Owen Patrick Ward is a busy man these days. On top of being NUI Galway’s first Traveller Education Officer, Owen works with the Access Centre to ensure that no child from any minority group misses out on the opportunity to be educated, striving to give back to his community and holding the ladder out for others.
Life is very different for Owen than it was for his parents who were both born and raised in bowtop wagons and tents. “My father’s family moved to the city 50 years ago this year,” he says. “They lived in the shadow of NUI Galway, behind the hospital on the side of the road in a tent.”
Owen is a member of the Irish Travelling community, and while Travellers accessing further education arguably shouldn’t be news-worthy, it still finds its’ way into shocking headlines.
Only 20% of Travellers complete secondary school, and if you continue on to higher education, that number drops to 1%.
“It’s very difficult to expect a Traveller child who was living on a halting site, or living on the side of the road, with no access to Wi-Fi or electricity, to have the same educational outcome as a settled person in a four-bedroom house, in a private accommodation,” Owen says.
It was President Michael D Higgins, a Galway West TD at the time, whose support of the Traveller community helped Owen’s family secure new accommodation and began his journey to NUI Galway.
There wasn’t as much educational access for Travellers, so by the time Owen was in secondary school, all eight of his siblings had moved on.
Despite being “academically strong, the support wasn’t there,” he says. “Now I know that you need peer-support and the support from the school and parents. That relationship is very important. And that was very weak for me. So eventually leading up to my Junior Certification, I dropped out, and I became an early school-leaver.”
It was not until he was 23 that Owen decided to continue his education and applied to the Access Programme at NUI Galway. Despite being, on paper, “a really bad candidate to go to university,” Owen was accepted.
Owen, who says that he is “acutely aware of my privilege as a member of the Travelling community”, graduated with a B.A. (2014) and M.A. (2020) in Post Primary education, all the while working part-time jobs.
“That’s what makes me very passionate about making sure that I have the full picture of every student that I support,” Owen says.
He now works for the Access Centre as a Programme Coordinator since 2018, providing opportunities for underrepresented students in what is the largest catchment area of Irish Travellers within Ireland.
He is also Galway’s only representative on the Anti-Racism Committee for Ireland.
“The stats will tell you, the research is there, they will tell you that racism and discrimination is ingrained within the Traveller’s daily existence and experience.”
Such research found that 63% of Travellers in Galway said that they had experienced some form of racism and discrimination.
A responsibility he extends to his work as the Traveller Education Officer, where he identifies “members of the Travelling community in post primary school, or in further education that need extra support and guidance to progress into higher education.”
Owen’s path into education was troubled by the same issues still affecting Irish Travellers today, including a lack of access to resources, education, and employment.
All of these are barriers that restrict their ability to engage with society and contribute to the Traveller accommodation crisis here in Galway, where 265 Traveller families were assessed as needing housing in 2019.
According to the Galway Traveller Movement, during the COVID-19 pandemic, 83% of Travellers were unemployed and approximately 50% of the homeless in Galway were Travellers.
Yet, Owen admits that there is still a long path ahead to engage Travellers with education.
“Education is a relatively new word to the Travelling community. I was a pioneer in a way,” Owen says.
Adding that “I would never, ever give up my Traveller identity for academic achievements. And I’m not the only one,” he says. “I’ll just trust my journey.”
A journey that has taken him far from the shadow of the university.
Today, Owen is a vital link between the Galway Traveller Community and the university system. He explains it is all about coordinating a “space within the university where Traveller history and culture is embedded and trying to create an environment where Travellers can cultivate a sense of belonging”.
“The Traveller community only started to engage with education in the 1960s. So, we’re late, and if you look at our educational outcomes, we have a lot of barriers in front of us.”