University of York: York students pick up top accolades at Yorkshire Asian Young Achiever Awards

PhD Chemistry student Ruhee Dawood, 23, was nominated for the ‘YAYAs Achievement in School or College’ award category for mentoring in STEM subjects.

The category looked for candidates who “show others just what can be achieved by application, hard work and determination”.

Meanwhile, MA Global Literature and Culture student, Sonia Hunjan, 24, was recognised in the ‘Overcoming Life Obstacles’ award.

The category looked for candidates who ‘have overcome, or are overcoming, … factors, such as health issues, mental or physical disabilities, drug or alcohol addiction … building lives for themselves in the face of them.’

The pair won in front of a live audience of 250 invited guests at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford.

The YAYAs, which launched in 2020, celebrate young people aged 16-30 of South Asian heritage who were born, or are living or working in Yorkshire. The awards are run by QED UK, a social enterprise that seeks to improve the social and economic circumstances of disadvantaged communities in the UK and in Europe.


Of Indian origin, and born and brought up in Kenya, Ruhee was awarded a Sharifah Sofia Albukhary Scholarship to study Chemistry at the University of York. Despite all of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Ruhee graduated at the top of her year. She was also awarded the Department’s Whinfield Medal for her achievements.

Ruhee then won a further scholarship, a Chemistry Wild Fund Platinum Award, to fund her PhD at York in the Molecular Energy Materials group led by Dr Alyssa-Jennifer Avestro.

Ruhee recognises the importance of role models and in giving back to the wider community and works as a mentor in the STEMi Women Kuongoza Program, which seeks to empower women and girls across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

Well deserved

Ruhee said: “I’m really pleased that the achievements of the South Asian Community in Yorkshire are being recognised so I want to say a big thank you to QED and all the sponsors for a wonderful evening at the YAYAs Award Ceremony and Dinner. Also a big congratulations to all the nominees and winners of the night!”

She added: “It can be very hard to consistently perform at your highest level without having a role model who understands your circumstances and helps you overcome the barriers you are faced with to be successful.

“I was very lucky to find a role model during my undergraduate degree to inspire the best out of me and to support me through my PhD and scholarship applications. Now I hope to return the favour and I have taken up active mentorship roles to encourage and support international students from ethnic minority groups to pursue studies in STEM subjects by helping them lower barriers for themselves.”

Dr Alyssa-Jennifer Avestro, Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow from the Department of Chemistry and Chemistry Postdoctoral Champion, said: “All of us in the Avestro Group, the Molecular Materials Research Grouping in Chemistry, and our Department colleagues are ecstatic of Ruhee’s success as the 2021 Yorkshire Asian Young Achiever in the School/College category. It has been a pleasure and honor of my career to mentor bright rising stars like Ruhee and to witness her specific growth into a confident woman and BAME scientist in a STEMM field. She has overcome many barriers to be where she is today – though I regret to say that she may likely face additional ones in the future. This I know, being an international woman researcher of BAME background myself.”

“However, the QED Foundation and the YAYAs programme reminds us that despite these challenges, our presence in STEMM is valuable. Ruhee realises this, and I am so thrilled to know that she is adopting further leadership and mentoring roles to help drive this change for young women and minorities in the sciences. We are so proud and privileged to have Ruhee in our lives and look forward to seeing what trail she blazes in the years to come. Her recognition is so well deserved.”


Of Indian Sikh heritage, Sonia was born and brought up in Leeds. She was a recipient of free school meals while growing up, and had caring responsibilities from a young age.

She developed disordered eating patterns in her teens, which peaked during her time studying at Leeds Beckett University. Nonetheless, she was awarded a very high 2.1 for her degree in English Literature.

In 2018, Sonia started studying at York part-time for the MA in Global Literature and Culture, while supporting herself financially with work in retail and social care, and she gained an NVQ Level 2 in Social Care, alongside studying for her MA.


During her master’s, Sonia was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye condition, which has led to her being certified as severely sight impaired (legally blind). This rare genetic disorder affects night and peripheral vision, and is currently incurable.

Despite this life-changing news and the challenges posed by the pandemic, Sonia was recently awarded the highest grade of Distinction for her MA in Global Literature and Culture.

She is also a very accomplished creative writer, with three of her poems recently shortlisted in a writing competition by Hive Young Writers.


Sonia said: “Creative writing became a wonderful way to both process sight loss and distract from it. Receiving the YAYA award feels like a huge compliment.

“Growing up, I found it really hard to admit that I was a carer. When I was a little older and found out about my eyesight condition I decided to speak up and reach out to people I trusted for support. I hope my openness shows other young South Asians that they are deserving of help when they need it. I may not know what everyday is going to look like, but through my writing I can envisage a brighter future.”

Sonia’s supervisor, Professor Claire Chambers, from the Department of English and Related Literature said: “Sonia is an inspiration to us all. From the moment she started the MA and especially after she received her diagnosis, I was struck by the quality of Sonia’s preparations for, and input into, our challenging seminars at York.

“She has a great deal of emotional intelligence in the way in which she interacts with other students and with colleagues. Sonia also writes expressively and elegantly. And her work is being underpinned by penetrating research and a lively imagination. She is a creative writer of major talent, and will be a poet and novelist to watch for the future.”

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