Lara Crooks went from St John's School for the Deaf to Harrogate College where she opted for Business and Technology Education Council qualifications rather than A-levels because she wanted a vocational career helping others with similar hearing problems.
Without the support of a teacher for the deaf, she survived the first year with the help of college students and staff. But her fortunes changed in the second year when cash from the Further Education Funding Council paid for a sign-language interpreter.
Lara emerged with three distinctions and 15 merits in her units and is now at Wolverhampton University on a joint BABSc course in human biology, sports studies and deaf studies.
Her achievements have won her the title 1994 BTEC Student of the Year, the best of 21 medal winners announced this week as The TES went to press. Awards for excellence go to a wide range of students, from college leavers to adult returners, across a wide ability range.
Many are second-chance students who found the vocational path back to study more appropriate than traditional A-level and other access courses, including a 55-year-old former agricultural worker.
Claudia, one of three BTEC gold medal winners, has also succeeded against all the odds. Severe dyslexia hampered her progress at school. Undeterred, she set her sights on a career in fashion. A two-year Youth Training course put her on the right track. She progressed rapidly at South Bristol College from a BTEC first course to a National Diploma in General Art and Design. Having gained a distinction, she went on to Cardiff Institute of Education and an HND in textile design.
From hundreds of regional entries, 21 were awarded medals at the eighth BTEC Student of the Year national finals (three gold, seven silver and 11 bronze).
Diane Garrard, BTEC marketing manager, said: "It is easy to get publicity simply by advertising or doing promotions. But these people say so much more. They are ambassadors because of the variety of backgrounds, ages and ethnic origins. They act as role models or inspiration for others."
Having overcome significant obstacles, both Lara and Claudia want to teach and attribute their successes to good teaching. Ms Garrard stressed that these awards are not given because of their disabilities. "Their achievements are terrific in their own right."
Winners are often characterised by an extraordinary range of achievements in addition to their vocational qualifications. Zahoor Ahmed won a gold for his BTEC National Diploma in electrical engineering. But he also lists sporting achievements, including representing RAF Cosford at cricket, badminton, football and boxing.
"They show how vocational education is providing a route to success that academic education isn't," Ms Garrard said.
Silver award winners were: John Arrand (North Lindsey College), Barbara Jones (West Cheshire College), Ian Mahaffy (North West Institute of FHE, Northern Ireland), Jason Morphett (Suffolk College), Robert Pattison (Hugh Baird College), Carlos Serna (West London Institute), Kate Weir (day-release, British Rail).