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'Inspirational' grandmother graduates with a doctorate aged 86

Article By: Melissa McAlees

An 86-year-old grandmother has become the oldest student to graduate from the University of Bristol – after leaving school aged 15 with no formal qualifications.

Peggy Styles after passing her EdD viva

After eight years of studying, Peggy Styles, from Failand in Somerset, completed an EdD and graduated on 19 July with fellow students from the Graduate School of Education.

But the road to her qualification was not easy. In July 2016, just as she was finishing her 48,000-word dissertation, her husband John sadly passed away. She also overcame a life-threatening kidney infection which suspended her studies for 18 months.

She said: "Although I’m 86, I don’t really feel that old. My legs and arms are not what they were but my tongue still wags and my brain still functions. I’d keep studying forever if I could.

“I was in hospital for a month and had to learn to walk again. I was so ill that I nearly died but the university was super and agreed to suspend my studies until I felt better. I was determined to finish my doctorate.”

’It was the highest mountain I could climb’

Dr Styles was joined by her proud daughter Julie Kane, son-in-law David and her three grandsons when she crossed the stage in the Wills Memorial Building to collect her doctorate.

Her grandson Oliver sparked her decision to return to education, when he asked for help with a school project, looking at what it was like to live through World War Two.

The question prompted Dr Styles to reflect on how much her life – and education – had been impacted by the war.

She was born in England to Belgian parents in 1931 and was six when the family moved back to Belgium. They returned to England as refugees in 1940, managing to escape on the last troop ship sailing out of St Malo before the harbour was blown up.

The upheaval, in addition to being schooled in different languages, impacted upon Dr Style’s education and she left school aged 15.

Later, when her husband left the army and got a job in Scotland managing a factory, she helped to set-up a refuge for abused women – a voluntary role which sparked a lifelong interest in counselling.

’I’ll miss my fellow students and tutors’

Peggy with her grandsons Dominic, Oliver and Charlie

Deciding to return to education when the family relocated to Bristol, Dr Styles undertook a postgraduate certificate and diploma in counselling at the University of Bristol, which was shortly followed up with a master's.

Her dissertation titled 'Old Wives Tales? Changing my Perception of the World', aimed to acquaint the next generation with the history of the 20th Century from a human and family perspective, and also to mark the gradual changes in attitude to the education of women which has taken place within living memory.

She explained: "I was young during wartime and going to university wasn’t really on anyone’s agenda at all. Life was quite different.

"Although the post-war period is still within living memory, culture has changed so much. This is one of the reasons I wanted to write about how society's attitude towards the education of women has gradually changed.

"I was lucky that the University of Bristol took me on for my postgraduate certificate and diploma in the 90s, especially as I had no A-levels. After that I think I got slightly addicted to learning and the University has become like a second home. What I’ll miss most is my fellow students and tutors – they've all been so nice."

Laurinda Brown, a reader in the Graduate School of Education who worked with Dr Styles on her thesis, added: "What I am always struck by is her indomitable spirit forged in the nomadic historical movements of her family across Europe provoked by the world wars.

"There has never been any doubt in my mind that Peggy would finish this work of family history with reflections on differences in how women were educated, even though it took eight years. She is an inspirational woman and it's been a pleasure to work with her."


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