SIN talks to the three candidates running for the position of Education Officer in the upcoming Students’ Union elections.
By Mark Lynch
Emma Sweeney was the last candidate across all 3 full-time positions to submit her nomination, but she admits the role of Education Officer was one she had considered for a while, “I was thinking about it for a while and a few people said to me that I’d be good for the position so I said, let’s have a serious think about it”.
Working as the graduate intern at CÉIM, Emma says she has been heavily involved in helping students this year, “I’ve seen a lot of areas where teaching and learning could be improved and ways that student engagement could be improved, especially for younger students and any students who are struggling. We’ve seen it a lot through CÉIM. We’ve seen the pitfalls and we’ve seen where we can help them and I’d like to be another voice to be able to help them and liaise between staff and students”. She also explains how her work in CÉIM has given her many transferrable skills to help her as Education Officer, “I’ve learned how to approach academics more and I’m open to hearing a lot of students’ opinions this year. I think I can really help to improve their experience overall and being so heavily involved in the education side of it has given me a real idea of what students need and what experience they’re looking for”.
Emma adds that her own experience of third-level education would be helpful in understanding people’s struggles, “I think that (my) experience of education, going straight through from Leaving Cert to college, and the transition was a little bit tougher as well because I was younger and just the struggles that you deal with. I went on Erasmus as well – it wasn’t so much a struggle but it’s another experience that needs support and students need to know where to look for the support, so I’d like to be another place for that and where students can feel safe, where they can find the support and the options they have, because I know I’ve experienced it myself, as every other student has experienced it. So, student engagement is really what I’d like to see happen more and that’s really why I’m running, to improve the student experience”.
Emma outlines how she believes strongly in education and giving people every opportunity to get through the education system. “I’m not from the best area in Galway, so I’ve seen a lot of people not pass through the education system. For me, it’s important to give every student every opportunity they can have to pass through that education system and not get stuck in a rut and have to drop out for whatever reason. I also think being involved in the education side, meeting a lot of academics this year, working with a lot of academics and just working with a lot of students in general, I think that’s given me a lot of experience, and also, I’m still always trying to learn”. She continued, “education is so important and a lot of students can’t get through it because they don’t know who to turn to, they don’t know where to go, they don’t know what resources they have available to them and there is a wealth of resources available on campus that is there for them – they just don’t know about it”.
Emma feels she has the right tools to work with staff and management within the University in order to represent students and make changes. “This year, I’ve met with people in the SU itself and I’ve spoken to them about how to get things done. I think it’s important to know the right people and know the right paths to go down so you’re not overwhelming yourself. I think it’s important to know where to start and be logical about it so you start small and build up, as you don’t want to create a bigger problem from not knowing where to go. I’ve learned a lot of problem-solving skills over the last year, so to be able to start small and know the right pathways, talk to the right people, make those connections with the right people straight off the bat”.
Despite having never been involved in the Students’ Union before, Emma feels her dealings with officers this year means she’s not coming from an entirely outside point of view. “I feel like I am somewhere in the middle. Last year, it wouldn’t have even dawned on me to run for a position like this. I was just a regular student, wasn’t involved with the SU. I knew it existed and had really good friends who were on the SU, but I feel like now I’ve worked with a lot of them for the last year and I see the really good work they can do. I feel like because I was that student in first and second year, where I had no idea what was going on in the college, I feel like having no background in it, in a way, is beneficial as well, because I’m learning and I’m trying to help people come along. I’ll have a fresh view of what it will be like. I know I haven’t the experience a lot of people have but I think I can bring a fresh perspective to it”.
Emma also runs a martial arts club in her spare time, while she has been heavily involved in CÉIM throughout her whole university life. According to her, this will help her work in the large Executive Committee efficiently. “I am really used to working with all sorts of different people, knowing people’s strengths and weaknesses and knowing where they have to improve. I feel like I can see straight away where the problems lie, how to move things along a bit quicker and making sure that everyone feels important and heard is always super important”. She added how her other responsibilities would also help her in a leadership capacity, “I’ve had the experience of having to work through college, so I don’t just do college, I also work. So I think trying to balance those things is really important and I feel like I’ve been in a lot of leadership positions. With CÉIM, I was a leader for 3 years. With running a club, I’m a leader there every week, so I feel like being in a leadership position is something that I’m comfortable with and something I’m used to and I’m quite used to speaking on behalf of minorities. I can really help with student engagement and student experience, and also just being a leader”.
As a final message to voters on the fence, Emma says: “I want to show that I’m a driven and committed candidate and I will work for whoever, because I’ve always balanced work and college and I feel like I am driven in my other aspects of life. I’m quite highly motivated and I feel like I understand the problems and the flaws with certain aspects of the University and certain things that can be improved, and I think my experience over the last couple of years has been really important.
