Sue O’Neill-Berest was brought up in Cape Town, South Africa. She has always had an interest in food, cooking and health. Originally, it was a hobby but she eventually turned her passion for food into a full-time career after moving to the UK. She studied at the prestigious Leith’s School of Food & Wine, established by the entrepreneur Prue Leith CBE, who is now the Chancellor of QMU and judge on ‘The Great British Bake Off’. Sue now works as the Food Education Manager for the Cyrenians, a Scottish based charity which helps support people who are excluded from family, home, work or community, to develop their lives.  Over the years, she has developed a love of learning and, is now juggling her work, delivering the Good Food Programme at the Cyrenians, with postgraduate study at QMU. Sue is studying the MSc Professional and Higher Education on a part-time basis. The course, which is proving to be a perfect fit with her current education role with the Cyrenians, is helping her improve her delivery of food education programmes to the charity’s service users.

Sue shares the story of her passion for food, her education and career journey and her thoughts on studying at QMU.

Tell us about your educational and career background.

My first degree was a Bachelor of Social Science (Economics) from the University of Cape Town. I have always had an interest in food; cooking and health in general, but post school, and for the majority of my 20’s, this was a hobby.

I left South Africa in my early 20’s after university and lived in London for three and a half years when I first came to the UK - two and a half years spent as a nanny and housekeeper whilst cooking for dinner parties and people’s freezers as a side income earner. In 1995/6 I went to Leith’s School of Food & Wine to do a diploma in Food & Wine, after which I took a job in a small hotel in Dunkeld. The next few years were spent working in hotels across Scotland and in retail. Whilst doing so, I completed a BSc Honours through the Open University. I particularly enjoyed the International Development course that I took, piquing an interest in me as an area that I might wish to further develop my career in. Being good friends with Oonagh O’Brien, who works in this field at QMU, I had quite a few chats/mentoring sessions with her as to how best to pursue this interest. Her advice was to think locally, rather than internationally, and to use my background and interest in food as a starting point. Her excellent advice included engaging in volunteering as a way into the career I really wanted.

I made an initial contact with Cyrenians after finding them listed on a social enterprise site. After my first stint of volunteering at a cookery class with the charity, I knew that I was in the right place in terms of my skill set and interests. I ended up volunteering for around 3 ½ years before securing a paid position as cookery tutor – thanks to a new pot of funding secured by the charity. I was thrilled to be offered the new post, which I started in November 2014. I remained in this position until March 2017 and thoroughly enjoyed developing the educational programme the Cyrenian’s run for those excluded from home, family and society. The programme teaches people how to cook healthily on a limited budget and gives them the necessary skills to do this competently and then to move closer to a more independent and settled life.

Can you tell us about your involved with QMU, your postgraduate course and the addition food project work you are conducting with our students?

Whilst in the post of cookery tutor I met Caroline Gibson, a senior nursing lecturer at QMU. In 2015, Caroline began volunteering with Cyrenians as a cookery tutor on a weekly basis. Through many hours of conversation, whilst working closely together, we identified possible areas for collaborative working. Our first area of partnership work involved me running a workshop with 1st year nursing students. This focused on public health nutrition in practice and awareness of the barriers faced by many of the students’ future patients. The feedback from the workshops, and reflection upon it, resulted in us presenting a lightening talk at the QAA Enhancement Themes conference. This then informed my application to Santander to run cooking classes for students at QMU.

It was at this time that Caroline suggested I might wish to look at the MSc Professional and Higher Education and I enrolled on the initial PgCert course in 2015, completing in 2017. I am now currently doing my 60 credits for my diploma. This academic year I have been doing a 30 credit Work Based Learning module and have used my successful Santander Universities funding application to fund the design and implementation of six weeks of cooking classes for a group of QMU first year health science students.

We have recently completed the running of these cooking classes, which the students have thoroughly enjoyed. They particularly liked the social aspect of cooking and eating together – possibly due to the significant transition that they are currently experiencing in their lives, moving from school to university. The classes have also provided a further research opportunity for two  4th year BSc Nutrition students. Together, Caroline Gibson and I are currently applying for further Santander Universities funding to run this course next academic year. We are delighted that some of the current participants have expressed an interest in returning as mentors/tutors for the next cohort.

We are both passionate about the important role food and general well-being plays in the successful transition of students from school to university. We recognise that many need help developing their skills and confidence in this area. We are also aware that some of the skills developed on the cooking course can have a positive impact on and enhance learning outcomes in students’ academic work.

Tell us more about your experience of the postgraduate course and online learning and the partnership work between the Cyrenians and QMU.

I enjoy studying, learning and reading and have always wished to pursue a master’s of some description. Financially, this was only ever going to be possible to do as a part-time course and so the MSc Professional Education offered by QMU fitted my needs perfectly, particularly the PgCert part been wholly online.

Technology has advanced since my last experience of online learning and I found it much more interactive and a better experience all round this time. I particularly enjoyed the connect sessions, especially when there was a visiting lecturer. On the whole it was a good experience and allowed for flexible learning at one’s own pace.

Gaining the PgCert part gave me the confidence and knowledge to apply for my current role of Food Education Manager.

Many opportunities have arisen as a result of me doing the course - personal opportunities as well as professional opportunities with the Cyrenians. The collaborative working agreement between QMU and the Cyrenians is an active and living document rather than merely a few nice words on a piece of paper. I have had opportunities to present at a conference; run workshops for students and now pursue my own personal interest in getting universities and students to recognise that being able to cook and eat healthily on a budget, as well as paying attention to general wellbeing, are important goals and pursuits. They are just as important as future employability. Now, as a result of the collaborative working agreement, students regularly come on placement to the Cyrenians. They have added value, to both themselves and the Cyrenians, as a result of doing so.

Having the support of both Professor Petra Wend, Principal of QMU, and Prue Leith, QMU Chancellor, has been fantastic. It has really raised the profile of what the Cyrenians do and why we do it. When both Petra and Prue recently visited the students at our QMU cooking class, it gave the students a real boost to know that those in authority were taking a real interest in their wellbeing.

I often have people remark on what a great job I have and I would agree. I love what I do, but there have been times in my early career, after graduating from my first degree, that I did not enjoy. I think it takes time to carve your niche out - to see where your skills set fits. This also evolves as you pursue new areas of learning and opportunities.

What advice would you give to others thinking about postgraduate study and career development?

Find what you really enjoy doing and then find a way to make it work and happen; don’t be afraid of going in a different direction. When thinking of embarking on postgraduate study, think realistically about the time you can devote to it and how it will help you to pursue your career goals. There is a lot of flexibility built into the MSc and so I have found it quite easy to mould it to fit my interests. However, you also need to be prepared to embrace courses that may be out your comfort zone as that is often where your greatest amount of learning takes place.

Life after graduation

I see myself still at the Cyrenians. I’d like to use my skill and knowledge to help the organisation build more successful social enterprises – ones which will generate income that allows us to work with and offer more services to a greater amount of people.



"I enjoy studying, learning and reading and have always wished to pursue a master’s of some description. Financially, this was only ever going to be possible to do as a part-time course and so the MSc Professional Education offered by QMU fitted my needs perfectly, particularly the PgCert part been wholly online. Gaining the PgCert part gave me the confidence and knowledge to apply for my current role of Food Education Manager."
Sue O’Neill-Berest


Published 2017-2018


Want to study here? Find out more about this course…

Course Information