Tall Dreams For A Little Person

Samantha Renke - inset is Samantha receiving her alumni award from Pro Vice-Chancellor, Alistair Burt

Samantha Renke is an award-winning actress, writer, presenter, disability activist, inclusion and equality consultant and keynote speaker. Born with the condition Osteogenesis imperfecta, more commonly known as brittle bone condition, Samantha has both embraced and celebrated this aspect of her life, while not shying away from its implications. (The obstacles a disabling world throws at her.)

After graduating from Lancaster, she initially went into teaching. It didn’t take long for her to realise, though, that she had a talent for advocacy and acting and the ability to offer a strong voice in support of under-represented groups.

As a passionate activist and ambassador, she has represented, among other causes, Scope, ADD International and Parallel Global, and she has been a guest speaker for a wide variety of organisations, including the National Education Union, Viacom, British Red Cross, Santander, and UNICEF. She writes regularly on the experience of being disabled and the impact of ableism, bullying and patronising attitudes, often through her column in Metro.

Samantha’s acting career has been diverse and successful. In 2014, she won the Susan Mullen Award for Best Actress at the Los Angeles Diversity Film Festival, and she has also starred in a series of successful adverts for 'Maltesers', which focus on the real-life experiences of disabled people. She is also a go-to celebrity guest for a wide range of popular TV and radio shows, including 'Celebrity Antiques Road Trip', 'Loose Women', 'Rip Off Britain', 'Sunday Morning Live', 'Front Row' and 'Word of Mouth'.

In July 2023 she came back to the University to receive her Outstanding Alumni Award and we took the opportunity ask a few questions about life after Lancaster University:

1. What made you choose Lancaster for your degree?

I was looking at UCLAN, Liverpool and Lancaster originally. At the time I had a rather co-dependent relationship with my mum and, although I was a bright young person, I was rather lacking in independence as we tend to infantilise disabled people and don’t always give them the tools they need when they transition from childhood to adulthood. We often use education and academia as a way to avoid growing up and living independently. I loved my college life and really wanted to continue into Higher Education, so I was keen to find a university course. I knew I wanted to study languages as I am a people person, had grown up with different cultures at home through my Mum who is German and Stepdad who is Algerian, and I knew that languages would lead me to meet even more people. However, I knew I couldn’t do the year abroad as part of a language degree course as I was due to have spinal fusion surgery during that particular study year and, whilst other universities weren’t so flexible, Lancaster was happy to make it work.

I felt that Lancaster, being a campus, was a nurturing environment and a great next step. Being thrown into the big, bad world isn’t for everyone and I have a unique situation and we all have differing needs. Lancaster felt ‘fancy’ with its Wednesday afternoon sports activities and college system. There was a grandiose feel about it, and it gave me that sense of ‘you deserve this’.

2. What is your fondest memory of your time at Lancaster?

Probably the summer school for European studies where we visited Munich for a week. It was like a small UN exercise where we had to come up with a manifesto. We were working as a team and representing the University and when I was on a plane with a group from my University, I felt an overwhelming sense of pride.

3. What was the most valuable part of your student experience?

At Lancaster I felt I was pushing the limitations of what I believed about myself. These were some of my hardest years and I often struggled with imposter syndrome. I never felt I had raw talent, so being a degree student was a real achievement for me. University acted as a father figure to force me to push myself.

4. Was there anyone who particularly inspired you whilst at university?

Nobody inspired me as such, but being around people who were academic did. At college I gained the confidence to grow my social life, but at university I was able to foster my academic life by being around like-minded people. I grew my professional confidence and was allowed to ‘be a geek’ in a way that I couldn’t be earlier in my education.

5. Do you keep in touch with other alumni since you graduated and have you been back to visit?

I don’t keep in touch with alumni as such, because we all went our own separate ways afterwards, though many are Facebook friends (and I’m always happy to reconnect.) I came back to campus several years ago to participate in a careers panel event and, given I will be moving back to Lancashire soon, I will be nearer geographically to visit more in the future.

6. Is there anything you particularly miss about student life?

I don’t miss the pressure of imposed deadlines, but I did enjoy the team building and collaborative working, learning the skills of discipline and growing a strong work ethic along the way. I do particularly miss the cafes and book shop!

7. How did your career progress?

After Lancaster University I went to St Martin’s (now University of Cumbria) and gained a teaching qualification in secondary education, and I then got a job at one of the schools in which I did a placement, where I stayed for a couple of years. My next step was to become a trustee for the Brittle Bone Society and, in 2012, I decided to move to London, despite having no specific job to go to and a small amount of savings. At first, I did some volunteering for ‘Action for Children’ as many paid jobs had very real barriers for me, but my savings were dwindling. My break came at a party for ‘creatives’ where I met my now business partner who asked if I’d done any acting. As a result we teamed up to produce an indie film called 'Little Devil' which proved incredibly successful and won some awards in LA . Through this I secured an acting agent and as they say, the rest is history! Simultaneously, the 2012 Paralympics ,which really put disability centre stage like never before, helped me create some specific opportunities to help me move forward. London was a melting pot for cultures and those with disabilities are often underestimated where the disability is obvious like mine. Speaking multiple languages indicates a level of intelligence and communication skills. In a large city where you know nobody and can feel isolated, languages are a great tool to enable you to communicate with anyone. Learning and speaking other languages transcends barriers.

8. What do you enjoy most in your work?

I enjoy meeting people through my work and I try to inspire in the right way. I love having people come up to me having read my book because I’ve spoken about taboo issues, and I’ve made a positive impact. I also love interior design and so I would really like to do something with this, so I am looking forward to moving back to Lancashire and renovating my house. I would also like to do more travelling in the future. I feel I am now able to be more selective in my choice of work projects and I want to make a real impact, particularly around women’s sexual health and also my love of animals and animal welfare.

9. What has been your greatest achievement so far in any aspect of your life?

I am really proud of writing my book ‘You Are The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread’ which was published in 2022.

10. What advice would you give to today’s students?

Life doesn’t always turn out the way you would want it to, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. You sometimes need to block out the external voices. Some external pressure can be good, but now I’ve learned to stop people pleasing and to try and live organically.

In her book, Samantha says she knew from an early age that she would make a difference on the world. In her words, “tall dreams for a little person.” She has succeeded, and continues to succeed, in teaching us the value of life and how unconquerable the human spirit can be.



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