🚧 NSCG | Alumni Q&A with former student, Mary Sweeney
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14th September 2020

We’re really proud of our alumni and everything they have gone onto achieve since leaving NSCG. We love to keep in touch and find out what they’re up to now.

We recently chatted to Mary Sweeney, who studied A Level English Language, Media Studies and German at Stafford College and now works in the media industry.

Q: Which school did you attend?

A: I went to Chasetown High School and I left with 8 GCSEs – 6Bs, 1C and 1D.

Q: Why did you choose to study at Stafford College?

A: A friend told me that the college offered Media Studies at A Level and I then found out that the college offered English Language A Level. I knew I wanted to go into the media, and my school’s 6th form didn’t offer English Language A Level. So, I was sold! I was excited to be able to do the combination of the A Levels I wanted alongside German.

Q: What did you enjoy most about being a student here?

A: The college offered a lovely supportive atmosphere and the lecturers were great for all my classes. I studied initially from 1996-1998 for my A Levels. However, my father was ill with cancer during this time and the stress of that meant I got DEE for my results. I asked my parents if I could re-take and they agreed I could. I re-enrolled and I had some of the same lecturers, and a few new ones, but it was fine. I got BCD, and got to go to my university of choice.

I also enjoyed getting to know Stafford - I come from a small town in south Staffordshire. It was the perfect bridge I needed between high school and eventually going to university. I think it helped me mature and I was very level headed when I got to university.

Q: What course did you study at University?

A: I chose to study at the University of Essex (Colchester campus) and graduated with a BA (Hons) 2:1 in English Language and Linguistics. I adored studying at Essex and it had a very similar feeling to Stafford. There was just a great atmosphere and I actually cried when I left. I am still in touch with an old lecturer and I like to visit the campus every few years. I have fond memories just like my time at Stafford College.

Q: Who or what inspired you to get into TV and Radio?

A: I had always wanted to work in media and I love communicating with people. Initially I wanted to be a magazine journalist. I did write for my university newspaper, and magazine, but I also volunteered in student radio for three years while studying at the University of Essex. People at the radio station were really friendly, and I honestly think that’s what swung my path towards working predominantly in broadcast media. In my summer holidays, I completed work experience at four local papers back home in the Midlands, and at a radio station in north London. For my post graduate journalism diploma, I had to complete work experience at two publications. I worked at Music Week (a trade publication for the music industry) and Bizarre magazine.

Q: How did you get to where you are now in your career?

A: From 2003-2004, I completed a post graduate diploma in Periodical Journalism at the University of Westminster. I worked for 12 months at a radio station in Norwich from 2006-2007 writing daily news and features for the station's website. In 2007, I moved to London and worked for 12 years at a broadcast services company called Red Bee Media. Nine years of that was as an Audio Describer – scripting and voicing Audio Description for various national clients, including BBC, C4 and Five.

Last year, family health issues brought me back to the Midlands so I did some freelance work at BBC Radio Derby, which allowed me to dip my toe back into radio. In April, I returned to Red Bee Media and I have been working from their Salford base as a Playout Director for BBC News Arabic and BBC Persian, overseeing the playout of those two international news channels.

Q: What is your most notable achievement within the industry?

A: I was lucky enough to work with a fellow Audio Describer, to provide a total of almost seven hours of live ‘Audio Described enhanced commentary’ for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

British sports broadcasting legend, Clare Balding, name checking you before you speak live on TV isn’t something that happens to me very often. But it did happen (twice, in fact). At the time, the small, calm inner part of me clocked it, and thought ‘That’s VERY cool’, while the other 98% of me was inwardly quaking, knowing that I was seconds away from going live to the UK on Channel 4’s 4Seven.

Working on such an important project required me to be organised, to expect the unexpected and to be prepared to think on my feet. And - we aced it. We received very positive feedback both from the blind community in the UK, and Channel 4.

Q: And the most amusing moment of your career?

A: Standing in a small town in South Derbyshire last year with a giant inflatable football, getting passing Rams fans to sign it! The football was sent down to Derby County at Wembley in May 2019, to show support for their game against Aston Villa. I was with a colleague from BBC Radio Derby, who was recording vox pops with passers-by and sending them back to the studio.

Q: Have you faced any major challenges or set-backs in getting to where you want to be in your career?

A: My own mind. The more experience I get under my belt, the more I realise I’m far more competent than I give myself credit for!

Q: Do you have any advice for students who have a passion to get into the industry?

A: The industry has changed a lot since I first dreamt of going into it. Learn what you like and what you DON’T like – and sometimes that’s from doing some work experience. But don’t sell yourself short. I only did a finite amount, know your value.

Get to know yourself and work on your confidence. I see younger people in my workplaces doing work that I do now and I think I couldn’t have done that when I was their age, simply because I lacked faith in myself.

Remember the media landscape (much like any other sector), is often evolving. Being flexible is key, rarely is a job for life now. I like to mix things up anyway and try new things. Be reliable. It will be remembered, and often in this industry, you’ll pick up work through your personal reputation.

Finally, being able to innovate will make you stand out, and learn to push past your comfort zone, you never know what you might end up achieving. I never ever thought I’d end up doing any kind of voiceover work, let along commentate on national TV for seven hours, but I became open to the idea of trying new things and I’m glad that I did.

If you see yourself working in the media industry, take a look at a range of courses at Stafford College that could help you to achieve your dreams.