Alumni reunite to celebrate 50 years of friendship

BCU Sociology alumni reunited last week to celebrate 50 years since they started the course and the incredible friendships they gained from their time at university.

The second Sociology cohort experienced university very differently from current students. Back in 1971, the course was taught away from the main campus in Perry Barr on the fourth floor of the Pearl Assurance building in Birmingham City Centre.

However, this meant that the group formed a strong bond very quickly, and often spent time together studying, having fun and even protesting at causes they cared about across the UK.

After 30 years of barely any contact, the group found each other online and have since formed strong friendships once again, and now meet for reunions on a regular basis. Their latest reunion was particularly special though, marking 50 years since the group started at Birmingham Polytechnic.

Professor Harris Beider, Head of Social Sciences, helped to arrange the event for the alumni at The Woodman, just a short walk away from where the course is now taught in the Curzon Building. He said: “Nearly 50 years after they first met as students on the Sociology course at Birmingham Polytechnic, I was delighted to welcome Sociology Alumni to BCU in the City Centre Campus.  

“Their degree was instrumental in shaping their world view and their experiences in Birmingham enabled them to graduate and have successful careers including in local government, teaching, social work and advocacy.  They continue to be passionate about Sociology and change in the world.  We were delighted to hear their stories and connect them to our current students.”

We caught up with six members of the 1971 cohort to find out what life brought their way and their advice for current students.

Pete Taylor

“I was born in Smethwick and Sociology seemed interesting and a good way in to start working with kids, which is what I really wanted to do at the time. I was the first person in my family to do A-Levels and go to university. My mum and dad were really supportive, even though they weren’t completely sure what exactly I was doing!

“After finishing at BCU, I did a postgraduate qualification in Teaching and my first teaching position was in Suffolk. The last six years of my teaching career I spent working as an Advisory Teacher in Oxfordshire with a national network and my job was all about getting schools and industries working together. Although it started off as 13-18, by the time I finished, it was ages 4-18, which meant that I was working in nurseries right up to sixth form colleges. I was organising industrial visits and introducing children to the world of work. It was the best job I ever had.

“Other than work, I ended up with four daughters, and not by the most straightforward of routes. The last of which we adopted eight years ago. So I’ve got two children in their forties, one in their thirties and one who is 12 years old. I also took a sabbatical and went to the States and wrote a book on baseball and my experiences.

“I made lifelong friends at university, and my only regret is that we didn’t do anything for 30 years, I only kept in touch with a couple of them in that time. When Friends Reunited had just started, we managed to find two others from our course and it went from there.

“My advice to current students is to just enjoy it! Embrace being at university and being a student. We worked hard, but we didn’t take life too seriously. We had a good laugh and we enjoyed it!”

Barbara Bowers

“I’m from Gainsborough in North Lincolnshire and back in 1971, Sociology seemed exciting and new at the time. I came from a small town and studying a subject like Sociology was really different.

“For me, university was quite challenging. I was an only child and I’d been to an all-girls school and I’d moved to this big city and was around such a mixture of people, who all seemed so much older than me too. It felt like there was a lot of growing up to do.

“After university, I went into Town Planning for a while, but then I moved into the voluntary sector and worked for Citizens Advice for a long time in various roles. Most recently, I was Head of Market Development at Citizens Advice.

“Other than work, I now live in Lichfield, I had children and now also have grandchildren which bring me a huge amount of joy. Nowadays, I also volunteer at a garden. I really enjoy gardening and nurturing things and watching them grow, I absolutely love it.

“My advice to current students is to just enjoy it, work hard and make the most of every moment and opportunity that someone gives you.”

Tony Poole

“I grew up in North London and I wanted to study Sociology as it wasn’t part of what we were being taught in school. My mother was also a Social Worker so there was that influence and those ideas around the house. At that time, when A-Level results came out, there would be a list of where you could go through Clearing printed in the newspaper. So I started at the top and worked my way down, and Birmingham Polytechnic was the first place that would have me! Birmingham suited me as I was a city boy too.

“Going to a Polytechnic, at the time, was actually significant as we got our degrees through the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) as the Polytechnic couldn’t give us a degree as this was before it was officially a university.

“After university, I spent a year as an Operating Theatre Attendant at Dudley Road Hospital and then I trained as a Teacher. I became a Youth Worker in London, where I worked mostly with unemployed young people. I did that for 10 years and by then, Margaret Thatcher was the Prime minister and the government were cutting back on many services like that. So then I retrained as a Primary School Teacher and I did that for 10 years before eventually becoming a stay at home parent and raising my children.  

“Other than work, my family and bringing up my children has been a big highlight for me. I’ve also been active in the Labour Party and am still politically active, and I like to travel and do things that retired people like to do!

“My advice to current students would be to be someone else. I remember arriving in Birmingham and in many ways, I was a different person to who I had been back home. University is a great time to try out different personas, you don’t have to be the person you were at school, so you can invent a new version of yourself.”

Elizabeth Wilson

“I was born and grew up in Boston, Lincolnshire. Back in 1971, I didn’t do as well in my A-Levels as I was intending to. I was supposed to be going to the University of Birmingham to study, but that didn’t work out. So I went through Clearing and decided to come to Birmingham Polytechnic. I wasn’t really completely sure what the Sociology course was and what it was going to involve, so it was a bit of a learning curve.

