Captain Harpreet Chandi's commendation video transcript

Captain Harpreet Chandi MBE

PROFESSOR WARREN MANNING: Now we come to our Honorary Award. These are awarded by the University in recognition of somebody who has made a significant contribution in their particular field. I have great pleasure in inviting Professor Keith McLay, Provost Learning and Teaching, to give the commendation for the conferment of the honorary degree of Master of the University to Captain Harpreet Chandi.

PROFESSOR KEITH MCLAY: Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, Honoured guests, Mayor of Derby, Graduands of 2022 and all our guests here today. It gives me great pleasure to be presenting Captain Harpreet Chandi MBE for the award of Honorary Master of the University. 

Harpreet is a British Army Officer and Physiotherapist from Derby. She recently made history by becoming the first woman of Indian origin to complete a solo, unsupported expedition to the South Pole. The trek took 40 days covering 700 miles across the Antarctic wilderness.

Harpreet grew up in Derby and undertook her Access Course here at the University in 2009, using the qualifications in lieu of A Levels to secure a place on a Physiotherapist Course at St George’s University in London. In October 2021, Harpreet gained a distinction in her master’s degree in Sports and Exercise Medicine at Queen Mary’s University of London and is currently stationed at RAF Halton. She was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2022 with an MBE. 

Harpreet joined the Territorial Army in 2008 and then the British Army when she was 27. She was promoted to captain in 2016 aged 28. Prior to her expedition, Harpreet completed large scale exercises and deployments in Nepal, Kenya and most recently a 6-month UN peacekeeping tour to South Sudan. Whilst in South Sudan, in addition to her duties as task-force Physiotherapist, she organised a 30-hour endurance event to raise money for charity. The full 30 hours were completed with UK soldiers joining Harpreet between 1 and 12 hours. In addition to South Sudan she has organised hiking and climbing trips to Kenya, Morocco, Mexico, the Alps, Bolivia, Peru, Iceland, and Nepal to name but a few. 

I'm not sure about you but I'm positively exhausted reading that list and it might have been more straightforward simply to name those countries in which Harpreet has not hiked or climbed. 

Harpreet is an avid user of social media, documenting her training and tricks through blogs; and she even used this media form to ask those closest to her to be her bridesmaids at her upcoming wedding to fiancé David. When she reached the South Pole earlier this year, Harpreet posted ‘I was told ‘no’ on so many occasions, called stubborn or rebellious because I wanted to do things that were out of the norm and push my boundaries. I want to encourage others to push their boundaries, it is amazing how much your world opens up when you start to do so. No boundary, no barrier is too small, and I want to continue to smash that glass ceiling.' Harpreet is clear on her ambition to inspire future generations in achieving whatever they desire and pushing boundaries. 

Harpreet is joined today by her fiancé, David; two brothers Pard and Jag; mum, Jas; sister-in-law, Sonia; niece, Simran; and nephew, Arjun.

Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding achievements in endurance performance and her determination to inspire future generations, we are delighted to award Captain Harpreet Chandi MBE the award of Honorary Master of the University.

CAPTAIN HARPREET CHANDI MBE: Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, Honoured guests, Mayor of Derby, Graduands of 2022 and all of our guests here today. As you've heard I completed my Access Course at University of Derby over 10 years ago (I know I don't look that old), and I'm absolutely honoured to come back today.  

I never thought of myself as very academic when I was younger, I did not leave school with many GCSEs and had no A Levels. And I remember being told that I didn't have the experience and was not smart enough to get into university. I graduated as a Physiotherapist in 2012 and this remains one of my greatest achievements. As many others here, I was the first person in my family to graduate from university and I feel so privileged to be able to share this special day with you today.  

I believe the more we do, the more we are capable of. I realised when I was at university that I like long distance events, and these events started to grow in size. For a while I knew I wanted to do something big that would not only push my boundaries but also something that would hopefully inspire others to push their boundaries. I did not know anything about Antarctica when I decided to go, but that was part of the appeal. How amazing to go and do something that I didn't know much about. I did not grow up reading about polar explorers or know their stories. I didn't really know where to start, so as a modern-day explorer, I started on Google.  

