By Áine Kenny
Brandon Walsh is a second year General Science student, and the current Societies Chairperson for the Students’ Union. He is running for the role of Vice President/Welfare and Equality Officer.
“Welfare Officer is a really important role, and not every student will need to go see the Welfare Officer, but those who do are some of the most vulnerable students on campus.”
“They really need someone who has the personal and professional experience of what they are going through, and someone who is there to support them and guide them in the right direction,” Brandon says.
“I’ve been through a lot of the things that a Welfare Officer would have to deal with, like people wanting to defer exams, people wanting to drop out, repeating exams, financial aid fund issues.”
“I have gone through all of that as a student myself, and I know how the system works and what people need to hear when they’re going through that.”
“I think that is a really important aspect of being Welfare Officer, someone who is there to support and point people in the right direction… because it is not always something that you can do personally, but you will be able to point them to a service they can utilise,” Brandon explains.
One of the first points on Brandon’s manifesto is around disability. “The Disability Society here in NUI Galway are really pushing for a disability open day, and I really want to help that happen and have it as a University recognised thing.”
“Open days are really stressful, they are really loud, and accessibility is hard when you have a wheelchair. But if we had a disability open day, that would be great because all of those things would be taken care of.”
“For people with autism or Asperger’s, open days can be very stressful, all of the lights, sounds and crowds.”
Brandon also wants to push for a disability and accessibility audit. “I want to make sure all of the lifts are working, the stair lifts are working, the automatic doors, and try and revise the accessibility route around campus, to see if there is anything better we can do.”
“Even just going over the blue dots because they are so not visible and people don’t know what they are!” he exclaims.
Brandon also worked on social spaces a lot this year and he sat on a social space committee that was set up.
“This was trying to stop the University taking vacant spaces like the old Print That space, and claiming them as commercial spaces. We want to replicate the Hub set up, which has basically been revolutionised in the last year.”
“One thing we are working on is to stop the Hub being used for Graduation ceremonies. We arranged a walk through with Pól Ó Dochartaigh [the University’s Registrar] to show how much the Hub is used.”
“The Hub is not just a social space for students, it is a support service, even with the kitchen… there are people down there cooking entire meals for everyone in the Hub, it is so multicultural, it is just fantastic.”
“So, I really want to work on replicating that around campus.”
Brandon also wants to focus on student services if he is elected.
“Counselling in particular is something I want to focus on. It is ridiculous that students are expected to have mental health problems on a schedule, between 2pm and 4pm… like that is not a thing,” he says angrily.
“And they are so stressed, and I would really try to push for more funding, with the eventual idea being we could extend the open hours.”
Brandon also highlights that not a lot of people know how to get to 5 Distillery Road, or know how to get an appointment or use the service.
“I was thinking of doing a walkthrough about how to get there, from the courtyard outside Sult, use a Go Pro to record, and show me going up to the desk… I think it would get rid of a lot of the stress of ‘I don’t know where I am going’.”
“All of the counsellors are so lovely, most of them don’t have full time contracts as well, which is something I really want to try and work on, getting more funding for full time staff there. This would make it easier to extend the open hours.”
The Science student thinks that the biggest welfare issue facing students today is a mix between the accommodation crisis and financial support.
“Those are the two main things coming to a head this year. Like with the accommodation crisis, I think that it is tipping the scales and it might be the biggest one… we have been trying to get the government to introduce rent caps for purpose-built student accommodation.”
“It is crazy, it is ridiculous… we need more appropriately priced accommodation for students,” he says.
“I also want to work with people in digs. They have no tenancy rights whatsoever; whoever is in charge of running the digs decides that they can’t stay at weekends, and they can charge whatever they want as well.”
“I think accommodations is a major welfare issue. There are so many students living in hostels as well, something needs to be done about that.”
Brandon says there also needs to be a “massive restructuring” of the Financial Aid Fund system in NUI Galway, which hit the headlines last semester for the incorrect processing of applicants.
“The way the means testing is done needs to be changed, that is where there was an issue this year. People were means tested wrong, then they were allocated the incorrect amount of money… and it was just really stressful.”
“There were so many students who thought they would have to drop out because they couldn’t continue their college career without the fund,” Brandon reveals.
“There also needs to be more information given to students, a lot of the problems last semester could have been solved by sending out an email, or meeting up with people and trying to fix it, but there was just no communication from the University whatsoever, and I really want to change that.”
When asked how he will get the University to allocate more core funding to the counselling service, Brandon points to the success of the protest in semester one. “If the University was able to get that €5000 in a day, after having a few students in the Quad, they definitely have this money and they need to allocate it to the counselling service.”
“Also, counselling plays a huge part in student retention. I just don’t understand why the University isn’t allocating more money to it. There are skyrocketing mental health problems and they are just ignoring it essentially. ”
“There are not giving the students what they need. Something I have seen in many meetings…” Here, Brandon pauses for a moment.
“I have heard members of staff refer to students as ‘streams of revenue’. That is when I decided to run for Welfare, this is ridiculous!” he exclaims.
“Some of the staff are amazing and they really care about students, but some of them just don’t understand, they have lost the whole meaning… like they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the students, you’re here for us.”
SIN also asked about the Student Health Unit, and whether Brandon would try to roll back the introduction of a fee to get a prescription for the pill, or introduce an appointment system.
“Definitely it is something I would look into to. I didn’t know about that charge [for the pill] until now. It is really crazy that you can go in and get other prescriptions and you don’t have to pay, but you have to pay for the pill. It doesn’t really make sense, so I would definitely try and fix that.”
“I could try to do a review of the Health Unit and see if an appointment system would help, it could work but we would have to talk to the staff in there about that. They are also underfunded as well.”
Brandon also points out that part of the student levy goes towards our health unit, unlike most other colleges in Ireland. “Other universities fund their health unit, so why not ours?”
The role of Welfare Officer was changed by referendum last year to encompass Equality. But is this necessary given that the Students’ Union also has a Gender and LGBT+ Rights Officer, an Ethnic Minorities Officer and a Disability Rights Officer?
Brandon thinks so. “When we didn’t have Equality in the role, the Welfare Officer was still doing a lot of work on Equality. There is a duality to Welfare now which I really like.”
“You have the Welfare side where you are helping vulnerable students on the ground, whereas with the Equality side it is more like activism, and event-orientated.”
“Even though we have the part-time officers now, it is still important to have a full time role with equality in its title. Because sometimes a lot of the part-timers feel like they are not taken seriously on committees as much, or don’t have the time or reach.”
“Whereas a full time officer does have those things, so I think Equality is important in this role.”