One of the joys of school is the chatter and laughter as students dart between lessons and activities. So when the school falls silent during a Service for Remembrance, it presents a special moment of stillness as students unite in thought and respect.

Experiences shape us and our networks enable us. In the Engagement & Development team, we exist to build real-world relationships, ensuring the Abbey student experience is strengthened through our network of former students, and connected through partnerships to the communities in which we live. Our alumnae and community network is vast, their shared lived-experiences are rich and these connections are meaningful.

For alumna Joanna Watkinson, née Locke (1999 leaver), remembrance is a deeply personal experience: she is a former RAF helicopter pilot, her husband serves in the armed forces today and her grandmother was one of the first women to receive an army commission in the 1940s.

Jo was part of an all-woman combat helicopter crew sent into action in Helmand province in Afghanistan. As part of a four-woman team, she flew missions taking troops and supplies to the frontline. Sadly, her four-year flying career with 28 Sqn based at RAF Benson was cut short when a helicopter in which she was a passenger crashed in the California desert. The only option for Jo and her colleagues to escape the wreckage was to dig their way out under the aircraft and crawl through the gap they had created. Her injuries led to medical discharge.

Jo’s story is the embodiment of courage, resilience and resourcefulness but moreover, her humility is palpable.  As the country falls silent in remembrance, she will be thinking of her family who have and are serving in the military, of friends lost too soon through combat, of those who experience unimaginable horrors whilst serving and the experiences of everyone impacted by war today: “my heart breaks for all those affected by conflict”.

I am so grateful to Jo and all our alumnae who so generously share their life experiences to enrich and empower our diverse community. We are immensely proud of our former students and how they apply themselves to the challenges of the real world, not afraid to use their voices and driven to live lives of meaning.

To finish this story, Jo has not let the physical and mental scars of her early exit from her chosen career hold her back.  She is now a human performance specialist in environments where safety is absolutely critical – aviation, maritime and healthcare to name a few – and is a mum of two. As if life wasn’t busy enough, this autumn, she started a PhD on ‘how to empower women in aviation’ looking at practical ways to increase equality of opportunity across the industry.

Marianne Clarke, Director of Engagement and Development