Former flight attendant Susie Campbell was 58 when she quit her job as a train attendant with LNER in Leeds and enrolled as a full-time student at York University.
Mother-of-three Susie of Moortown said she always knew she was different, but lacked the confidence to be diagnosed with autism until recently.
She recounted her experiences living as an undiagnosed autistic person and her time as the oldest student at her university.
And she spoke of her joy at graduating with a first-class Honors BA with Honors in Commerce and Management in August.
Susie said she hopes her story encourages others to pursue their dreams, no matter what stands in their way.
“It was not an easy trip,” she said. “I certainly must have looked out of place at the Freshers Fair and felt quite alone wandering among the 18-year-old students.
“When I started attending conferences and seminars, I felt very isolated at first, no one really knew why I was there.
“Eventually they got used to me, and although I was never invited to a club, we got along really well and I loved being part of the band.
“There were some tough times. I cried in despair during my first year accounting class, but my teachers were all wonderful and I gained a lot of self-confidence and felt I could. to contribute.
“The hard work and determination to succeed kept me going all the way. “
Susie, among three children, was born in Moortown, Leeds, in 1960.
“I was strangely picky, preferring the company of animals over humans,” she said.
“I only ate certain types of food, hated routine changes, and found loud noises, bright lighting and crowded places difficult to deal with.
“I loved horses from a young age and would cycle to Shadwell and Thorner riding schools every opportunity to be near them.
“When I got a little older, I worked all weekend in exchange for a riding lesson.
“I was a smart but lonely student at Roundhay High School and had always planned to go to college, but before I finished high school my parents divorced and I left school because the family home had to be sold.
“I found work in sales promotion and had some very unusual jobs, including dressing as an eyeball for an opticians’ chain, a cat with ears and a tail for Pioneer hi-fi, and in a bikini and grass skirt for Hawaiian Tropic in Boots in Leeds in December!
“I got married in 1980 and had a son in 1982 and a daughter in 1985.
“I struggled with many aspects of daily life, but in 1987 I joined Capital Airlines in Leeds as a flight attendant, where the work routine suited me well and was easy to navigate. to manage.
“I became determined to learn to fly and started classes at Sherburn Flying School, obtaining my private pilot license in 1990, followed by an instrument rating in 1991.
“When Capital closed in 1990, I transferred to British Midland Airways in London where I stayed for several years.
“However, I was still struggling with the same issues I had from childhood and wished I could be ‘normal’ like everyone else.
“Although, like most women with autism, I have learned coping strategies by removing myself from difficult situations.”
Susie said she would avoid eye contact with people and avoid social gatherings.
“I decided to see a private specialist who suggested I might have Asperger’s syndrome. I didn’t want to be labeled and was reluctant to deal with it.”
Susie had her third child in 1999 and when she and her husband divorced later that year she returned to Yorkshire with her baby daughter.
“I took my truck license and drove cars all night so I could be with my daughter during waking hours.
“When she started high school in 2011, I joined East Coast Trains as a customer service host serving refreshments on board.”
“I loved the routine at work and the wonderful, warm, friendly people I worked with.
“Without a doubt, I was found to be a little unusual with my compulsion to follow defined serving and tidying up routines.
“Although I struggled to attend social events, I was able to enjoy chatting with clients and colleagues and making good eye contact. It was a great company to work for and I was very happy.
“I never told anyone I was autistic because I always thought no one would employ me, but thank goodness these days that is no longer a problem because people with autism have many fabulous qualities that mean they can do the right jobs very well.
“It certainly seemed to be the case for me as I received the Newcomer of the Year award in 2019.
“In the same year, I was promoted to Team Leader, with responsibility for the team on board, and I continued in this role throughout the transition to Virgin Trains and then LNER.
“As part of the restructuring, my role became obsolete and I applied and got the train guard position in 2016.
“Since this was a critical security role, I was not sure whether or not to report my condition.
“I asked the person in charge of the guard if a person with autism could do the job and I was relieved to learn that they could as long as they met the entry requirements.
“However, I felt less suited to the role as I find the confrontation very difficult and there could be a lot of embarrassing situations involving customers with the wrong trains and tickets.
“So having never given up on my dream of getting a degree, at the age of 58, and with my youngest herself now in college, I applied and was accepted by the ‘University of York to study for a BA (hons) in Business and Management.
“Due to the university’s forward-thinking views on diversity, I finally felt able to come to terms with my condition and in 2019, I was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
“I have now come to terms with my condition, trying to see the positives instead of the negatives, and realizing it’s not something I’m ashamed of.
“I imagine that in some ways if I had been diagnosed as a child my life would have been easier in many ways but on the other hand the hardships I had to overcome made me a person. stronger.
“Last month, after three years of study, I achieved my lifelong ambition, obtaining an honors degree with distinction.
“Now at 61, I don’t know what life has in store for me, but I hope to put my degree and experience to good use in the future, and I will continue to support and campaign for adults with autism there. work if the opportunity arises. “