A View from a Shimna OldScholar - Anna Hunter
I came to Shimna College for its first sixth form. It was a giant leap of faith to come from a grammar school with historically good results to a school that had never even had a sixth form. It turned out to be one of the best decisions in my life. Even though it was only two years, they were the happiest two years of my education. Growing up as a Baha'i in Portadown in the 80s and 90s, my experience of education was being the "different girl" in a monocultural system and trying my best to slip under the radar. Coming to Shimna was a liberation, not least because – let's face it, we all know it – this place is pretty much the definition of "different" – and for the first time in my life, the label of different girl disappeared, because the emphasis was on working together and valuing each individual's contribution. Kevin asked me a question the first time I met him and I think it sums up what Shimna's approach to each student was, and still is. It's a question all of you here to collect your certificates this evening can ask yourselves now and during the next few years. That question is - what would you like to do?
Here's what I did during my time here – and bear in mind this was a brand new sixth form department, - I was part of an award winning A-level drama class, I was part of the team representing Shimna at a Northern Ireland Youth Parliament event, the same public speaking team who were finalists in the BPW public speaking competition, all while doing my A-levels and an extra GCSE. But much more importantly, for the first time in my educational career I was given free rein to thrive and grow into the right shape for me.
I left Shimna 13 years ago and in that time I've got an MA, been a company director, a henna tattooist, a published writer, an art technician, a television subtitler and now, a disabled student support provider. All of these things have one thing in common, a very, very Shimna thing – thinking outside the box. So, I am here to tell you this evening that you, too, can do whatever you want to do, and you have all the skills to do it because you've come through Shimna. What will stand by you throughout your life are all the things that have been part of the everyday life here – working as a team where everyone has a valuable contribution; being unafraid to take risks, to trail blaze; going out on a limb because it's the right thing to do, but most of all, the ethos that everyone deserves a chance to achieve their best – bring that with you to further or higher education, to employment, to the family you begin, to your friends and colleagues, because it's that ethos that makes all of you the right people to take Northern Ireland – or wherever else in the world you end up - forward into the future.
The future of Northern Ireland is very much under the spotlight at the minute, and part of that is the debate happening around integrated education. I recently joined the Integrated Education Alumni Association because I never want anyone to be called "different" again, and I want to promote the value of integrated education as a medium which reflects the true demographic of NI, which is far, far wider than two traditions. (This is the bit where I nod emphatically because I want you all to join – please do come and ask me, or look us up on Facebook!) The Integrated Education Alumni Association was set up so that those of us who have come through the integrated system can come together and represent how integrated education is a recipe for success, and that success is measured by numerous factors, not just exam results. As a member of the Alumni Association I had the chance to write part of a submission to the Stormont Education Committee's inquiry into integrated education. I would like to share with you a quote from my contribution.
..it is time to look to the future and plan for the emerging Northern Ireland by creating an education system fit for purpose, producing citizens with the skills to allow Northern Ireland to compete on an increasingly globalised stage.
In our last alumni association meeting, we heard how businesses are seeking out people who have graduated from integrated schools because they are the most able to communicate with everyone, to see different perspectives, and to work as part of a team – that's all of you. Because you've come through integrated education, you've come through an environment that honestly reflects the society we live in. Whatever you go on to do in life, you will bring that integrated ethos with you. That's the face our business leaders want to see, it’s what will bring growth and success to Northern Ireland, but more importantly, it's that ability to see the best in each other which will make a difference to you and to everyone you will meet in your life.
I remember sitting in Newcastle bus station with all the other Shimna sixth formers at the end of my first day, chatting and laughing with people I'd only just met, and thinking to myself, "I'm going to be just fine here." What I didn't know then was that that feeling would never quite leave me. Some of you here have finished school, maybe even left Northern Ireland, but you'll all know what I mean when I say that Shimna sticks with you. Sorry, you can't shake it off! So go out there and share what Shimna, and integrated education, has given to us all – take joy in learning from every new person that you meet, work together to make life the best it can be for everyone, but most of all, be the wonderful human beings that you all are.