By Mark Lynch
Kenny Cooke is running for the position of Education Officer in order to help students and use his experience to improve things for students on the NUI Galway campus. He sums up why he put himself forward for the position, “I just wanted an opportunity to make things better for students around here”.
He says his personality would make him an Education Officer who can listen to students and fight for them when needs be. “First of all, I’m friendly and approachable. It’s all well having someone who can do it (the job), but if nobody’s going to go up and talk to them, they’re not going to get much done. I’m quite good with people, I think, but also, I’m not afraid to say what I’m thinking. If I see something that I think isn’t right, I’m not afraid to say ‘right, well, actually, I’ve a problem with this, what can we do to sort it here?’”.
On the kinds of issues he intends to rectify for students, Kenny says that Irish language students are a priority for him, as they’re currently being ignored. He also points out that a re-shaping of the Executive Committee, due to the merging of the Colleges of Engineering and Science, is an urgent issue that needs solving. “The Convenor of Science and Engineering in these elections coming up is going to be one position rather than two, and that is an awful lot of work. Just being the Convenor of Science this year, it’s quite stressful, more so than I thought it was going to be. There’s no overlap socially or academically (between the two colleges). It’s too wide a margin, so in the next week or two, I’m going to be working with Cameron and Sachi (Sinha, outgoing Convenor for Engineering) because the three of us have to just sit down and figure out what’s going to happen”.
Kenny also highlights the distinct lack of water coolers around campus, and outlines how he’d like to see what the University’s plan of action is after Brexit. “I’d like to work with the University and see, for students from the 6 counties, after Brexit, what sort of supports are they going to be afforded? Nationally, you know, that’s one issue, but what’s the university going to do to support students, are they going to charge them the domestic Irish fees, EU fees, non-EU fees, what’s the story?” He says that he also wants to reform exam timetables, with final years getting priority.
From Kenny’s own experience, wherein he was narrowly over the margin to receive the SUSI grant, he understands the financial struggles that affect students, and the barriers to education that they create. “I think access to education is a big barrier. There are other countries which we have a higher GDP than, which we’re per person wealthier than, and they have a higher access to education. I don’t see how it makes sense if we want to be this modern progressive society, when we can’t send every person who wants to go to university, to university. There’s a disconnect and it’s the same with accommodation. You’re effectively recreating a two-stream class system which we’ve been emerging from the last 100 years. Education is slowly going that way because of all these extra costs, so, on paper, yeah, we have free third level education. Realistically, there are a lot of barriers for people to get into university”.
Kenny then explained what he could do for students to tackle these barriers. “As Education Officer, you’re a voice for the students. You can go and lobby to the University and I’m not sure what, directly, the Union can do. We don’t have the funding or the resources to start doing that, but we could ask the University for bursaries. I was at that meeting last week in the library, where Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, the University President, said they might be able to find bursaries for accommodation. If we could encourage more of that, if the system isn’t going to change, we could at least encourage the University to be more accommodating for students who do come up against financial difficulties, because it’s a real issue”.
As someone who has been involved in the Students’ Union for a few years now, Kenny is keen to reject the notion of a ‘they’ who are involved in the SU, and the rest of the students who aren’t. “I’ve been involved since second year, I’m in my fourth year now and I see how it works, I see how the system works. I’m close enough to know the procedure for certain things but there are a lot of things I can see I’d like to change about the way it operates. I don’t think I’m too close to see changes that need to be made. I’d like to try heighten student engagement. I’d like to encourage more people. I hear all the time ‘Kenny, you’re in the SU’. Well, actually, we’re all in the Students’ Union, it’s just that I’m taking this involved role in it. I’d like to encourage people to not see it as ‘there’s these people over here and they’re in the SU and they can sometimes do things, but we can’t’, when the whole point of the Students’ Union is empowerment. I’d like to encourage people to not think ‘you’re in the SU’, but ‘we’re in the SU’. We can do something, we just need to get together and see what we can do”.
Kenny feels he has experience to help him assimilate into this role. “I have experience from when I was growing up. I was in the scouts and you learn leadership as you progress up along it. I’m on a management team back home for a unit of Order of Malta, Birr-Roscrea, so that’s a leadership role where you’re involved in the decision-making process. Being on the Exec as well, that’s leadership itself. As the Convenor of Science, you are effectively in a similar role, as the SU Education Officer is to the Convenor what the Convenor is to the Class Reps. I’m on the committee of Rover Soc as well, I’ve been in positions where I’ve been the decision-maker and I’ve been able to motivate people to keep going”.
Kenny has this to say to voters on the fence: “I just feel like I’m the right candidate for the job. I have the drive, I know how the SU works. I don’t see it as a disadvantage being close to how it has worked. I see it as I know the procedures and how to go about things and get things done in the Students’ Union. I’m approachable. I have a lot of ideas which I would say are good and would be good moving forward and I feel like I’d be the right voice for the students of NUI Galway”.
