A young campaigner who helped influence the Scottish Government to invest £20 million in mental health support in Higher Education following the death of her father, graduates from Heriot-Watt University today (Tuesday 21 June).
Victoria Neill receives her first-class MEng in Chemical Engineering with Oil and Gas Technology as part of Heriot-Watt's Summer Graduation programme running this week in Edinburgh.
The 24-year-old, who was born in Norway but now lives in Edinburgh, credits the University with offering her a ‘life-changing experience' following the devastating loss of her father, Stuart, in January 2018 who died from a rare brain tumour.
Victoria said: “Heriot-Watt hasn't just been a place for me to get my degree but has been an influential part of my life over the years.
“I moved here after experiencing a major loss in my life, my dad passing away from a brain tumour.
“At 20 years old I moved because I didn't receive any support at my previous university and needed somewhere that would commit to assisting me for the rest of my degree. Heriot-Watt allowed me to have the space to come to terms with my feelings and new life whilst allowing me to really enjoy, apply myself and excel to where I am today, something that I didn't think I'd be able to do again.”
During her time at Heriot-Watt, Victoria wanted to make a difference for others who experience loss.
She explains: “When my dad passed away, I was passionate about raising awareness and wanted to help fund grief and mental health support services at universities across Scotland.
“I wrote an article for Brain Tumour Research. Later, I worked with Forth1, Tay FM, Kiss FM and The Tab, campaigning for a change in support services for students and an increase in governmental funding in wellbeing.
“After a few months of this activity, we managed to influence the Scottish Government to invest £20 million into mental health support across higher education institutions.”
After this success, Victoria found a passion for campaigning and public speaking through her association with The Brain Tumour Charity, who later appointed her as its Young Ambassador, becoming one of the first in Scotland.
She continues: “I've met many inspirational young people who have had tumours, have lost people to one or have one themselves, as well as meeting the committed team behind the charity. It has been really rewarding so far to be involved in events at parliament, in podcasts on topics such as grief music and speaking to those affected.”
Having earned her new academic qualification, Victoria is now looking forward to embarking on her career. In September, she will start a role with the drinks giant, Diageo, as a part of its engineering and technical leadership scheme but has no plans to walk away from her charity work.
Asked what advice she would give new students coming to Heriot-Watt, she said: “Firstly, remember that university isn't just the place you study, it is where you meet friends, form hobbies and learn about yourself so really it becomes your life for those years.
“Secondly, try to remember that everyone is in the same boat as you, people want to meet other people so don't be afraid to start up a chat with someone and make the most of your time trying new hobbies and exploring your passions.”
As well as juggling her studies with her charitable work, Victoria was also named as a Royal Academy of Engineering Leaders Scholar in 2019 and was listed in the Top 10 UK Female Undergraduate of the Year 2020 by TargetJobs.
All this while captaining the Heriot-Watt University basketball club to cup finals and holding leadership positions with various society groups including the University's sports' union.
Professor Richard A. Williams, Principal and Vice-chancellor at Heriot-Watt University, passed on his congratulations to Victoria and wished her well in her future career.
He said: “Victoria's spirit is the very embodiment of what this University stands for. Her commitment to her charitable endeavours whilst also completing her studies and sports activities, is testament to her character.
“My heartfelt congratulations go to Victoria and all our exceptional students who are graduating not only in Edinburgh and Galashiels but also in Malaysia and Dubai in the coming weeks.”
Graduation ceremonies are being held at Heriot-Watt University between Friday 17th June and Friday, 24th June marking the academic achievement of students from the School of Social Sciences, the School of Engineering & Physical Sciences, the School of Energy, Geoscience, Infrastructure & Society, the School of Textiles & Design, and the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences.