SIN speaks with the three candidates running for the position of VP Welfare and Equality officer in the upcoming Students’ Union elections.
By Mark Lynch
Ellen O’Donoghue is in third year of her undergraduate degree, where she’s studying Journalism, Gaeilge and English. She explains that she’s wanted to run for the position of Welfare and Equality Officer for a long time, but now feels that it’s the right time for her. “I’ve always wanted to run, since first year. This year, I saw everything that was happening and I have nothing against the SU, but I think that there’s kind of a disconnect there, and since I’m only 20, I think I’m in the right headspace to do it, so I just decided, why not?”
Ellen says that her biggest concern for students today is mental health, and she outlines that she’s seen first-hand that changes need to be made. “I’m big into mental health and I have a few friends with disabilities. I can see what’s wrong and I’m sick of waiting around for things to change, so I just decided I’d change it myself”. In terms of how she wants to go about making change, Ellen says she has plans to revamp the counselling services at a low cost and effort. “I want to work on the counselling services. They really annoy me and it’s a really clinical place in there, so I want to paint it, like, little steps. What I want to do is a lot of little things instead of really big, extravagant things that some people lay out, and I don’t really see the point (in doing that) because it’s really hard to get a lot of big things done in a year”.
Ellen was class rep for her first year, but aside from that, has never before been involved in the Students’ Union. This, she explains, is part of why she wanted to run this year, as people sometimes see the SU, and those involved in it, as a separate entity entirely to the rest of the students. “I’ve never been involved (with the SU). I was class rep for Journalism in first year, but I had no idea what I was doing. I went to one meeting. I would know a lot of people who are studying different things, and not that people are scared of the SU, but they’re up in the Bailey Allen and there’s a kind of stigma around them. So, I want to break that. I get along with so many people and I’m not ‘one of them’”.
Ellen has other specific ideas that she feels would help, especially first years, acclimatise to life away from home. “One of the main things I want to do is an NUIG survival pack for first years. So, the incoming first years would get a wee pack with, say, recipe ideas for cooking for one, because I still struggle with that. I’m more a meal planner, but if I knew in first year how to make enough dinners and how to budget, and budget realistically, I would have been much better off. A lot of the times, when you Google it (budgeting), it doesn’t take into account going out and drink and vodka and stuff like that, so I’d like a realistic one of those that includes how to get exercise in, or ways to exercise at home if you don’t have the confidence to go to the gym, stuff like that just to keep yourself right”.
As well as mental health, counselling, and help for first years, accommodation is another one of Ellen’s key points. “I want people to stop looking at the University like it’s a business. It’s actually registered as a charity, but they’re treating it like a business. DCU students are saying that now as well, and I want that to change. I want to show that students are not just students, like we’re not stupid, if that makes sense!” Ellen adds that she would be willing to work diplomatically with the University to achieve small steps, especially at first, to problems like these. “I think it (my method) would be small steps. I’d rather make small steps than make a big fight out of it. I’d rather go in and see what their opinion is and try compromise on it and build blocks, like, because I’m not going to miraculously save everyone €750, but if I could save people €100, I’d be happy”.
Ellen believes it’s difficult to know if all of her aims would be achievable in the one year, but that it would be important to get the small things done. “I think I won’t know until I get in there, but I think there’s a few of them that would be (achievable). It’s not hard to get somebody in, like get a nutritionist or something like that, to do up 10 different meals and you can alternate that over 2 weeks, and then (for the counselling services) it doesn’t cost much to get some cushions or blankets or paint. I was thinking of going through Facebook marketplace and stuff, because I know there’s a lot of people that give things away for free on that, and if I could just get 3 cushions, if someone was doing up their sitting room, it would make it a lot better”.
Ellen is also no stranger to working in large groups that are pushing for change. “I actually volunteered with JIGSAW and Foroige until around 2018, so I’m used to working with fairly big groups. There was a lot of us with Fóroige, it was the national panel or one of those things, and there would have been about 50/60 of us in that, and we’d be put into separate groups and then alternate each other and ideas and stuff. Then with JIGSAW, I was on the youth advisory panel, so there was about 20 of us there, so it’s something I’m used to”.
As a final message to voters who are on the fence, Ellen says: “I want to rebuild the bridge between you and the SU”.
