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Alumna’s story from mature student to Queen’s Nurse and British Empire Medal


Janine McKnight-Cowan BEM, QN, BSc (Hons) Midwifery, BSc (Hons) SCPHN Nursing has had a highly successful career since graduating from the University of Wolverhampton as a mature student in 2001. Her story is one of tenacity, full of inspiration, about a woman being able to succeed in the face of adversity.

While growing up in Wednesfield, Janine would travel on the 59 bus and go past what is now the University of Wolverhampton. She would look at the doors and think that it was a world she would never know; never have access to. She was one of five children, living on a council estate. Her parents had said that they could only afford for her elder sister, who was at college, to continue her education; Janine would have to get a job after school.

Janine was devastated that she would not be able to go to university but decided to become a student nurse due to her natural ability at human biology. She had originally applied to join at 16 but had been turned down, so spent the next two years as a dental nurse before she could join at 18. She said: “That first day when I stepped into New Cross Hospital at 18 was fantastic. It was such a great opportunity to train as a nurse.

“At 35, I got to step through those doors of the University for the first time. I was married, had two kids, working as a nurse full-time and a home to look after. At first I felt out of my depth but it was my chance to get into academia.”

Janine grasped that opportunity with both hands but following her first graduation in 1996 with Dip HE Critical Care and Nursing she started to embark on her Honours degree when another hurdle came her way. While studying, she failed two modules and learnt that she had a problem with syntax and grammar. She transferred to BSc (Hons) SCPHN (Health Visiting) which she completed successfully and now writes hundreds of thousands of words in project proposals and a book she is co-authoring.

A key element of Janine’s career is Five Guide. She said: “For 20 years, I was using my hand to explain to women who had had a caesarean section that five layers of their abdomen had been cut to emphasis the amount of healing their body needed to do. Each of my fingers and thumb represented a different layer hidden below the previous.

“The Royal College of Nursing asked if there was anything, we were doing in practice which was going under the radar. I realised that my method fitted this and I wanted to share it. It didn’t have a name back then, so with friends and colleagues, we agreed on the name Five Guide and it’s grown from there.

“I submitted my entry of 200 words. There were 750 entries in total, and I was one of the five winners! I won £20,000 to develop the idea further.”

Janine has spoken on the topic around the world, including in Atlanta USA, Mexico, Venezuela, and Columbia.

She said: “My career really felt like it came together last year when I was awarded the British Empire Medal and won the RCNi award for excellence in community and general practice nursing.

“The Queen’s Nurse Award I received in 2010 especially means a lot to me because it came from a patient nomination. I hold a lot of gratitude and celebration for that. I’d say it was like an epiphany. It gave me a sense of real recognition for all of those late shifts, weekends, Christmases and New Year’s spent working and not being able to be with my family. It was great to share the celebration with my parents. It made me feel six feet tall!

“All of the accolades have changed me as a woman. The Nursing Times Nurse of the Year in 2006 award came at a time when there was a lot of adversity happening in my personal life. It made me feel capable again and empowered.”

She proudly adds: “I’ve not lost my Wolverhampton accent. I’m proud of it. When I spoke to the Queen, I didn’t hide it. I’m proud to be from Wolverhampton. It was a hard town to grow-up in and I know some people do struggle but there’s a lot to celebrate. Especially for the alumni of the University. I grew-up on a council estate and look at what I was able to achieve. Wolverhampton set me on my journey and so I have lots to be thankful for.”

Janine retired in 2018 after 40 years of working for the NHS, but she has not stopped being busy. She’s writing a book linking Five Guide with a co-author based in Queensland. It’s going to be published in Australia and so she’ll soon be travelling out there once the current situation allows. She also spent three months back on the frontline during the height of the British coronavirus pandemic.

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