By Mark Lynch
Scott Green is running for the position of Students’ Union Education Officer, primarily, to give back to the student community. “I’ve got a lot out of the Students’ Union and I felt it was time to give something back, because I’ve quite enjoyed my time here in NUI Galway, participating in the Galway student movement and student community. I felt that, since it was in my power to give something back, that I should and I felt that this position was the best use of my abilities, the best combination of my skills and experience.
Scott is the current SU Council Chairperson, and has previously been Convenor for Science, which they say gives them a wealth of experience representing students. As well as this, they says their own experiences through university make them a suitable candidate, having gone through DARE, being a SUSI applicant and dealing with the deferral process. “I’ve gone through a lot of the channels and I’ve dealt with a lot of the problems personally and helped others through the problems that the Education Officer is expected to anyway. I’ve become quite familiar with a lot of the structures that are already here and I can apply that. I will admit that I don’t know everything. It’s up to me to reach out to students and when my information is lacking, to get that from them. The combination of experience and skills is only the beginning. It’s also up to me to reach out and fill in the gaps in my knowledge that I don’t have”.
Scott feels that the rent crisis is the most pressing issue for students right now, but focusing on access to education in general is their goal. This comes in the form of financial access, which they say is restricted by accommodation prices and fees, as well as physical, with many buildings difficult to manage for people with restricted mobility. It can also come in the form of access to information and study materials, which Scott says needs to be reformed. “I think one of the best things we can do right now is look at how we provide our education. Could we move away from heavy tomes of information and could we move to a more digital eco-friendlier approach?” They also reference Open Scholarship, which Scott goes on to explain, “It’s about moving away from licenced, published products and trying to mind open information on those same things”. They add that this ties into removing unnecessary costs to students as well.
Scott also has many ideas for the new redevelopment of the James Hardiman Library, such as social spaces, a 24-hour study space, a sensory room, and a few more group study rooms.
They are also keen to draft a student-staff partnership in order to encourage real engagement. “Basically, it’s a document that sets up both students and the University to work collaboratively to agree to, and then by certain deadlines, improve the student experience, mainly based on the student experience and engaging students more and using that information and those channels to actually improve the student experience in the way that students want, as opposed to, say, the way the University thinks it should improve”. Scott also highlights how they’d like to build more of a relationship with the Shannon College of Hotel Management.
Despite the failure of the SU Referendum this year to cut down on the number of Executive Officers, Scott believes they have the ability to work in, and lead, in a team that size. “The only time I’ve been on the exec is when there has been 19 people, because I only came on 2 years ago, so I’ve worked specifically in that environment with that many officers before. I’m vice-chair for Galway Community Pride and I was involved as their fundraising co-ordinator last year and that’s a committee of about 15 as well, and then in terms of the Writing Soc committee, that I’ve been on for, some would say too long now at this stage, that usually ends up around 10/11, so I’m no stranger to what some would deem as large committees. I’m no stranger to operating either at the top of or anywhere within those structures”.
Scott says that their experience in the Students’ Union, and the processes of getting things done, is of huge benefit, although it doesn’t mean they know everything. “I think I can get the benefit of knowing how the ‘inside track’, as it were, works, while still missing some things, because I don’t know, for example, as a postgraduate student, what the Union is or isn’t doing for me, because I’ve never had that experience. As someone who doesn’t use a mobility aid, I don’t know how accessible the majority of our events are, because I’m not involved with the majority of our events. And I can talk about my experience with the Union but there are experiences, even in terms of student life, that I will not and have not experienced. It’s not necessarily up to us to go ‘the Union does this or doesn’t do this’, it’s a case of, if students are coming to the Union saying ‘we don’t feel represented’ or ‘you’re not doing enough on X’, it’s up to the Union to address that and work on that on themselves”. They continued, “It’s up to us to bridge that gap with whatever community it is that are saying there’s not enough of this from the Union, or the Union isn’t doing enough on Y. The Union, as an organisation, has a hand in quite a lot of different aspects. We’re not solely an academic body, we’re not solely a welfare body, we’re not solely a science body. We do an awful lot. The more we do, the more we have to do well, and at the heart of the Union, we’re here for every student and we shouldn’t necessarily shun anyone if they point out flaws in our system”.
As a message to any voters who are on the fence, Scott says: “I think I’m bringing fresh ideas to the table. It occurs quite a lot that education manifestos have been accused of being the most same-y. I would be hesitant to look at any others and mine and say that they’re very similar. That’s not because I don’t want to focus on the issues that are there, but it’s just that we know a lot of the issues that are existent, we know they’re there, we know we have to work on them. It’s what you can do surplus to that, and I think I’m the only candidate that’s bringing my mix of experience, skills, and outside qualifications, as well as inside qualifications, in terms of the Union, to this role. And that’s why I think I’m the best fit. Nobody’s bringing to the table what I am”.