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Childhood friends get PhDs

Dr Claire Hills and Dr Jacqueline Bews. PHOTO/LYNDA FERINGA



Claire Hills (nee Ayson), and Jackie Bews have been friends since the age of five.

Now aged 73, the pair meet regularly to bond over their recently acquired PhDs, and plan their next steps to take the world by storm.

Safe to say, the pair have come a long way since their primary school years in the 1950s. Claire, a long-term Chanel College teacher remembers when she first became friends with Jackie, a 5-year-old with long plaits that fell down to her waist.

They both attended Masterton Central School, went on to Wairarapa College, and both lived on Cornwall St.

“Claire was always the forceful, intelligent one – and it was like that all through college,” Jackie said. “I became the sporty achiever, not enjoying the 60s style of class teaching methods – I dreamed my way through lessons.”

Claire, on the other hand, lived with crossed eyes until she had surgery at the age of 11, so hitting and catching balls were not her forte.

“I knew bullying up close and personal, and it gave me a lifelong understanding that I take into work every day,” Claire said.

“As long as you let the bullying crush your spirit, the people who are doing the bullying have the victory.

“At some point you have to make the decision to take your life and your dignity back, and forgive the people who have been doing it to you, let go, and move on.”

But Claire’s crossed eyes were never obvious to Jackie, who stood by her as a close friend throughout school.

“Then it gets to the stage when you split from your friends because you leave school and go off on your own path,” Claire said.

“You make new friends, have new experiences, and the friendship is still there but it’s kind of long-distance.

“Then, when you marry and have children, that part of your life becomes a very strong focus, and everything else is secondary.”

It wasn’t until much later in life that the pair began to rekindle their childhood friendship. At this stage, Jackie had two children, and Claire had “excelled” with eight kids.

“We didn’t really bond our friendship again until our children were grown up and lots of things had happened in our lives,” Jackie said.

Even though the women had gone down separate paths, they both ended up at a similar academic destination, conquering PhDs late in life.

Claire had always had an interest in tertiary study and it was a major component throughout her life, completing her first degree in 1985, and continuing on to do Masters programmes, before commencing her PhD through Massey University.

Her area of expertise was analysing the relationship between communities and their schools, particularly in relation to school closures and mergers.

All of this study was done alongside her teaching position at Chanel College.

“People have interesting stereotypes about older people, and let me assure you that ageism is alive and well,” she said.

Common remarks both Claire and Jackie had experienced from people included, “What are you doing this for at your age?”, and, “We’ve got grandchildren who are trying to get into university, don’t you feel guilty you are taking their place?”.

Claire said of all the major contributions made to civilisation, 64 per cent of them were accomplished by people older than 60 years old.

“And those aged between 60 and 70 accomplished 35 per cent of the world’s greatest achievements. “Jackie and I are now in the 70th decade.

Who knows what’s going to happen, but we are enjoying the journey.”

Jackie’s story to gaining her PhD is completely different to Claire’s. She went to teacher’s college, graduating with distinction.

Liberal inspirational lecturers kindled her thirst for learning, which included teaching primary to secondary physical education, hearing impaired, and gifted education.

She was involved in developing early childhood music and movement programmes when, at the age of 66, a serendipitous moment took her to Edinburgh to begin a university career.

“A visiting professor from Edinburgh heard I was developing fundamental bilateral movement programmes through music.

“He phoned me and invited me to the University of Edinburgh for conversations which I thought was just to extend my knowledge – but I was actually offered a PhD scholarship.

“I accepted and returned to Edinburgh University for the most productive academic years I had experienced.”

Jackie said her life changed in a way that few thought could be possible.

The topic of her PhD project, “A Rhythm Concept of Musicology, Kinaesthetics & Mathematical Sciences”, has evolved into neurosciences and genetics.

She will go on to work as a Senior Fellow Researcher in the discipline of Cognitive Neuroscience and Functional Genomics at the University of Oxford.

“I had so many doubters in New Zealand, mainly because of the ‘age thing’.

“In the UK, age has not been a problem.” The pair look forward to their future studies, and encourage people of all ages to step outside their comfort zones and live to their fullest potential.

They regularly bond over curries at Curry Twist whenever Jackie is in Masterton.

Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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