Jonathan Leonard should have been celebrating on stage with his First-Class Automotive Engineering degree two years ago, but the impact of the pandemic pulled the brakes on his graduation.

Since that time, he has managed to complete a Master’s Degree in Manufacturing and Engineering which he has already graduated from during a Winter ceremony in 2021, and is now working towards a PhD.

But finally, this week Jonathan was able to collect his Bachelor’s degree, alongside thousands of other University of Sunderland students at the Stadium of Light, taking part in the first in-person catch-up ceremonies since the pandemic.

“It’s all been a bit Topsy-turvey, collecting my Master’s before my Bachelor’s degree,” says Jonathan. “Everything has gone into reverse, but I’m just delighted to finally be here collecting it.”

The ceremony, however, will also be bittersweet for the 25-year-old, whose dad Kevin fell seriously ill with sepsis last year, developing Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, and sadly passing away a week later, aged just 55

Jonathan, originally from Devon, and now living in South Shields, says: “It was all so sudden and came as a huge shock to my family.

“I got a call from the doctors to get to the hospital in Teesside, to say our final goodbyes, but me and my younger brother were 15 minutes too late after travelling from Sunderland. Thankfully, mum was by his side, and that gives me peace.

“Dad would have been here at my ceremony today, so while it’s great to celebrate, I’ll also be thinking of him, and how proud I know he would be.”

What makes Jonathan’s academic journey so impressive are the hurdles he’s managed to overcome since childhood, to gain the highest scores of any student for his assignments in the last five years on the degree programme, as well as a distinction in his Master’s.

His early start in education was a bumpy ride, at primary school he misbehaved, resulting in dozens of suspensions and an expulsion.

At secondary school he channelled that energy into helping others by becoming a volunteer youth support worker, a role he continues to this day.

After school, he studied an extended diploma in engineering at Darlington College (2015-2017), where he was one of three students to collect a Students Of Excellence Award from the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET). Keen to learn more, he chose an Automotive Engineering degree at Sunderland, and his talent and scores in this area of study led to five scholarships.

Jonathan, who was also diagnosed with autism while at University, said: “I chose Sunderland firstly for the level of support provided by the lecturers, which helped me along.

“I always work best on the quality of knowledge being delivered, if I can teach it back to others it makes it the highest quality no matter what your grade. It’s been an amazing experience, that is why I keep coming back!”

As well as his studies, Jonathan became a student mentor throughout his degree, continuing his role of helping others, as well as becoming a student ambassador. He even set up the University’s first Airsoft Team; a growing sport which involves teams participating in elimination games by tagging out opposing players with plastic projectiles shot with mock air weapons called airsoft guns.

In addition to all of this, Jonathan has maintained a role as an Army Reserve Soldier, with the 102 FS Battalion REME, 124 Recovery Company. His job as an Armourer, means he keeps the Army’s weapon systems functional and safe to use, conducts repairs and routine inspection of all weapon systems from pistols and rifles to artillery guns.

As he awaits his PhD funding, is currently working as a Civil Servant in Engineering Assurance.

“All of these experiences have shaped the person I am today,” says Jonathan.

“I cannot sit still and must be busy. I just love to learn, and love to help others achieve their own goals.

“Finally graduating with this degree is just the icing on the cake for me!”

Dave Knapton, Principal Lecturer – Engineering Team Leader in the University of Sunderland’s School of Engineering, said: “Since first meeting Jonathan he has always stood out as someone who has made the absolute very best of every opportunity that has come his way. Always willing to go the extra mile to achieve at his very best both academically and other life experiences.

“What has always stood out is the remarkable way in which Jonathan has given lots back to the University community, taking up volunteer roles to enthuse the next generation of engineering students to follow a subject he is clearly so passionate about.

“Jonathan also acted as course rep, helping to maintain excellent communication between our students, all of this during a pandemic – and a time he didn’t find easy himself – but often putting others first. It is this attitude which I know will help him throughout his engineering career, a career which I’m sure will be a fruitful one!”