By Anastasia Burton
Riona Hughes is the Societies officer based in Áras Na Mac Léinn’s Societies Office, also known as The SocsBox. The SocsBox consists of many staff who not only support societies and their events, but also two social facilities; the Hub and Hub Central. What many might not be aware of is that the Societies Office works to promote student social life and wellness, with events such as the Fáilte Fest, which is part of Orientation, the five welcome–themed weeks and the new March Wellness Wednesday.
Apart from this administrative work, Riona also tackles the development of Áras na Mac Léinn and making sure that the building facilitates students’ interests. This involves the development of the two original acoustic rooms into two new piano rooms, two acoustic rooms, a band room, recording studio, a parent and baby room and a relaxation room. The addition of Mike O’Halloran, who manages the health and safety and audiovisual equipment, has helped all the societies run their big events safely. The SocsBox also sells tickets both in the box office and on their webstore to make sure that societies can sell their tickets easily, with added promotion on social media and numerous on-campus promotion methods, including the weekly What’s Happening Guide. The SocsBox also provides a huge range of equipment, all of which is important for the smooth running of any event!
Riona is also a part of ‘Student Services’ who work together to tackle issues and support students. NUI Galway recently received REACT accreditation to reduce alcohol-related harm. The REACT model encourages incoming students to take an alcohol audit. This prompted Riona to develop the Success Quiz, which not only asks the students about their alcohol intake, but includes questions to find out how prepared they are for university, and get advice on how to navigate university life from their health, to course choice and engagement. It is a holistic way for students to look at their wellness at the start of their journey. The SocsBox and Hub teams alongside Aisling Harrington, who joined in September as the health and wellness coordinator, have partnered with an array of campus services to promote student health during March with some great events. Riona is passionate about helping the students of NUI Galway to feel safe and welcome. She is always thinking about student engagement with different events and activities to promote skill development as well as personal development for students.
Some of Riona’s work that does not directly involve societies was the creating of the Hub kitchen. The University has the population of a large village, therefore it was important to create a sense of community. “You can’t really have a village without a home, and you can’t have a home without a heart and part of that heart is the ability to cook”, she explains. At one stage in her life, Riona owned a restaurant and was familiar with the safety regulations and procedures to make sure it ran smoothly. The establishment of the Hub kitchen makes NUI Galway one of the only universities with a student kitchen. Riona recalls a time when she first started working at the University when societies could only offer wine and cheese. Now societies are inviting people for tea and biscuits; “It’s the way we talk in Ireland over a cup of tea and the simple thing of having boiling water and flasks. It’s adorable, it’s cheap, and it’s cheerful and totally delightful.”
Riona’s job involves constantly thinking about how to do something amazing so that students coming to NUI Galway can find something they will enjoy. When she started as the Societies officer, there were only 60 societies and instead of the SocsBox, she was in a corner of the SU office. It started with societies asking to sell tickets, which led to the first SocsBox, which was a physical wooden box in the Hub. After acquiring sponsorship to hire an assistant and a till, the SocsBox box office was born. From a simple wooden box to the SocsBox we see now, it is obvious that a lot of work was done on the development of society events and their popularity grew accordingly.
The establishment of the societies website also led to the development of www.yourspace.nuigalway.ie, which other staff and units in the university have embraced. The website supports a wide variety of student extra-curricular opportunities. Riona’s ideology is to make something that works for everybody, to get to a stage where everything is integrated. A student who wants to develop their skills and experience can come to just one place to make that happen and get all the information they need. “Our biggest challenge is getting the information out to people”, Riona says.
Riona’s background in education helped her understand that although NUI Galway is an educational institution, and although we learn in classrooms and from books, we also learn a lot from doing. “You can have a dream and you can have achieved it, or failed spectacularly, but what’s really important is going for it, because it’s about learning and about the journey. We put out all these soft mats on the hard concrete of life while you’re here, so when you fall, you can get up and start all over again. So by the time you leave, you actually are truly educated”. Riona is passionate about making sure that people are learning in everything that they do and that someone will always be there to cushion you when you fall, so it is important to be brave, kind and respectful to each other. Her motto is that you can talk about things forever, but what truly matters is the doing and delivering, “It’s very easy to talk, it’s amazing to do. We all work very hard to deliver to the students”.
Riona has published the end of year review, where, on the first page, you will find her manifesto about what societies achieved (with stats!) throughout the year. She would also encourage all of you to get your ALIVE certificates, so that you can have acknowledgement of your hard work.