As this academic year draws to a close, a year brimming with human rights debates, countless storms and an abundance of free Freddo bars, we can’t help but reminisce on the year at hand and those who shaped each and every facet of it.
It is undeniable that the Students’ Union here at NUI Galway is the beating heart of engagement, advice and encouragement for students from all walks of life. I caught up with president Lorcán Ó Maoileannaigh, Education Officer Andrew Forde, and Welfare Officer and incoming President Megan Reilly to discuss this year’s student administration, its highs and lows, and to reflect on what has undoubtedly been another unforgettable year here at NUI Galway.
What has been your greatest accomplishment throughout this term in office?
Megan: “I have to say I think it’s been the one on one stuff for me, like being able to make improvements in students’ lives, as in people feeding things up to me so then I can take it to the university level, but also just being able to keep people in college or make their college experience better. I know that’s kind of corny but it’s true. “
Lorcán: “I’m going to answer in three parts. There are things that have taken immediate effect, there are things that we’re kind of planting the seeds for next year and the relationship with the university as well. In relation to what has taken immediate effect, the big part of my manifesto last year was the meal plan service, now there’s a six-week meal plan service online, you have video tutorials and now you have a bus running from student accommodation to Lidl where you get your shopping recipes, so students have no excuse in terms of cooking for themselves and cooking healthily.
Secondly, in terms of planting the seeds, we have put together the kind of the start of an on-campus music festival which will hopefully grow next year and that we’ll have something similar to Trinity Ball here, next year. Starting something like that from scratch takes a lot of time but it’s important that just because you can’t do it in your own year… I mean I’ll still be a student next year, so I’ll enjoy it!
Lastly, the relationship with the university. So obviously, we’re here as a union to see where the university is lacking in terms of supporting the students here on campus and off campus, and there’s a time and place for everything, and in a lot of things that we do, we’re working in cooperation with the university as opposed to against the university. I think that we’ve struck up a very good rapport with the university, we work together on a lot of projects, we come to them with our ideas and we find a way to work together, especially with the new University President, we now have something that was completely unheard of before this – we now meet every four to six weeks, have a sit down meeting just myself and himself which is great because before this when the President of the union and the President of the university met, it tended to be when matters got to boiling point, per se, so now I think there’s a great relationship there that can be built on in years to come.”
Andrew: “I think the clearest example would be how we extended the library opening hours during exams. That was something that students asked for that we promised and delivered on and I think it was very telling and it shows what a union can do. I think not as tangible, but one of the things I would be proudest of is the day to day case work. You don’t see it, but you have students coming in here who have to appeal an exam or who can’t get their SUSI grant and the most rewarding thing is when you take that fight and you champion their cause and you get a win for them, you don’t get to talk about it or celebrate it but you can really see how this role can have a real impact on people’s lives.”
What is something you had hopes to achieve this year but didn’t due to time constraints, resources or other priorities?
Megan: “What you kind of find with the job is that you come in with so many ideas in your manifesto, and you try and stay as true to that all year as you possibly can, but then there’s things that always crop up throughout the year, that you’re like, oh wow and you start to uncover more and more, like projects I knew that I could take forward, some of them I am hoping to be able to take forward into next year.
The big one for me has been seating. When I came into the job I was originally talking about nap spaces and then that kind of evolved into just a general sense of needing a friendlier university, just in a tangible, physical sense and the more I’ve talked to support staff and student services and people even in academia, the more everybody seems to recognise the need for this. It just seems it’s such a large scale project, so what we’re doing is we’re starting small and we’re hoping to work with buildings to redevelop some areas.”
Lorcán: “I think my biggest regret would be the bus service that I was hoping to get from student accommodation for nursing students who are first years and second years to go to the hospital during the winter months. The idea behind it was last year, there was a lot of first and second year students living in Cuirt and Gort who were nursing students, who during the winter months had to be in for around half six in the morning, and I thought that was quite unfair. But this year when we did our research to see whether it was feasible, we just found that all the first and second year nursing students weren’t as compact or living in the same areas, so it wasn’t feasible in the end. That was something that I really wanted to hit home on, so that was quite disappointing.
It’s important to know that when you do get kind of knocked back, you still made a promise to these students that you’ll make a difference, so what we’ve done now is students, before they go on placement, the aim is that every student in a healthcare course will receive mental health first aid training before starting. It’s nowhere near the same, but still if you make a promise to students you still want to follow through on it, you know? Do something.”
Andrew: “There’s two things that I set out to do that won’t be achieved in this academic year, but the groundwork is set, so for the next executive, I believe it’s very achievable. The first of those is the exam carry over.
