Kelly Cornwell-3

Wife of British aid worker imprisoned by Taliban receives ‘Most Inspirational Student’ award at her graduation

Kelly Cornwell, a newly-registered Mental Health Nurse, has faced a year like no other. 

Her husband Kevin, a humanitarian aid worker, was taken captive by the Taliban in January 2023 whilst working in Afghanistan. 

Two weeks later Kelly, 49, had to undergo emergency surgery, spending five weeks at home in Lancashire recovering from her operation. This forced her to put on hold a professional placement working on acute wards of a mental health hospital which she had to complete to be eligible to successfully complete her nursing degree. 

She then went on to fight for her husband’s release at a time that his own health was rapidly deteriorating during his imprisonment in Afghanistan. 

All of this whilst Kelly has been in her final year of a three-year BSc (Hons) Registered Nurse: Mental Health Nursing degree at the University of Cumbria, a course that she had delayed enrolling upon for years due to family commitments.  

Post-op, and with the support of her university lecturers Louise Corless, Charlotte Pearce, and Lisa Smith, Kelly focused on her dissertation whilst recovering from her surgery at home in Fleetwood. 

Once well enough, Kelly began clawing back the 170 placement hours she had missed in addition to the 500 hours of a final professional placement she had to do to complete her degree.  

During this period, Kelly’s hopes of her husband’s release were raised twice, only to be dashed before he was eventually freed just a few weeks ago, on 10 October after 272 days of arbitrary detention. 

Now, just weeks after his return to the UK, the Cornwells are able to celebrate as they begin to rebuild their lives. 

Kelly Cornwell November 2023

Kelly, pictured above, is one of the 1,100 students to have graduated from the University of Cumbria in a series of formal ceremonies held at Carlisle Cathedral.

A former teaching assistant, Kelly was also the recipient of the Jim Cox Prize, a special award for the ‘most inspirational student’ selected by academics within the university’s Institute of Health. 

Kelly Cornwell November 2023-3

Above: Vice Chancellor Professor Julie Mennell greets graduating prize winner Kelly Cornwell

Recognised for its high levels of graduate employment, the University of Cumbria is delighted that Kelly is a Mental Health Nurse, registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, and is working at The Pavilion, a substance misuse detox facility in Lancaster.  

Kelly said: 

“As well the support from family and friends, I also could not have done any of this without the support of my lecturers and the universal information and skills I’ve learned on my course that have enabled me to challenge and question what was happening to Kevin and help to fight for his release.

“When Kevin was taken, we were used to him working away but upon hearing he had been taken I think it made me even more determined to finish my course so when he came home we could focus on us, our family and move forward and focus on the future together.” 

She added: “I’d originally planned to do this degree around 10 years ago after my Access to Higher Education qualification, but family commitments at the time meant I wasn’t able to. Therefore, I think once I’d started it I was determined to finish not thinking something as extraordinary as this would happen. When it did, I think I compartmentalised everything which has allowed me to focus well."

Kelly and Kevin have seven children in total. Along with her proud husband Kevin, Kelly was joined at her graduation by their teenage son, Kelly’s two grown-up sons, and her mother. 

Kelly Cornwell

Above: Kelly Cornwell and her family during her graduation ceremony at Carlisle Cathedral

Kevin said:

“This is a moment of exceptional pride for me as I come home knowing Kelly had continued her studies despite the challenging circumstances she faced and completed her degree with honours.

“In addition, as I found out that Kelly had been nominated for the Jim Cox Award, I was overwhelmed. Many people from various walks of life approached me and spoke highly of Kelly’s efforts and dedication. Throughout the negotiations for my release, she maintained cohesion within our family. She fought tirelessly to push the boundaries of the government’s talks with the Taliban to secure my release. Kelly triumphed over adversity and never gave up.”

Lisa Smith, Principal Lecturer within the University of Cumbria Institute of the Health, said:

“As academics, this was not a difficult decision for us because we have been truly inspired by Kelly’s strength of character and resilience in the face of great personal difficulties that she has faced with her husband being detained in Afghanistan.  

“Kelly had maintained a high level of focus and dogged determination throughout, completing the course alongside competing demands on her time and emotional strength and therefore it is our pleasure and privilege to award her our institute’s Jim Cox Prize for Most Inspirational Student.” 

The University of Cumbria Institute of Health delivers a range of nursing, midwifery and allied health professional programmes across campuses in Carlisle, Barrow, Lancaster and beyond. To find out more, visit: for details of upcoming open days and similar events. 

WATCH: Kelly and Kevin Cornwell's reaction to her 'Most Inspirational Student' prize


Notes to editors

1. To discuss interview opportunities, contact the university communications team -

2. University of Cumbria graduations took place 21-23 November 2023.