Making a difference: Peter and Christina Dawson

Making a difference: Peter and Christina Dawson

  • The Dawsons in front of the Senate House

Photography by Phil Mynott

When Peter and Christina Dawson endowed the Jean Thomas PhD Award at St Catharine’s College they made a permanent and profound contribution to the lives of countless young scholars.

The prospect of further study after an undergraduate or Master’s degree can be daunting, but it’s a crucial point in an academic career and doctoral students are a key driver of research.

“The College already has some of the best undergraduate students, but then there’s a danger of those who want to go on to further study leaving because of how hard it is to find financial support, and that’s something that resonated with both of us,” says Peter.

This will help attract and keep the best students, who will have an ongoing relationship with St Catharine’s.

Peter Dawson

Opening up new possibilities for postgraduate students

The Dawsons have never met Charlotte Kenealy, the first recipient of the Jean Thomas PhD Award, but they have undoubtedly altered the course of her life. After her BA in Modern European History at St Catharine’s, Charlotte knew she wanted to take her studies further — she had the drive and the ability — but couldn’t afford to pursue a PhD.

She says: “The Award is just incredible — it takes care of everything. I’m not from a wealthy background and without it there is just no way I could have done a PhD. This means I can continue doing what I love to do in the place I love. I really can’t thank the Dawsons enough, it’s difficult to articulate how much this means to me.”

Charlotte is in the first year of her PhD, but is already thinking about pursuing a career in academia, which would have been impossible without a doctorate.

A lasting tribute

The gift also provides a lasting tribute to the College’s current Master. “We both felt that Jean Thomas has been a superlative Master and this was a great opportunity to recognise her,” says Peter.

Having matriculated at St Catharine’s in 1974, he and Christina both have very fond memories of his time as a student. “I think there’s an element of giving back. Peter had a great experience at Cambridge and I loved visiting him, so there is a feeling of wanting to make that experience available to others,” says Christina.

The Dawsons have lived in the USA for many years, and Christina explains they endorse the American attitude in which it would be thought more unusual if someone doesn’t support their old college, and their primary concern is to enhance as many aspects of students’ lives as possible. Their gifts span a wide range of College activities: as well as the PhD award, they have endowed a College teaching post, established a fully-funded student counselling fund, and made substantial contributions to both the College’s new McGrath Centre and the renovation of the College boathouse. “I think for us it’s about how you can make a difference,” says Christina, “How you can help people get on in life.”

For us it's about how you can make a difference.

Christina Dawson

Founding benefactors of the Foundation Year

Thanks to a cornerstone £5 million gift by Christina and Peter Dawson, the University launched its Foundation Year — a new initiative that will ‘transform lives’ with a new route to undergraduate study for talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage, free of charge.

The one-year course — aimed at an entirely new stream of applicants who have the ability to succeed at Cambridge, but have been prevented from reaching their full potential by their circumstances — will prepare students for further learning and offer them the chance to progress straight to an undergraduate degree at Cambridge. 

As founding benefactors, the Dawson's generous gift funded the launch of the programme and a full one-year scholarship for all students who are accepted.

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I was absolutely delighted when I first heard that Cambridge was launching a Foundation Year, and am so pleased that it has not been held back by global events. Indeed, the need for this Foundation Year has become ever clearer as the pandemic has exacerbated inequities and disadvantages. Peter and I are firmly committed to doing whatever we can to support Cambridge in addressing educational disadvantage in wider society, and are thrilled to have enabled the launch of such a ground-breaking and impactful programme.

Christina Dawson


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