A star Edge Hill student who researched the controversial subject of African girl soldiers has achieved the highest overall percentage for her studies this year.

Claire O’Brien, 27, from Formby was awarded an impressive 96% for her work on the BA Hons programme in Early Childhood Studies.

“I can’t really believe it,” says Claire. “It all feels like a bit of whirlwind at the moment because there’s even talk of having my dissertation published, which is just amazing really.”

She chose to focus on the provocative topic of girl soldiers in Africa for her final year disseration after writing an essay about it earlier in the year. “The essay really inspired me to research the area further. My study looked at the paradox of girl soldiers – are they victims or perpetrators? One the one hand, they’ve fought for armies that have committed the most horrendous atrocities but then the girls are forced to sign up to the army and are recruited for sexual purposes and subjected to rape and assault from other soldiers.

“They return to their villages having to bear the terrible stigma of being perceived as ‘unclean’ and are shunned by the locals. There are several western charities that help the girls with counselling but this is at odds with the ‘African way’ – villagers refuse to talk about this and many subject the victims to cleansing rituals, which, in some countries, involves genital mutilation.”

“There are girl soldiers all over the world, but I chose the African continent as a whole, with much of my research centred on Sierra Leone.”

Claire achieved a first class hounours overall in her degree in Early Childhood Studies – a course, she says, that suited her down to the ground after professional experience gained by volunteering in a local nursery.

“I’d looked at courses in other north-west universities, but felt that Edge Hill’s offered a more holistic approach towards early childhood, by considering psychological and sociological impacts. It was very challenging – it made you question your perception of many things in life, as well as how we view children.

“My tutors were so inspiring. They opened my eyes and encouraged me to look deeper into things when providing feedback on my work. Their positivity really boosted my confidence, even if it was hard work at times!”

The road to academic success wasn’t entirely smooth for Claire. Before starting University, she had suffered from the debilitating neurological condition ME, which leaves those who suffer it exhausted to the point where they are unable go about their daily lives.

“I’d suffered from ME since I was 14, which meant I missed out on a lot of schooling, completed just a few GCSEs and didn’t go on to sixth form. My condition meant that I found it hard to read – being so low on energy made it difficult to absorb any information.

“When I started volunteering at the nursery, I managed to gain some NVQs as my health improved. I promised myself that I’d go to university when I was totally better but quickly realised that this could take a long time so just decided to go for it. I enrolled on Edge Hill’s access course, which helped me to start thinking academically again.”

Claire was using a mobility scooter to get around campus when she first started, but as her condition became more manageable, she found she no longer needed it. And as the feedback on her work improved, so did her confidence and she eventually scooped an excellence scholarship for her high marks.

“It feels like I’ve started university and been given a new lease of life. First the scholarship, then my dissertation and my first class honours – I’ve even been invited to a special VIP lunch after my graduation ceremony. It all feels so surreal!”