Press release

Wimberley Award 2019 won by activist Rachel

Published on 21 June 2019

A student who reported to the European Parliament on the effect that conditions at the Calais refugee camp were having on the mental health of residents has won the University of Dundee’s most prestigious undergraduate award

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Rachel Natanson received this year’s Wimberley Award, given to the student or students who have made the most distinguished contribution to university life, as she graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Social Work this morning.

Rachel (38), from Kirriemuir, was a founding member of the Dundee branch of Social Work Action Network and has been heavily involved in the work of this international group throughout her time at University. The Dundee branch received the Scottish Association of Social Work Award for leadership in 2017.

Rachel worked as a journalist among other jobs before returning to higher education in 2015. She had begun courses in the past only to drop out but says it was her experiences as a support worker that inspired her to pursue social work as a career.

“I was frustrated by what I was seeing and wanted to make a difference but knew the only way to do that was to go and get the qualifications in social work,” she said, “I had attempted university in the past and never found my niche but this time I knew I was on the right path. I am passionate about social justice and was driven to do the best I could.

“I visited the refugee camp in Calais twice. The first time was to speak to the people there about the conditions they were living under and to report to the European Parliament on how this was impacting on their mental health. I was so overwhelmed by what I saw there that I returned with another social work student to deliver a specially tailored aid package.

“We knew we didn’t have the power to change their lives substantially so we focused on things that had been neglected in other donations that I knew would at least help to make their day-to-day existence more bearable.

“It might sound strange but we focused on socks, cards and buckets. The buckets were multi-purpose and could be used for sanitation, carrying drinking water, cooking or cleaning. The conditions were absolutely awful so anything that could help with cleanliness and hygiene went a big way.

“The people in Calais had walked an entire continent so by the time they got there their shoes were falling apart. A massive amount of shoes were donated but no one seemed to think to donate socks so we tried to redress that. In the camp there is nothing to do so playing cards helped to relieve boredom and break down barriers between residents who spoke different languages. It’s these little things that can make life just a little bit more comfortable and help a person’s mental health.”

The Wimberley Award is named after Major General Douglas Wimberley, a war hero and former Principal of University College, Dundee. It was his ‘Wimberley Memo’ that proved instrumental in the College breaking away from the University of St Andrews and the University of Dundee being established as an independent institution. The award is given in his honour each year.

Friday’s ceremony will also see Rachel presented with the Sir James Black Award, given annually by each of the University’s component Schools to the final year undergraduate making the most outstanding contribution to research and scholarship in their field.

This accolade recognises Rachel’s investigation into the use of problem-solving courts within criminal justice social work, research which soon be published by a prestigious international social work journal. The awards are named after Sir James Black, the inventor of beta blockers and former University Chancellor.

“I am absolutely thrilled to win both the Wimberley and Sir James Black awards,” said Rachel. “Both were very unexpected and I feel proud to receive this recognition. Given what I want to do in terms of my career and activism it is particularly poignant to win the Wimberley Award because of Douglas Wimberley’s own commitment to tackling inequality and creating meaningful communities.”

Rachel is one of around 3000 students graduating with degrees, postgraduate diplomas and diplomas over the course of this week. She was accompanied by her mother, father and two close friends at the ceremony on Friday morning.


Press Office, University of Dundee