By Andrew Florio
NUI Galway student Owen Ward has been elected to NUI Galway’s governing body, Údarás na hOllscoile, becoming the first Irish Traveller to do so, and on a larger scale, the first member of the Travelling community to sit on a managing body of a university in Ireland. In his new role, Ward told SIN that he is hoping to confront important issues such as equality and the recent accommodation rent hike.
Owen will sit on a board comprised of the most influential figures within the University, including the President of NUI Galway, Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh and representatives of the Students’ Union. Aiming to use his background and knowledge to make changes in the sphere of equality and diversity he said; “I want to bring disadvantaged voices to the fore”.
The appointment was well received by the University, commenting how his election “demonstrates how open and respectful NUI Galway has become”. A sentiment that he could vouch for when asked if he had ever experienced any prejudice on campus, he said; “I was never discriminated against here.” he said “This reflects the values of the current strategic plan at NUI Galway. I plan to bring a proactive postgraduate voice to this forum and to represent the diversity of issues that affect postgraduates on campus.” he added.
Owen is a Soni Traveller and grew up on the Circular Road in Galway City. The fifth in a family of eight, Owen followed in the footsteps of his siblings and left school at sixteen without a Junior Certificate. “I’m one of eight kids, I just followed the normal route of my family”, he said. Dropping out of school wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, he explained, but since he was a child, he always had the urge to further his education and go to university. While working with his father, and eight years after leaving school, he happened to have a casual conversation with a friend of his who told him about the access programmes in NUI Galway and he immediately said to himself; “This is what I’ve been waiting for”.
The “lack of support” that he suffered from in his secondary school days was replaced by an organised system specifically tailored to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds. He said; “Imelda Byrne played a big part in helping me”, referring to the former Fianna Fáil local election candidate, who helped him through the access course and is still Head of the Centre.
Speaking highly of Owen’s achievements, Ms Byrne said; “He’s a role model for his own community and the community in general in terms of what Owen can do to break down barriers and help access to education. It’s a great day for NUI Galway that he’s on the governing body”. She remembers Owen from his days in the programme and comments how “Owen really gave 100%”.
That casual conversation with a friend sparked by fate has since led to many successes. His election aside, Owen is currently completing a Postgraduate Degree in a Professional Masters of Education (PME). Having found his passion in teaching, he sees “giving back” to the community that helped him as very important. A wealth of knowledge from his own formal education and his unorthodox path to those teachings is sure to benefit his future work and students.