RÓISÍN NIC LOCHLAINN
By Mark Lynch
Róisín Nic Lochlainn is running for the position of Welfare and Equality Officer because she has seen first-hand the difference they can make. “I’ve been through a lot of things that people who go to the Welfare Officer would be going through, so in first year, the main reason I said I want to do this is because Clare Austick actually helped me when she was Welfare Officer when I was in digs and I just had no rights. When you’re in digs, the landlord can throw you out whenever they want, so that’s the main reason I want to run. As well, I’ve been an activist since I was 16, so community activism, political activism. I’ve been at housing protests, and the water charges, I came up from Antrim to fight them. I want to help people, basically”.
In terms of the qualities and skills set she has that could benefit her in this role, Róisín says her own personal experience will allow her to help others who are struggling. “I think to be in activism and politics, you have to have compassion, you have to have basic empathy and, like I said, I’ve been through a lot of the things a person would go through, wanting to drop out, financial issues, not liking your course, missing home, all that, so I know how it works. I would say it’s one of the most important roles because being at college, you want to feel welcome, you don’t want to be miserable all the time”.
Róisín says the financial aspect of university is what’s affecting the most students. “My biggest thing would be affordable accommodation. With the 4% rent increases, the SU is meant to be there to represent the students and I don’t feel like the SU has done that. If you look at UCC, they’re camping out there until the rent increases have been reversed. My main thing would be lobbying the SU President and the Atalia board and TDs to get affordable accommodation”. As well as this, she would like to see students engage in the SU’s actions. “The SU’s work has to be directly associated with the students, so, let the students have their input and lobby the boards, as I said, and the President and the Bursar and have direct action, have protests, have camp outs, lobby TDs, all that kind of stuff. Create a mass movement, because I don’t think we’ve seen that done, maybe since repeal, but on housing, you don’t really see a lot done but it is an issue that is big to me”. She added, “A lot of people don’t know that it was proposed in legislation to let a third party person handle the deposits between the tenants and the landlords so that the landlords can’t keep people’s deposits, but it never actually passed, so (I will also be) lobbying for that to get passed, hopefully starting a campaign and protesting that. Also the health unit as well, I think that the fact that for some things, you have to pay fees is ridiculous. Healthcare should be free”.
Róisín is also keen to take action on issues like mental health and tenants’ right. “I’d like to give mental health training to class reps, lecturers, societies, clubs, anyone that deals with students, and suicide prevention awareness, stuff like that. I also want to look into hiring a full-time campus psychiatrist on campus, because counsellors only being there at certain times is ridiculous”. On helping student tenants, Róisín says, “I want to set up a scheme to deal with living conditions, because in some places, there’d be mould and that. I want to create a scheme where students can honestly put reviews of their accommodation without fear of being kicked out. And reduce parking fees, abolish exam repeat fees, because people can be repeating exams for any reason, like mental health, and you can’t just decide when you have a down day, it can happen any time”.
Róisín points to her own political involvement as the experience she needs to work effectively in the Executive Committee. “I’ve been chairperson of a political society for 3 years now. It wouldn’t be anything as big as that (the SU Exec), but I was the chairperson and it was mainly me organising everything, liaising with the rest of the committee. We’ve organised protests, events that would come under equality, so that kind of thing would be familiar to me. Just working as well, like, I’ve been working precarious jobs since I was 16”.
She’s never taken up any position before within the Students’ Union, although Róisín doesn’t see that as a negative thing. “I think, personally, it gives me an advantage because it’s someone from the outside going in. I’m just an ordinary student like everyone else. I go to the SU Council meetings and the Working Group for the levy to see how we can reduce that, so I have an insight into it, but I think it’s good I haven’t been on the SU. I think someone new should come in that’s not on the inside and I also think there needs to be some reform of the SU. It’s always just people already in the SU that go for positions and I think, especially for Welfare and Equality, it has to be someone that isn’t just wanting a step up the ladder and a job. I think it should be someone in it who cares about people”.
As a final message to voters who are on the fence, Róisín makes this plea: “You should vote for me because I have experience in activism. I’ve been looking to change things for 4 years now. Nothing really is happening. My main things are mental health, affordable accommodation and breaking the barriers to education, because we all know someone that’s either had to decline their offer completely, because they just simply can’t afford to live here, or drop out halfway through college and go home. I want to fight the landlords and lobby TDs to make a big change. I want to bring in better Wi-Fi as well, and more parking spaces”.
By Mark Lynch
Simeon Burke is running for the position of the Students’ Union Welfare and Equality Officer because of growing concerns he has with the way the SU is run and the representation of all students. He asserts his reasoning behind running, “To look at the bigger picture, I’m running to promote real inclusivity and diversity and hopefully get students involved in the Students’ Union and ensure that students feel included in the Students’ Union, who I know, at the moment, just don’t feel it’s there for them at all”.
