Stella in a crowd of women clapping.

A Voice For Change

University of Reading alumna and European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, has spent her distinguished career dedicated to helping others. In recognition of this, the University recently awarded her the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science.

Stella shared her insights with CONNECTED – including her journey from Cyprus to England to study psychology at the University of Reading, to becoming a key figure in European health policy. Read on to hear her advice for new graduates and what it was like to be back on campus all these years later.

Following instinct

For Stella, who graduated in 1977, studying psychology was instinctual. Reflecting on her choice, she said: “I just knew this was the field for me. I read a lot about university courses and I zoomed in to psychology.”

Moving from Cyprus to study at Reading, however, was a very specific choice. She said: “Going to Reading was a very conscious decision – I liked the fact it wasn’t a London based university and that it had a wonderful green campus.

“I liked the structure of the course which gave me a broad skillset and insight which has solidly complemented my work over the years.

“Moving to Reading also gave me the opportunity to meet and interact with students from many different countries. This mix of cultures and experiences was a very gratifying and rewarding experience, which complemented my education in a multicultural way, and most importantly gave me strong friendships which I still have today.”

Reflecting on her time studying, Stella said: “I have very positive and precious memories of studying at the University of Reading – my time there and my course really fulfilled me.”

Breaking new ground

After graduating, Stella pursued postgraduate studies at the University of Manchester before her career took her back to Cyprus. There she played a pivotal role as a psychologist in the mental health services and broke new ground establishing the country’s first Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department.

She said: “There was no child or adolescent psychiatric department at that time in Cyprus and very few psychologists on the island. I think there were only four of us, so we covered a lot of the needs and were having to develop services as we went along. I went on a child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship delivered by the World Health Organisation, and this enabled me to set up the first Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department at the Paediatric Hospital – where I remained for many, many years.

“Starting this department was very challenging because it was breaking the silence on many topics that, at that time, people weren’t talking about – from autism to dyslexia to child physical and sexual abuse. We were the first mental health professionals to start working in these areas in Cyprus.”

After years of making changes and helping to make reforms – including breaking stigma and prejudice – within the mental health department, Stella’s career took a political turn when she was elected to parliament as the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. Here she championed legislation on children’s and women’s rights as well as patient’s rights, along with a number of other social issues during her 13-year tenure.

Stella explained: “I had a proposal from one of the largest political parties in Cyprus to run for parliament – and I knew that it was time for a change. Not because I was tired of my work – in fact, I was very privileged that I loved my job – but I knew that if I wanted to bring about change in a more structured and fundamental way then I had to take this role.”

Unprecedented challenges

In her role as the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella has faced many unprecedented challenges, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She recalled: “It was a huge challenge and not something you could ever expect to be faced with. Although it was an extremely difficult period, it gave me an opportunity to be very creative, amidst this unprecedented crisis.

“It gave me the chance to look at how we could do things more resiliently and differently in the future and how we could learn from the crisis.

“There’s no template for managing this sort of crisis. You have to deal with new issues and problems and find new solutions every single minute of the day.”

While Stella recalled the huge impact and suffering the pandemic had on the world and her agony for all those people impacted, she also remembered one particular moment shared with a neighbour.

She said: “I spent months working in Brussels and like everybody else, not able to see family, but I would clap for the carers at 8pm. There was an elderly lady, who lived in the ground floor flat across the road, who would often look to my window and also clap and it felt like we were doing it together.

“When the lockdown ended, I went to see her face-to-face. I only knew her as someone who, like me, felt we had to say thank you to those hospital workers.

“There was something very special in that shared feeling and finally being able to speak with her after all that time seeing each other from a window.”

Despite the immense pressure and challenges, Stella found fulfilment in using her voice to advocate for change and defend people’s rights – especially the right to health.

She said: “Health is about equity and human rights, and politics is about using your voice to bring about positive and far-reaching change. In that sense, I had the unique opportunity to bring about change in issues that were important to myself and other people.

“Many decades ago, I was part of the first organisation in Cyprus to raise awareness about HIV and AIDS – we were only a handful of people willing to talk about it at that time. Stigma and prejudice were high at the time and this had to change. Right from the start, my purpose has been to advocate for the rights for others. It certainly wasn’t easy but it was what I felt I had to do – it felt like it was part of my DNA.”

Returning to Whiteknights

For those aspiring to make a difference in similar fields, Stella emphasised the importance of dedication.

Stella with members of the community. She said: “I didn’t start my career path as a psychologist with the plan to go into politics, but I always knew I wanted to make people-centred changes.

“My advice is to pursue what you feel strongly about. If you do that and do it well – by which I mean you are dedicated, focused and professional – then other opportunities will follow.”

Upon receiving her honorary degree, Stella was moved not only by the ceremony but by the opportunity to reconnect with the University.

She explained: “Moving is the only word I can use. It was really special. I am very grateful and honoured that the University gave me this totally unexpected accolade. The emotion of the day and the opportunity to talk to students and the department was so overwhelming and fulfilling that I didn’t need anything else, that for me was the celebration.

“I kept thinking ‘please let today last a bit longer’.

“I was there along with so many psychology students, and as I watched them receiving their degrees, I wondered if they knew the power that is in their hands and all that you can do with the information and experience you gain from university.”

Stella’s journey from psychology graduate to European Commissioner serves as a reminder of the transformative power of education and dedication – a story that is an inspiration to all those seeking to make a positive impact on society.

If you have made a positive impact on your community, contact us today to share your story.