“University for me was a bit of a shock in some ways. It just wasn’t how I imagined a university to be and a totally different environment to what I’d expected. But it was really good as it was so intimate and you got to know people so much better. But by the end of my first year, I did nearly leave as I wasn’t totally convinced that it was the right course for me. But I chose to stick it out, and that’s when I really started to enjoy it, so I’m glad I did!

“After university, I went into teaching. I’m not quite sure how, as I did my year placement in Peterborough which was a new town and we were doing a lot of work around people moving from London into the area and I really enjoyed it, I even got offered a job there but I had to come back to Birmingham to complete my degree.

“I often question myself how I ended up in teaching after that, but I did. I went onto to study a PGCE and got offered my first job whilst I was doing teaching practice. My most recent role was as History and Politics teacher at West Kirby Grammar School.

“Other than work, I now live on the Wirral and I play a lot of Tennis and I also do a lot of walking and trying to keep fit. I’m also involved in my local church, so I keep very busy. Since university, I’m most proud of the relationships I have formed with people. I made so many very close friends from my time at university that I still keep in touch with.

“My advice to current students, would be to make the most out of every opportunity that comes your way, ask questions, and have a voice. Be prepared to say what you think. I was very naïve when I came to university, but the experience does really widen your horizons in so many ways.”

Isabelle Rouse

“How I got onto the Sociology course was quite bizarre. I spent a year in Paris and I had no money, so I was very aware of street culture but I came back to the UK with no idea what I wanted to do. I’d met up with some Sociology students from London and they were all heading back to college. I looked in the paper and saw that Sociology at the Polytechnic still had places through Clearing, and that’s how I ended up here.

“It wasn’t a conscious decision as such, but my background with my father being in the church and my mother being a teacher to disabled students, I had clearly been influenced by both of them.

“After university, I ran a hostel for one-parent families in Southampton, and then I got a job in Research and Development in Buckinghamshire County Council. I then decided to train as a Social Worker and I progressed within that from being a social worker to managing teams. After that, I decided to do a postgraduate qualification in Leadership and Partnership Working.

“My proudest career moment was when I was managing the Adult Learning Disabilities team in Oxfordshire. There was no power and every single person within the team had an equal voice. It was a wonderful, supportive team and I’m very proud that I was able to achieve that.

“I’m originally from just outside of Dundee, but nowadays, I have a base in Oxfordshire but my home is in India. 10 years ago, I got made redundant and I decided to go solo backpacking and I’ve never looked back. So now I spend a lot of my time travelling and backpacking across India. I’ve been able to travel the world and have gained so many experiences.

“I’ve spent a huge amount of time in Ladakh in the mountains there, looking at the ecosystem and researching into how to preserve a very fragile landscape. From a sociological perspective, I also look into how we can preserve the culture of many tribal areas, as well as agricultural issues and so much more.

“I couldn’t have done anything I did after university without the skills and knowledge that I was taught on the Sociology course, the values it taught me and how to think critically, listen carefully to other people’s perspectives and to recognise your own judgements. My advice to current students is to take opportunities but most importantly, just have fun."

Sue Griffiths

“I did two A-Levels at school and I only came out with one Grade D, which wasn’t going to really get me very far. So I worked for a year and also did A-Level Sociology at a local college. I loved it and got an A. I went to a very traditional all-girls grammar school and we’d never been taught subjects like that, so I finally felt like I’d found my passion. At the time, not many places offered Sociology as a subject to study, and Birmingham Polytechnic wasn’t too far away from my home in Leicester and it was also offering a really good course.

“My highlight of university was the closeness, we had the fourth floor of the building and we really did do everything together; the studying, the parties, the pubs, all together. We also did a lot of protesting together too. I was beginning to get into politics back home as the National Front had a large presence in Leicester and so I was keen to go on marches. University for me was just so nice to be around likeminded people.

“After university, I went to work for Walsall Social Services as a Research Assistant, and then I went onto work for the Equal Opportunities Commission in Manchester, where we were looking at policies surrounding childcare and carers, so I worked in the research and policy unit there. I found that was too academic for me and I wanted to return to social services, so I got a job at Nottinghamshire County Council and did research across a wide range of areas. The last full-time role I had was as Deputy Chief Executive for Rushcliffe Council.

“My career highlight was definitely working for Rushcliffe Council. They are an excellent council. I was responsible for the people and culture side of things, and we won awards and had staff surveys where over 90% said that they were proud to work there, which was just phenomenal.

“Other than work, life brought me divorce and two kids. I was a single parent for a long time, so I felt proud bringing them up on my own from a young age. I also enjoy travel, and I try and get to Greece for at least a month a year on my own, as I love travelling by myself. I’m also quite sporty too and like to keep fit.

“I definitely made lifelong friends at university. Pete and I stayed in touch afterwards, and we are all family friends. We started to arrange reunions from 2005 and that rekindled other friendships too, and we’ve all grown close again since.

“My advice to current students is to have a good social life as well as studying. This generation has been put through so many exams and had to keep their head down, and I feel sorry for them. The social life is the part of university which will continue long after the degree, so although studying and getting a good degree is important, it is a shame to only focus on that and not have the time and opportunities to bond with those around you.”