My Leeds story - NAME & COURSE HERE

We are extremely proud of the achievements of all our graduating students at Leeds, but especially the Class of 2020, who have completed their studies in such challenging circumstances.

We know that our graduates are keen to make a difference in the world, and each month we shine a spotlight on a Leeds alum who graduated in 2020.

In December, we spoke to Joy Akinsanmi, an international development graduate, who overcame a number of challenges in 2020 – not least of all living with Marfan syndrome, experiencing culture shock, and undergoing a major heart operation. We find out how she managed to not just keep going, but achieve a first-class degree. Catch our conversation below.

You can read the stories of more inspiring graduates featured in our My Leeds Story Class of 2020 series, or alternatively, listen to the My Leeds Story podcast series here.

My Leeds story
Joy Akinsanmi

Start by telling us about the journey that brought you to Leeds.

My journey at Leeds began with a foundation year in social science. I went to a failing secondary school, and although the sixth form college I later attended was amazing for nurturing my confidence, igniting my interest in education, encouraging my aspirations and showing me the endless possibilities for my future, the attainment gap between me and my peers was too big for me to bridge in the time we had. I did not get the grades for the universities I wanted to attend.

My sister mentioned that her friend had done a foundation course at Leeds, so I looked into it and then I applied.

How did you settle into life at Leeds?

I, like many black students at Leeds and other Russell Group institutions, experienced a culture shock when I first arrived due to the small number of black students around. I struggled to acclimatise for the first year, but eventually I did, and I made friends for life.

The real positive for me was the process of developing a love of learning. I had the privilege of studying a degree I adored and access to opportunities which included studying abroad at the University of Ghana and working in the UK Parliament. Friendships and involvement in societies like the Black Feminist Society helped to build my confidence and sense of self through my studies. I was soon joining debates in my seminars, and I developed an ability to articulate myself and go against the grain without feeling uncomfortable.

"Throughout my whole time in the hospital, my main focus was getting well enough to return to Leeds and finish my degree."

Joy Akinsanmi (International Development 2020)

Your studies were impacted by Marfan syndrome. Can you tell us a little bit about how you dealt with the challenge?

In a practical everyday sense, my Marfan syndrome meant I had to work on my self-care and self-compassion, and balance that with my desire to achieve excellence. I had to be kind to myself, whilst being proactive and unafraid to ask for help and support when needed.

Having Marfan syndrome, being a black woman, and navigating the healthcare system influenced my studies. It inspired my interest in health and the politics of health and healthcare and eventually my dissertation topic on the politics of healthcare access and the Nigerian gendered experience of health inequity.

You had an aortic aneurysm during your studies. What happened?

Whilst on my semester abroad in Ghana I was sitting outside speaking to a friend when out of the blue I got a dreadful tearing sensation in my chest.

I was in agony, it was so painful that I couldn’t stand upright, and I was terrified. I ended up being hospitalised for a week and the medics advised me to see a cardiologist upon return to the UK. At that point, I still hadn't realised how unwell I actually was.

When I got back, I started a parliamentary placement year in Westminster, and it was only after reading various medical journal articles to figure out why I was feeling so unwell and turning up to A&E in agony at 4 am that my pain was acknowledged by doctors. Before that I had been asking to be seen by a cardiologist, but felt that – as many black, Asian and ethnic minority women experience – the doctors were highly dismissive of my worsening pain. It took time, but I was eventually referred to the best heart hospital in the country and I subsequently underwent cardiac investigations.

They established that my aorta had a large aneurysm and I would need to have open-heart surgery to repair it. I had the surgery 6 weeks later, and a long journey of cardiac rehabilitation.

How did it impact your studies?

I considered dropping out of my course at least once an hour in the final year. I contemplated my life choices and googled ‘to what extent do you need a degree to work in policy?’ more times than I care to admit.

What helped you to keep going?

When I was going through surgery the MP I worked for at the time told me an anecdote about how my mind and mindset would see me through this situation. Her empathy and her practical advice really resonated with me and I decided that I had Marfan syndrome, Marfan did not have me. I joined a mindfulness class, I practised gratitude, I prayed, and I was always surrounded by the love and support of my family and friends. Throughout my whole time in the hospital, my main focus was getting well enough to return to Leeds and finish my degree. I did not want Marfan to rob me of my future and all the hard work I had done to bridge the gap to get to Leeds and do well.

Every time I considered dropping out I reminded myself about the journey I had taken to be sitting in this institution and how close I was to the finish line.

The School of Politics and International Studies office also supported me at the time by offering me a non-judgemental, safe space, making sure I knew I could always ask for help when necessary, always believing in me and going above and beyond to accommodate me where they could.

How did coronavirus impact you and your studies?

The current crisis added an extra layer of strain and difficulty to what was already a hard time. I received the order to shield from the government in March, so it meant I had to complete my degree from my noisy home, which was tricky.

But you did it! Congratulations! Tell us what you are doing now you have graduated.

I am currently enrolled on the Government Communication Services Diversity Internship. I will be in this role for the next 6 months working as a communications officer. In addition, I currently volunteer with the British Heart Foundation and the Barts Health NHS Trust. In these roles, I act as a patient advocate to make sure the needs and experiences of cardiovascular and vascular patients are met and considered during the patient care pathway and research process.

My dream is to use my lived experience, skills and education to be of service in the field of health and social policy and government communications. One day, I want to attend Harvard or John Hopkins University to further my studies.

Joy's best of Leeds

Favourite place to eat in Leeds:


Best lunch spot on/near campus:

Délice D'ivoire

Best place to study on campus:

Eddie B

Your favourite building on campus:

I don’t have a favourite building, but my favourite landmark is the pond in front of Roger Stevens

Best music venue/bar/club/night in Leeds?

East Village

Favourite place you visited in Yorkshire?

Carlton Hill Quaker Meeting House

Favourite Yorkshire phrase:

Ey up!