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Graduation stories - First Class Honours despite dyslexia

10 August 2015

Food student Madison House graduated from Abertay in July with a First Class Honours degree, despite having gone through school and more than half of university with undiagnosed dyslexia and dyscalculia.

She received the Lothian Family Award for all her hard work and for demonstrating the greatest positive impact within her School – and now has her dream job eating chocolate for a living.

Here, she tells us about her experience.

Small is beautiful

“I wanted to go to a smaller university like Abertay because I felt I would get more one-to-one time with my lecturers and the staff. This proved to be the case, and it definitely enhanced the quality of my learning. I didn’t feel like a ‘number’ in a classroom but a person in the eyes of my lecturers.

“I went through a really hard time in my third year, because I had gone through school, sixth form and almost all of university with undiagnosed dyslexia and dyscalculia.

“If it wasn’t for my lecturers and the staff at Abertay providing me with the support, I wouldn’t have been able to get diagnosed, pick myself up, keep going and achieve a First Class Honours degree.

“Having the tools and resources to learn your subject is one thing, but the support and inspiration Abertay offers is a major bonus.”

Venison steak in red wine sauce

“I chose my course because I live, breathe, think, dream and of course eat food!

“However, although I knew I wanted to work within the food industry, I wasn’t sure what area I would be the most interested in and the Abertay course offered a lot of diversity, which was great. The modules covered many different aspects such as nutrition, technical, business and marketing, which helped keep my options open and gave me many opportunities after graduation.

“I also got to cook and eat food! I remember during my first year – whilst my flatmates tucked into their pot noodles – I was eating venison steak in red wine sauce.”

Cake creations

“As part of my course, I was given a wonderful opportunity to go on a placement that lasted a whole semester in south Wales. This was in a bakery where I pretty much ate cake everyday day!

“The company was a huge enterprise, employing hundreds of people and producing chilled desserts, celebration cakes, wedding cakes and cake bars.

“I was a student intern so I wasn’t given a specific job. However, I was working within the technical department where they do new product design and development, quality and process control, and food safety. The quality and food safety aspect was what I enjoyed the most, and that’s what I now do in my current job, which basically involves eating chocolate every day! What a hard life…”


“I still can’t believe I have two learning disabilities to be honest! Nobody picked up on it in primary school because I have developmental dyscalculia and dyslexia, which means it worsened as I got older. So although I was average at both English and maths during primary school – which is where teachers closely monitor children for any learning disabilities – it was only when I reached the second year of high school that I began to do very badly in my maths.

“I think the reason it didn’t get picked up on was because I was so badly behaved in maths due to frustration that I ended up refusing to do my work. I failed my GCSE maths five times and I only managed to just pass it the sixth time. As for English, I was never great with spelling but with the help of a dictionary, I just worked hard and managed to get a C overall for my A levels. If I was given the support and diagnosis during high school, my grades would have been so much higher.”

Feeling stressed

“Because I am passionate about food science – it is my favourite subject and I’ve been studying it since I was nine years old – when I started university, I was determined to do well. I passed my first year and got a distinction in my second year because I worked my socks off.

“My dyslexia requires me to write everything down and to rewrite my notes so I accumulated a lot of extra work and it really wasn’t easy! I experienced a lot of stress and frustration but I was so convinced that I wasn’t good enough and that I just needed to work harder, so I did.

“However as I entered my third year, I began doing modules that involved being in a lab where numbers were the main domain. I still lack confidence in numbers and I was so embarrassed and frustrated that I couldn’t understand the formulae to work out measurements.

“I almost cried in one of my lectures because everybody else seemed to understand the work but me. I felt so embarrassed, so from then on I stopped asking questions. I don’t think anybody noticed I was struggling because I was so convinced I wasn’t good enough that I just tried to hold in my feelings rather than to ask for help.”

Getting diagnosed

“Because I had to write everything down, my workload was getting far too much for me to keep up and I ended up in a situation where I wanted to give up. However, since meeting him in first year, I’d got to know Jim Kelly at Student Services really well, and he’s one of the Student Academic Support Advisors, so I went and spoke to him.

“I was only meaning to tell him that I’d been feeling stressed out, but I couldn’t hold in my feelings any longer and ended up breaking down. He helped me get in contact with the appropriate people for extra help with my maths. And I managed to see a psychologist who then diagnosed me with moderate dyscalculia and dyslexia and we both couldn’t believe it!

“But after my diagnosis, everything just made sense and I realised that I was good enough to be at university! I wasn’t stupid! It’s just that I process information differently. After finally getting the right support that I needed, I was able to continue working hard without the fear, stress or frustration weighing me down. I got a distinction for my third year, an A+ for my dissertation which was 100% lab-based and a First Class Honours degree. I am so proud of myself.

Eating chocolate for a living

“My job is a dream! I work for a chocolate company in south Wales as a quality assistant, so it is my responsibility to ensure the products being produced maintain or exceed high quality standards. In a nutshell, I get to eat chocolate every day and get paid for it. Who can complain? 

“Without my time in Abertay, I couldn’t have got this job. Although my grades and modules were important, my placement was a major advantage in standing out during the application and interview process and I can only thank the structure of my course for that.”

Best bits

“In the end, the thing I liked most about my course was getting to work in the lab for my Honours project. Numbers have never been my strongest or favourite part, but once I knew I had dyscalculia and was able to get the right support, I really enjoyed it.

“My project involved carrying out research into a natural blue colourant from a flower known as the ‘butterfly-pea flower’ which is grown in South East Asia. Because of the increasing demand for natural food colourings, I wanted to find a natural blue colour to be used in the confectionery market, as this is the sector where the colour blue is used the most within the western market.

“I will miss Abertay. It feels weird to be a real adult but I would like to take the opportunity to thank all my lecturers and Student Support for helping me prepare to enter into the big wide world. If ever I get the chance to come back, I will ensure my suitcase is packed with plenty of chocolate.”

Congratulations to Madison on her degree! We wish her all the best of luck with what we are sure will be a very successful career in the food industry.

Further information about our food courses can be found on our course pages:


  • BSc (Hons) Food, Nutrition and Health
  • BSc (Hons) Food and Consumer Science


  • MProf Food and Drink Innovation (Packaging & Sustainability)
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