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"This prize will significantly reduce the financial burden of studying in London"
John Wilkie left school aged 16 and spent a number of years in fairly low-skilled jobs. Today, the 31-year-old graduates with a first-class degree in Computer Science and as the winner of the MacQuitty Prize, awarded annually to the highest-performing science undergraduate at the University of Sussex.
While academically bright, school “didn’t really work” for John and so he left without any A-levels and spent the next decade or so “bouncing around”: looking after family, restaurant work, shop work, carpentry. He even spent a few years as a watersports instructor.
But the lure of a solid job with a decent income led him back to university and, specifically, to Sussex, which was nearby and offered a foundation course for people like him who didn’t have A-levels.
Fast forward four years and he is celebrating a remarkable grade average of 92 per cent in his degree and is weeks away from starting a Masters course in software systems engineering at University College London.
John said: “I always had in my head that if I didn’t get a first, that would always be a fail to me. Not because I truly believed I could get one but just that, to give up four years of potentially earning, I knew I’d better do well.
“It’s the first thing I’ve ever stuck at. Normally I just do things for six months and then get distracted by something else.
“Not having to have a job, forcing myself to come to campus and rewatching the videos of all my lectures before my exams helped me.”
Dr Jonathan MacQuitty, who completed his PhD at Sussex in the 1970s, generously awards a prize of £10,000 every year to the highest-performing student across the sciences at the University. In his own words, Dr MacQuitty says the aim is “to provide the winner with sufficient financial freedom to consider more easily doing graduate work, starting a business or simply travelling”.
John said that it was a great surprise to be this year’s recipient and that he was “blown away” by Dr MacQuitty’s generosity. He said: “I just put it to the back of my mind. It’s hard to know how you’re doing in terms of everybody else.
“I got the email a couple of weeks back and it was quite a surprise.
“This prize will not only significantly reduce the financial burden of studying in London but also give me more flexibility on the path I take after completing my masters.”
John is still undecided about his exact future plans but he is enjoying the main thing that returning to university has given him: options. Getting a job at a big tech company, doing a PhD, joining a start-up, or even starting a start-up are all options on the table now.
And the best thing about working with computers? It can be done anywhere. John said: “When I started that was my thinking – sat on a beach somewhere in Bali doing a bit of remote programming.”