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‘They gave me a new chance at life’: Moray UHI student shares journey from homelessness to college while battling PTSD

Kellie Lawtie was diagnosed while studying at Moray UHI and believes she would have dropped out without the encouragement of staff.

Kelly Lawtie wearing jacket and hat with trees behind.
Kelly Lawtie thanks Moray UHI lecturers for keeping her career dreams alive. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

“They’ve given me back my dignity and self-respect. They gave me hope and let riff raff like me have a new chance at life.”

Kellie Lawtie doesn’t hold back when asked about the impact under-threat lecturers at UHI Moray have had on her life.

Born in the US to a mother who was a prostitute and a heroin addict father, she was homeless as a young girl. She was sleeping in cars and campsites when she was just seven.

She moved to Europe eight years ago after escaping an abusive relationship and found love after meeting husband Roy when he spotted her smoking a cigar in a bar.

Tragically, he died just a month after being diagnosed with a complex lung disease in 2017, leaving Kellie to bring up their young children Xander and Ruadh, now eight and seven, alone.

Kellie Lawtie leaning against tree with Elgin Cathedral behind.
Kelly Lawtie wants to open her own restaurant showcasing the best of American cuisine. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

The keen rugby player, who plays for Moray RFC, enrolled on a professional cookery course at UHI Moray in Elgin to seek out friendship and the skills she needs to realise her dream of running her own restaurant.

A rugby injury and a family tragedy

Within months of enrolling last year she injured her knee playing rugby and her police officer cousin took her own life.

The unimaginable stress led to a “meltdown” and a diagnosis of complex PTSD, which gives her tremors, intense phantom memories of smells and flashbacks.

At a time when she considered quitting education, fearing she wouldn’t get a job with her diagnosis, she has praised the staff for sticking by her and encouraging her to continue.

And with UHI Moray facing budget cuts and the prospect of redundancies, Mrs Lawtie has shared her story to demonstrate the worth of college lecturers and tutors beyond numbers.

‘I was afraid to tell anyone’

After her complex PTSD diagnosis, Kellie feared she wouldn’t be allowed to work with sharp knives, complete her course and ultimately get a job.

At her lowest point, the Portgordon resident turned in her cooking utensils and walked out believing she wouldn’t come back.

It was only a conversation with one of her tutors that convinced her to continue, as well as making sure she got vital counselling support from UHI Moray.

Kellie, 41, said: “When I had a meltdown in the Beechtree kitchen, chef Martyn stayed calm and took it without holding a grudge.

Kellie Lawtie smiling at camera with trees behind.
Kellie Lawtie overcame her PTSD diagnosis to complete her Moray UHI course. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

“I think he knew that it wasn’t really me, that something else must be going on.

“His patience throughout the year and guidance helped me beyond cooking. It showed me that he saw something in me, that I wasn’t a useless chef like I had in my mind.

“I can tell you 100% that without him I would never have finished this course.

“When I was a nightmare with my paperwork he helped me remember to get things done because he knew how much this meant to me.

“Outside of school I was struggling with my mental health more than I had realised. These chefs gave me cooking advice and more.

“They gave me life advice, banter, protection and knowledge beyond the basic student-teacher relationship. Most of all they have given me respect and gave me back my life.”

Moray UHI staff already stretched before budget cuts

Staff at Moray UHI currently face budget cuts after colleges across Scotland had their funding reduced.

Union EIS says institutions have had a real terms 8.5% cut in funding since 2021, describing the current situation as a “crisis”.

Lecturers in Elgin went on strike in September after a pay deal that was conditional on accepting compulsory job losses was rejected.

It is feared there could be as many as 400 compulsory redundancies across the sector nationwide.

Moray UHI staff on picket line waving Unison flags and banners.
Moray UHI staff on strike in September. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

Kellie fears that huge budget cuts to Moray UHI and the sector could leave colleges unable to provide the type of support she received to continue her education.

She said: “They are already a helper chef down in the department. Any more cuts and it would absolutely devastate them.

“I don’t know how they would go about helping people like me because they’ve all been incredible.

“They’re trying so hard to build a relationship with the industry in the area too so local restaurants get the benefit from graduates.

“They weren’t able to offer the HNC course this year though because not enough people signed up for it, which is just devastating.”

‘Scotland has given me so much’

After settling in Scotland and starting a family, Kellie believes she would never have received the same opportunities if she had stayed in the US.

Her brother has debts of about $200,000, the equivalent of nearly £160,000, after studying at the New England Culinary Institute.

Learning at UHI Moray has allowed Kellie to pick up skills to help her career without putting herself into crippling debt.

And the mother-of-four, who has two grown-up children in the US, is grateful to the college and Scotland for giving her opportunities she would never have had back home.

Kelly Lawtie hugging friend while sitting on bench.
Kellie Lawtie with friend Jenni Wilson. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

She said: “Kitchens are the last real chance for people like me. Almost all of us students are from poverty backgrounds.

“I struggle with poverty but when I couldn’t clean my whites when my washing machine broke the college helped me, and when I couldn’t use my oven at home I could practise in school.

“Our upbringing doesn’t matter, our inability to learn in a traditional classroom doesn’t matter and neither does the type of learning differences because of our past struggles.

“I know without a doubt in my mind I am not the only one they have helped achieve success because to them they are just doing their job.

“Scotland has given me so much, Moray UHI has given me this opportunity because of the men in that special department.

“I mean this with all of my heart, Moray can’t afford to lose a single member of this department because they are doing more than just teaching.”