New Mills student up for national education award after road crash ended Michelin star kitchen career
A former gourmet pastry chef from New Mills has been shortlisted for a national adult learning award in recognition of her efforts to retrain as an engineer after a life-changing road accident.
Rock Street resident Nikki-Ann Wyatt, 36, spent more than a decade working in Michelin-starred restaurants until one day in March 2017 when a car cut across the path of her motorbike as she travelled home.
She suffered serious injuries to her spine and pelvis which required several operations and years of rehabilitation, and left her with permanent nerve and muscle damage which limits her mobility.
But even then Nikki-Ann did not immediately give up her baking dreams. She said: “I’d been a pastry chef since I was 17 and it was my one big passion. I never wanted to do anything else.
“A few months after the accident I went back to work part-time but I would end each week struggling with pain. To be full-time in those kitchens, you could easily do 70 hours a week on your feet and I realised I would never be able to work back up to that level.”
It was a serious bump in the road for Nikki-Ann’s career, which had taken her from Ireland as a teenager to some of Europe’s most prestigious eateries.
She was forced to contemplate a radically different life and a new vocation without a post-16 education to fall back on.
Her new direction emerged after conversations with a couple of relatives who had also gone back to school in later life, who encouraged her to think about the things she had liked learning most.
She said: “I wasn’t much of a student growing up but I really enjoyed maths and physics. You just don’t think about it the same way as a child. I wasn’t dedicated or mature enough.
“I was a bit ignorant about career options but the more I looked into it, the more I liked the idea of civil engineering.”
Undaunted by the prospect of breaking into another ambitious field, Nikki-Ann’s first step was to take a GCSE in science at Stockport College starting in 2018.
She said: “It was a bit of a shock to the system being back in the classroom and trying to remember all the basics after 17 years, but not too difficult. It was a small class with a really good tutor and everyone wanted to learn.
“Experience of running a pastry section actually really helped me to be disciplined and manage the time efficiently. I make lists for everything.”
After graduating with a near-perfect 9-8 score in her exams, Nikki-Ann went on to Trafford College and an Access to Engineering course in 2019, and then began her degree at the University of Salford last year.
She said: “I’m hoping to go on to postgraduate study next, and eventually become a geotechnical engineer – the first phase of any civil engineering project, analysing factors like the geology and the soil before work begins. I’d be really keen to work for Network Rail or something focused on sustainability.
"I’m happiest when I have a target to achieve, and my tutors certainly gave me that! It will mean so much to my husband and I when I graduate. I’m really excited about the potential of working in a job that can really bring about social change using the skills I’ll further in my degree.”
During the university holidays, she still makes plenty of time to bake for husband David, who helped nurse her back to health following the accident.
She added: “When I finally came to terms with the fact I would never be able to work in Michelin restaurants again, I was quite down, but when I finally found what I wanted to achieve, it was worth all the extra hours of study.
“I’ve surprised myself, finding something that I’m even more passionate about. It no longer feels like I’m replacing the thing I really want to do. If I could click my fingers and go back, I don’t think I would now.”
Nikki-Ann’s remarkable story has seen her progress to the finals for the prestigious national Festival of Learning 2021 awards, nominated from colleges and adult training providers from across England.
She said: “It’s a nice little boost. When I started my access course I remember the first assignment, thinking ‘I don’t know if I can do this’.
“With help from the tutors and the college, it’s nice to see the hard graft turn into a good bit of progress.”
The finalists will be judged by a panel of key learning and skills leaders, with the outstanding individual learner of the year winner will be announced in an online ceremony in July.
Stockport College assistant principal Joan Scott, said: “Nikki-Ann is a shining example of the key elements of drive, resilience and determination in education. She has bravely tackled extraordinary challenges in her personal life to embrace each aspect of her learning to the full, which has resulted in a well-deserved and outstanding outcome.
“We are proud to have supported Nikki on her return journey through education and wish her the very best of luck in the final judging process.”
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