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Where Are You Now?

Denise McLeary

Denise McLeary in the centre with Grade 8 Social Studies class in Pereira, Colombia, just before she left.

Denise McLeary

BA (Hons) Health Studies 2007

Denise McLeary has a truly international career. The Sunderland graduate has been working as a TEFL and Social Studies teacher overseas since 2011. She has taught in China, Afghanistan and Colombia and travelled to more than 12 countries. 

Denise, from Sunderland, is currently teaching English and Social Sciences in the Chinese city of Nianjing to middle year students, after having returned recently from Colombia.

Denise studied at the University of Sunderland as a mature student. For her, university is the realisation of a long-standing dream after she had previously turned down the opportunity for higher education.

She explained: “When I reached 42 years I realised my life was a hamster wheel, going round and round and nothing changing. I had few qualifications and had done nothing of note.

“In September 2004, after yet another round of redundancies, I got off the hamster wheel and enrolled at the University of Sunderland. This is when my life changed.

“In that time I started a business, won a business award, spoke at national conferences, completed a teaching certificate, and became a TEFL teacher overseas! Oh, and got to travel the world!

“Enrolling at the University of Sunderland was the best decision I have ever made.”

During the three years of her degree, Denise developed the idea of a new social enterprise, Herbees, which resulted in her in winning the University’s Blueprint competition in 2006.

Herbees was aimed to train and employ adults with learning difficulties in the cultivation and sale of culinary herbs to the North East restaurant trade. 

Thanks to funds awarded to through the Blueprint competition and to a £1720 boost from the Futures Fund, Denise was able to kick-start her new business.

She said: “The Futures Fund was instrumental in getting Herbees to a wider audience, which in itself gave me the opportunity to gain access to the entrepreneurs and expertise I needed to make my business idea a reality.

“Unfortunately Herbees suffered from the global economic crisis in 2008 and lack of further funding affected our ability to grow the business. The business stagnated over the following two years and we ceased trading in 2010.”

Despite the business closing the Sunderland graduate will always count Herbees as one of her great achievements.

“The skills, knowledge and personal growth I gained in that time, will continue to benefit me for the rest of my life. It also gave me the confidence to try out ideas and not be afraid or ashamed of failing,” she explained.

“Before this I had no business experience yet I managed, somehow, to start a social enterprise whilst studying for my (non-business) degree and working almost full-time. Overcoming the challenges I faced through starting Herbees made me realise I am capable of doing anything should I put my mind to it.”

She continued: “After the closure of Herbees, I started a solo enterprise called Lottie’s Kitchen; offering personalised dinner parties in a range of international cuisines. Working abroad has enabled me to add to my repertoire and when I return to working in the UK permanently, Lottie’s Kitchen will have more to offer.” 

Now, Denise is relishing the opportunity to further integrate herself in Chinese culture and is getting to grips with the challenge of planning and teaching.

“It's hard work at the moment because most of my time is spent planning the programme for the next year, but my students are lovely and their parents are approving of the high standards I am setting for the programme,” she added.

“Thankfully we have two days holiday this week for the Chinese mid-autumn festival, where people here celebrate by eating moon cakes - little cakes filled with an assortment of surprise fillings.

Denise’s contract will ensure she remains there for the next year at least. But, with a range of skills, varied experience host of other opportunities available, we’re sure her star will continue to rise and rise.

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