Simeon outlines that he has concerns over the Students’ Union’s commitment to representing any students who he says, “don’t ascribe to a certain type of ideology”, and their commitment to inviting debate with differing opinions. “I am concerned about issues around inclusivity and diversity. When I say that, I mean real diversity, in every way because, I think at the moment what you have is a diversity in everything but opinion, to a certain extent, and that’s an issue”. He references an example of the Students’ Union posting a video, which he felt alienated students who believed same-sex marriage is wrong, as an example of the Union failing to represent all students. “This is the Students’ Union that represents me and that represents my friends and represents, apparently every student on campus, but they put up a video mocking anybody who believed that same-sex marriage is wrong. That’s just problematic. If you have a Students’ Union, no matter what your beliefs or what your personal positions are, you have to develop respect and inclusivity for all students”.
Simeon believes that he will change that by being ready to engage with any student. “(I am) somebody who has respect for all beliefs and really treasures the idea that we have a union and we have a student society on campus that respects every belief and says to every student, it doesn’t matter what your perspective is, what your belief is, what your lifestyle is, where you come from in regard to all of these different ideologies and beliefs, you feel welcomed and respected. I am somebody who is tolerant and respectful and I hope that if I was elected, I hope that’s what I would be characterised by and that’s certainly what I would aim to be characterised by – a respect for all students and an approach that says it doesn’t matter what your perspective is, what your belief is, you’re welcome, you’re respected and your voice matters because I think that’s missing at the moment”.
Simeon also highlights interactions he’s had with students who have asked him to abolish the Students’ Union, as well as the poor turnout in recent by-elections, as symptoms of a deeper, underlying issue within the Students’ Union, which he feels nobody has yet to acknowledge. “I just think that if we really want to see engagement, we need to recognise the fact that we have to tolerate discussion and we have to tolerate people in the Students’ Union and we have to welcome everybody into the Students’ Union and say, ‘look, it doesn’t matter what you believe in these issues, we’ll have a debate about them’, because a debate is, at the end of the day, the cornerstone of the proper and successful democracy and a proper political system”.
Accommodation is also something that Simeon considers a big issue for students today and feels the Students’ Union is not putting their resources into this as much as it should, which is another reason that engagement is low. “I think in terms of these part-time positions, we have a position for LGBT and ethnic minorities. I would ask, what are those officers doing of value for students? I think they should go, and I think what we should be doing is focusing on practical issues and accommodation is one of them. I would say if we had an officer for accommodation, rather than officer for LGBT or ethnic minorities or postgrad students, I think students would benefit a lot more practically from that”. Simeon also points to the closure of Caife na Gaeilge as a situation where he felt the Union’s priorities weren’t right.
Following the news that two NUI Galway students died fighting for ISIS, as well as the revelation of the misuse of funds by the Galway University Foundation, Simeon says he expected more and better representation from the Students’ Union. “I go back to people saying it should be abolished. That will grow unless it actually becomes meaningful and I think, in order for it to become meaningful, it needs to start taking practical decisions and I would be in favour of radical reform and abolishing a lot of these positions”. Simeon also questions the practicality of the USI, whose membership fee, he says, should be going to students of NUI Galway instead.
He also feels that, should he be elected, the SU’s response to the University management would be more united. “I think it should be the students pulling together and saying we’re not going to accept financial intransparency, we’re going to demand an apology from the UM, and if they don’t apologise, we will use our clout to make them apologise”. Simeon believes it would be an improvement if “we emanate a message of pulling together to stand up for our own rights and that we can do it and take on the University Management if needs be. We’re not there to cause trouble, but we need to be able and willing to cause trouble if the need arises”. Simeon also points to his experience representing NUI Galway as a Law student, as well as his membership on the committee of An Cumann Staire, as examples of his willingness for working in teams.
As a final message to voters on the fence, Simeon says: “I think the Students’ Union is rotten at the moment. I think it’s hugely messed up and if I was elected, I would promise to shake it up and try make it more representative of the students. I’m concerned about the suitability of other candidates to this role. I’m very concerned about the way the Students’ Union is going. We need a Union that’s inclusive, that’s really diverse in opinion as well as everything else, where every student feels welcome and we need the will to radically reform the way things are done. So that’s what I would hope to bring to the SU and if you have common ground with me on any of those things, I’d appreciate your vote”.