Students from Cleveland College of Art and Design (CCAD) celebrated their academic success as the fourth graduation ceremony got underway at the Hartlepool Art Gallery.

Despite the wet weather, 177 students enjoyed receiving their certificates in degrees ranging from graphic design, fashion, fine art and photography. With proud families and friends watching on, the students were recognised for their hard work and academic achievement during their studies in a ceremony attended by local dignitaries and teaching staff across the whole College.

Showing what can be achieved when taking a non-traditional route to higher education, students Kat Sowerby, Alex Mineham and Donna Cooper completed the Access to Higher Education course at the college’s Green Lane campus before progressing onto their degree.

36-year-old Kat Sowerby from Hartlepool achieved a first class degree in BA (Hons) Illustration for Commercial Application, and has overcome a number of personal challenges to achieve her amazing result.

The illustration graduate had battled with agoraphobia, which she has successfully beaten and has now developed her confidence so much that she is going onto postgraduate study, securing a place at Teesside University for an MA in Concept Art for Animation and Games.

Kat said: “CCAD was literally the turning point during a very turbulent time in my life. Back in 2010, after a two-year battle, my mum succumbed to cancer and in the months that followed, the family just fell apart. I became really ill for a few months and when I was well again, I found I could only just bare to leave the house but not alone. I couldn’t face anyone and didn’t know how to speak about what I was feeling and I lost my job. Once that happened, I just fell into that rut.”

After moving house, Kat gave serious thought about the CCAD Access to Higher Education course and saw an adviser at the Job Centre from the Careers Advice Service.

She continued: “I knew I had to pull my socks up and get on with my life. Going to CCAD was the best thing I could have done for myself. The access course was wonderful, not only in helping my confidence but in preparing me for the work required at that higher level. Four years have gone by so fast. I’m still a little shocked it’s over and I am going to miss CCAD. It feels phenomenal to graduate and I am really happy, as I was not expecting a first at all. I really surprised myself and I’m really proud so celebrate with family to mark the occasion.”

Kat also won the Illustration Progression Award, where she was recognised for ‘developing her own creative voice and skills over the past three years to a high professional level.’

Alex Mineham, 28 from Ingleby Barwick, also achieved a first class degree in BA (Hons) Textiles and Surface Design, for which she won the college’s Student Award. She said: “I never thought I would graduate, especially first class honours, and I’m now going on to study Print at the Royal College of Art, which I feel very privileged to have been offered a place.

“I have loved my time at CCAD, both at Green Lane and Hartlepool. There is a real sense of support within the college, and I don’t think I would’ve had the confidence to apply to somewhere like the RCA if it wasn’t for the support I got at CCAD. My tutors and the college as a whole have played such an important role in my education and plans for the future. The Access to Higher Education course at Green Lane was fab, and I’m so glad I did it because it helped build my confidence back up and made me believe in my abilities again.”

43-year-old Donna Cooper from Linthorpe, Middlesbrough, graduated with a BA (Hons) in Contemporary Textile Products and is now planning to set up in business as a designer maker and also provide workshops in natural dyeing and techniques.

She said: “I’ve enjoyed the whole experience of my journey – from the access course which eased me in gently – to my degree. The tutors are amazing and I’ve learned so many new skills and made many friendships which I will cherish forever.

“I’ve was fortunate enough to be chosen for New Designers in London, a national exhibition for designers where I picked up great contacts for my new business. Some companies are now interested in collaborating with me on my lamp designs and I am also going to Brussels for the textiles trade show Indigo Mood in Brussels, so it is all very exciting.”

Donna also won the Student Award for her course, where she was recognised for ‘producing work of an individual and exciting nature, being both innovative and commercial at the same time.’

Top of the class were students Molly Watson and Megan Wallace, who also achieved first class degrees in their respective subjects of production design and costume.

Molly Watson, 20, from Maidenhead, lived in Hartlepool during her study for a BA (Hons) in Production Design for Stage and Screen. During her studies, she assisted with set dressing for ITV’s hit TV show ‘Victoria’, filmed in Hartlepool, as well as numerous placements at Pinewood Creative and The National Theatre.

She said: “It feels amazing to graduate, three years of hard work have paid off and it feels real now! I won’t have much time to celebrate though as I now have to head home for the New Designers Show, a national exhibition for designers. I’m really looking forward to it as it’s an excellent graduate show and a chance to meet potential employers and people in the industry and get my work out there.”

Molly is currently working freelance in model making, prop making and scenic artwork, and seeking opportunities to work within a prop-making company or a model-makers. She added: “It’s been fantastic at CCAD and a real experience, with my eyes opened to so many different career paths.”