

"I would eat only certain types of food, hated changes in routine and found loud noises, bright lighting and crowded places difficult to cope with.

"I loved horses from a very early age and would cycle at every opportunity to the riding schools at Shadwell and Thorner to be near them.

"When I got a little older I would work all weekend in exchange for a riding lesson.

Susie Campbell

"I was a clever but solitary pupil at Roundhay High School and always planned to go to university, but before I completed A levels my parents divorced and I left school as the family home was to be sold.

"I found work in sales promotion and had some very unusual jobs including dressing as an eyeball for a chain of opticians, a cat with ears and a tail for Pioneer hi-fi, and in a bikini and grass skirt for Hawaiian Tropic in Boots in Leeds in December!

"I married in 1980 and had a son in 1982 and a daughter in 1985.

"I struggled with a lot of aspects of day to day life, but in 1987 I joined Capital Airlines at Leeds as a stewardess, where the set routine of the work suited me well and was easy to cope with.

"I became determined to learn to fly and started lessons at Sherburn Flying School, gaining my private pilots licence in 1990, followed by an instrument rating in 1991.

"When Capital closed in 1990 I transferred to British Midland Airways in London where I stayed for several years.

Susie Campbell

"However I still struggled with the same issues I had since childhood, and wished I could be 'normal' like other people.

"Although, like most females with autism, I learned coping strategies by removing myself from difficult situations."

Susie said she would avoid eye contact with people and avoid social gatherings.

"I decided to see a private specialist who suggested I might have Aspergers syndrome. I didn't want to be labelled and was reluctant to deal with it."

Susie had her third child in 1999 and when she and her husband divorced later that year she moved back to Yorkshire with her baby daughter .

"I took my Heavy Goods Vehicle licence and drove wagons through the night so I could be with my daughter during waking hours.

"When she started high school in 2011, I joined East Coast Trains as a customer service host serving refreshments on board."

"I loved the routine of the job and the wonderful warm-hearted friendly people I worked with.

"No doubt I was thought a bit unusual with my compulsion to follow set routines of service and tidying.

"Although I found it difficult to participate in social events, I was able to enjoy talking to customers and colleagues and making good eye contact. They were a great company to work for and I was very happy.

"I never told anyone I was autistic, as I always thought no one would employ me, however thank goodness nowadays this is not an issue as autistic people have many fabulous qualities which mean they can do extremely well in the right jobs.

"This certainly seemed to be the case for me as I was awarded Newcomer of the Year in 2019.

"That same year I was promoted to crew leader, with responsibility for the on board team, and I continued in that role through the transition to Virgin Trains and then LNER.

"As part of the restructure my role became obsolete and I applied for and was given the role of train guard in 2016.

"As it was a safety critical role I was uncertain whether or not to declare my condition.

" I asked the guards manager if someone with autism could do the job and was relieved to be told that they could as long as they met the entry requirements.

"However, I felt less suited to the role as I find confrontation very difficult and there could be a lot of awkward situations involving customers with wrong trains and tickets.

"So having never given up my dream of getting a degree, at the age of 58, and with my youngest herself now at university, I applied and was accepted by the University of York to study for a BA (hons) in Business and Management.

"Because of the university's forward thinking views on diversity, I felt finally able to accept my condition and in 2019 was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

"I have now come to terms with my condition, trying to see the positives instead of the negatives, and realising it is not something to be ashamed of.

"I imagine in some ways had I been diagnosed as a child, my life may have been easier in many regards, but on the other hand the difficulties I have had to overcome have made me a stronger person.

"Last month, after three years of study, I achieved my lifelong ambition, gaining a first class honours degree with distinction.

"Now at 61, I am not certain what life holds in store for me, but I hope to put my degree and experience to good use in the future, and will continue to support and campaign for autistic adults in the workplace if the opportunity arises."