Twice in her life, doctors thought Shani Fernando was likely to die of her illnesses. But having defied the odds and amazed her tutors, she was named this week as the 2010 Student of the Year.
Born in Sri Lanka with a heart defect, Shani was given only four years to live. Her mother sold their possessions to fund a trip to the UK for treatment, but after starting to respond well her medication caused a lung disorder at the age of nine. Years later, at age 18, she contracted pneumonia and was given a 30 per cent chance of survival.
Despite long periods of ill-health, which left her feeling depressed and fearful that she would have to leave college, the 20-year-old is well on track for a distinction in her BTEC National in electronic engineering at South Thames College and hopes to study aeronautical design at university.
With tutors describing her work as exemplary, they nominated her for the Association of Colleges award, which she will receive at its annual conference on Wednesday.
Sue Rimmer, South Thames principal, said: "She has achieved outstanding grades in the face of adversity and has succeeded in all that she has done despite battling illnesses. We are delighted that Shani has won this award and we are extremely proud of her achievements."
Tony Alderman, a member of the award judging panel, said: "These entries help tell the story about what is so special about our colleges: the perseverance and triumph of students over the odds, and the dedication of staff.
"There were tales of students overcoming the onset of blindness, surviving life-threatening illness and fleeing brutal regimes in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan to succeed in their studies - and these aren't even the winners!
"These students sum up why people like me are proud to be governors of colleges and to be involved in college life. They are just incredible, inspirational stories."
Shani received a pound;1,000 prize, while the second prize of pound;650 went to Leslie Edwards, a 21-year-old at Central Sussex College, who overcame severe learning difficulties to gain a BTEC first diploma in sport, as well as being elected president of the student executive, volunteering at three secondary schools, working in a social club for deaf people and being a youth worker in a deprived area of Crawley.
Third prize of pound;350 went to Jamil Sekyanzi, 22, from Tower Hamlets College. At 17, he fled Uganda alone as a refugee, only to later suffer illnesses that required 10 operations: one of them the day before his GCSEs.
Initially unable to work because of regulations on asylum seekers, he struggled to pay for books and supplies for college.
Now with a bursary from the Helena Kennedy Foundation, he is about to start studying biomedical sciences at Queen Mary, University of London, and hopes eventually to train as a doctor.
- Original headline: Given four years to live, Shani defies odds to win Student of the Year title