So at the moment if you fail a five credit module in August, in a repeat, you have to repeat the academic year, that has a very big financial cost, €1,824, but in other institutions like in UCD or in Maynooth, if you fail a five credit module in your first year, you can actually carry that over into your second year. So, it would mean that for a lot of students who only have one fail on their transcript, they can pursue and go forward. I’ve had success to date in having the President agree in principle, in having the Dean of Arts agree, and in having a conversation with NUI Galway about this, but it’s the responsibility of my successor now to come in and try to drive that home.
The second thing is, this year we changed the language that we use around post graduates, so we’ve really tried to engage the post graduate community, master’s students and PHD students in a way that we hadn’t really done before. A lot of that has come full circle, we now have a postgraduate research and a postgraduate taught rep, we have engaged with them a lot more, and what I’m pushing for is that we’d have a dean within the university who will be responsible for ensuring that post graduate courses are up to quality and up to scratch, and again that’s something that we’ve gotten agreed in principal, but it’s up to my successor to drive that home as well.”
How do you think this term in office has developed you personally?
Megan: “So many ways. I just feel like I’ve experienced so much, this job is so multi-faceted, you’re doing campaigns but you’re also seeing people one on one, and then you’re learning how to develop your professionalism through sitting on university committees, so I know I can take all of that into my personal life.
For me, it’s taught me how to use my own time efficiently and effectively. It’s kind of taught me how not to deplete my own resources so much because you’re always going to have people asking things of you, but it’s like, how do you prioritise your own stuff and deliver to the best of your ability with the jobs? What I’ve learned personally is I need to be at my best to be able to help other people. It’s fairly obvious but we actually all neglect our own self-care, especially when you’re in a job, or even student life when it’s very intense, but this year taking it to the professional level just really taught me, personally, how to manage all that stuff.”
Lorcán: “I would say my professionalism, I thought going into this job that I kind of carried myself quite well but when you’re sitting at a governing body or Údarás, which is the top committee of the university, you’re sitting there with Deans and people who are respected all over the world, never mind even the country, and you have the same speaking privileges as them – it’s a very steep learning curve, in terms of how to speak, when to speak and what to speak about. From that perspective, that’s what I’ve kind of gained most from it.
I definitely haven’t learned time management; I can admit that. I think my professionalism and how I carry myself has really improved. I think accountability as well, it kind of makes you realise when you’re put on the spot and when you’re made aware that there are, in the morning, say ten people waiting on a response from you since yesterday evening, you need to make sure you’re getting back to everyone, so I think my accountability has improved as well.”
Andrew: “I think it’s an unbelievable opportunity, for me the greatest thing I wanted to prove to myself was that I could be consistent. This job is very demanding, you’d be working crazy hours, you’d be working weekends, you work the job but you do it because you love it and what I learned of myself and what this job gave me the opportunity to do is to be consistent because you’re always out batting for someone else, if you don’t answer an email or if you don’t go and lobby for someone, it’s not you who fails, it’s the person who has come to you and asked you for help. That’s matured me a lot, it’s stopped me from going out as much as I used to, but it’s made me a more consistent person, so I’m really grateful for that.”
What are some hopes and advice you have for your successor?
Megan: “People always say, and I never understood it until I got into the job, but you want to leave someone behind who’s going to be better than you, which I know sounds like a bit of a weird concept but, what I would hope for Claire is to give her really good comprehensive training and to set her up with all the contacts that she needs to hit the ground running.
Also, in terms of advice, everyone makes the job their own, everyone does it differently because everyone deals with students differently and this job gives you so much scope to do things. What I would say is don’t limit yourself to what’s been done in the past. Definitely branch out, do new things, make it your own, get your own feel for it and whatever suits you. It’s a wonderful job, where you’re able to do that and bring your own sense of style to it, so I think all of those things.”
Lorcán: “In this job, because it’s only one year, you only get one shot at everything. One fault and it’s an admitted fault of the union, but there’s nothing we can do about it, is institutional knowledge. So, if there’s a project, a perfect example is anonymous marking, that came up seven years ago, then someone, somewhere along the way dropped the ball and then last year’s executive picked it up again and now it’s in place.
The idea is that the person coming in is able to learn from the mistakes of the person who came before, not even the mistakes but things that they’ve learned, things that they did that worked well, so that even when Megan is here in September and orientation is going on, and all these other committee meetings are starting and her first Údarás, what I would say is most important is that I’m only a phone call away, that I definitely haven’t just left, goodbye, handed over the key and slán go fóill.
I think that’s one of the most important things, that your successor knows that you’re still there, because as much knowledge you will have gained throughout the year its near impossible to give that to the person over the next three months. They’ll always be something throughout the year you know? