Sandy Benefield, 1962-2016
26 April 2016
Sandy Benefield, a student in the Department of English, died in April after a long illness. Tom Sperlinger, one of her tutors, remembers her.
Sandy Benefield, who has died at the age of 53, first applied to the Department of English as a mature student in late 2009. In her application form, she reflected on her earlier experiences with books and in education:
‘Books and their enjoyment have been an integral part of my life. My earliest memories include stories read with my father, a treasured book of 365 bedtime stories received when I was six, and the day I was given my first school reading book. I shared my love of reading with my own children, making bedtime a special time to curl up together with a book.
‘I enjoyed my school years and achieved seven O-levels but felt at 16 that I wouldn't be suited to university life. I was shy and lacked self-confidence so I followed a path of work, marriage and motherhood instead.’
After working in banking for a number of years, Sandy retrained as a teaching assistant after her divorce and worked at The Park School in Kingswood, where she had also been a pupil, and was involved in organising the library and a reading scheme. Sandy took an intensive A-level course in English Language at City of Bristol College in 2008, achieving an ‘A’ grade. She had hoped to take English Literature the following year, but the concessionary fee for A-level courses was abolished and it was too expensive. With typical determination, Sandy set about reading the set texts for herself, including poetry from the First World War, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Oscar Wilde.
The course that Sandy first applied for at the University was Reading English Literature (REL), a six-month course for mature students. Sandy was part of an exceptionally diverse group, which met one night per week at the start of 2010. Her tutor, Peter Allender, recalls:
‘Sandy’s gift, evident from the start, was the ability to relate with what she read in a natural and unforced way. What makes a responsive and perceptive reader cannot be fully taught. A born student never wants to stop learning for herself. Sandy made sense for herself and could gently help others see what they had perhaps missed. Those evenings with Sandy’s group were amongst the most enjoyable teaching experiences in my rather long career. Above all, I will never forget how we celebrated the end of the course with a picnic by the Avon in Stratford on a sunny afternoon in June. Afterwards we saw King Lear, a testing play in every sense.’
Along with a number of her classmates from REL, Sandy joined the part-time BA in English Literature and Community Engagement the following September, continuing her studies alongside work and bringing up her two sons, largely as a single parent. It was an exciting time and Sandy looked forward to bringing the fruits of her study into her work as a teaching assistant and hoped her own career would develop as a result. However, in the first year of the degree, Sandy was diagnosed with cancer and started an intense series of treatments.
I remember a class that Sandy was part of in the second year of her degree, the theme of which was ‘Beginnings’. I asked the students to write a short piece about how their studies on the degree had begun. Sandy produced a vivid sketch of herself at the supermarket, in which she was thinking: ‘There must be more to life than this.’ That search for meaning had fired Sandy's return to education. She had always been a very fine student, but after her illness her written work seemed only to gather greater urgency and passion; she started to receive very high, first-class marks.
Over the nearly six years that followed, Sandy continued with her studies, as her health weakened and as she underwent sometimes grueling treatment, including multiple rounds of chemotherapy. She took ongoing pleasure in the diverse range of reading she was doing for the course and, through the community engagement units, continued to think deeply about children's reading and education. Sandy always questioned what she read (and her teachers!), in a positive and generous way. She was honest about her illness, and the pain and disappointments it brought with it, while showing courage in her determination to complete the degree.
Sandy’s fellow student and friend, Linda Wood, who shared the journey from the REL course to the degree with her, remembers:
‘Sandy was a lovely person. She was quiet and private, though warm and humorous when you got to know her. Although Sandy was self-effacing in class, when she spoke it was always intelligently and what she said was always worth attention. She was well liked by everyone and when she was too ill to attend, she was always missed. I particularly remember taking Sandy out for coffee in the autumn of 2015. She was by then carrying a portable oxygen kit that she said she needed only after three hours or so, but which she brought as a precaution. Unfortunately, we laughed so much she had to put on her oxygen mask as she was out of breath! She was a great mum and her sons are a credit to her. Sandy had dignity until the end and did not want sympathy. Apart from her two sons, what she seemed most proud of was her achievements as a student.’
Sandy’s health deteriorated in the final year of her studies and in late March 2016, she was told that she only had a short time to live. The Department of English awarded her a 2.i, slightly earlier than planned, and Sandy was presented with her degree in a small celebratory event at St Peter’s Hospice on 2 April, in the presence of her parents, her siblings and her two sons, Adam and Sean. Jane Wright, Education Director in the School of Humanities, presented the degree and noted that Sandy had ‘made history’ by showing the ongoing importance of part-time and women’s education. Sandy commented that she was saddened that she would not be able to graduate with her peers, but that it had given her joy and a sense of achievement to complete the degree.
Sandy died in the early hours of 5 April 2016, in the presence of her family.