I typed in 'polar explorer' on Google and certainly didn't see anybody that looked like me. I didn't think I would be able to grow a beard like theirs. People often asked me if I was inspired by the polar explorer Shackleton. Now, I didn't really know anything about him, but that fact embarrassed me, so I would just nod and say 'Yes, I was'. I even wrote on my website 'inspired by Shackleton, Amundsen and Scott', an additional two explorers that I also found on my Google search. I felt I needed to fit this certain image. I then questioned this, 'Why am I trying to fit in this image?' I then went back and changed what I'd written. I didn't know these explorers. I wrote I was inspired by wanting to do something different, something that I didn't know much about, to show that it's okay to come from a different start point or background than those before us.  

Has anybody ever told you that you cannot achieve something? Have you ever told yourself that you cannot achieve something? I certainly have been in those positions when I decided to go to Antarctica. I was told that I don't look like a polar explorer by many people. It made me think about those boundaries. If somebody says something enough times, do you start to believe it? What does a polar explorer look like? What does an engineer, a pilot, or a teacher look like? Surely, they can look like any of us. I was told it's not the right time. I've realized that it's very rare that you will find the exact right time to do anything. And finally, that I did not have enough experience. This might be something that you have heard or it may be something that you hear in the future. These people were correct. I did not have enough experience, but I don't see that as a negative thing. After all, we all start somewhere.  

I cannot tell you how many times I have failed at something or have just had something rejected. I failed my driving test a few times, but we all know this just makes me a better driver, right? I had my first application to Antarctica rejected. I wanted to be the first female ever to do a solo unsupported crossing of the continent, which was over a thousand miles. My application was rejected because I didn't have enough experience. And it's not great when you receive a rejection at anything. And I remember I sat there with my tub of ice cream thinking 'What can I do next?'. 

So, I created phase one. And this is what I completed this year, and I aim to go back at the end of this year to complete the solo crossing. The reason I wanted to go to Antarctica was to show that it doesn't matter what you look like, it does not matter where you are from, what your background is, you can go and achieve anything you want.  

The 40 days alone on the ice weren't easy. I had some tough days. The wind was relentless at times. It was this fierce headwind that I couldn't hide from, and there were these wind-shaped ridges that were huge and some sections where I just kept falling over, just over and over again. I would get so frustrated and I remember even screaming and I didn't even hear it as it would disappear in the noise of the wind. In these moments, which was some of the toughest situations I've ever been in, I put my left foot forward and then my right, I would continue to concentrate on putting one step in front of the other. I even had Dory from Finding Nemo in my head saying just keep going, instead of just keep swimming. And at the end of that tough day I'd remind myself that no matter how tough that day was, I got through it. I did that. 

We have all been through tough days. You have lived through a global pandemic and had to study alongside that. How often do you remind yourself that you got through that? There may have been days that you thought it was too difficult, but you are sat here today, no matter how tough it got, you got through it. Take a minute to take that in. It's no easy feat.

On my tough days I would also think about why I was there. Didn't anybody think about that when they had coursework deadlines or exams approaching? I would turn and look at my sled behind me, which contained all of my kits and equipment and it had the name of my ten-year-old niece, who is here today, Simran. I had Simran with me, I would also look at my skis and I had named them after my nephew.

This was a solo expedition, but it was always about more than me. I had messages written on all of my food bags, they were messages from my website or social media, from people that I hadn't met before, because i wanted to bring as many people as possible on this journey with me.  

People often ask me how I felt when I got to the South Pole, and I remember thinking to myself 'I'm so glad that I didn't listen to the people that told me ‘no’. And I'm glad that I believed in myself.’ Now when people tell me that I can't do something, and they still do, I think to myself 'How do you know what I'm capable of when I'm still learning?' How do you know how much you're capable of? I came from a background where I wasn't encouraged to push my boundaries and was often labelled the rebel when I did so. People will often question when you do things out of the norm. A lot of people didn't understand what I was trying to achieve, a lot of people from my local community thought I was going to Southall and not the South Pole. But hopefully they know that I went a bit further now. 

I'm often asked 'Why can't you be normal, Preet? Why can't you do the normal thing what is expected of you?' But we create our own normal and that can be whatever we want it to be, and that normal can change and grow. My future and your future is yet to be written and you can achieve anything you want with that future. It has been absolutely incredible to sit here and watch you achieve what you all have and I wish you all of the luck in the future, whatever that entails. 

Thank you so much!

Captain Harpreet Chandi's commendation video

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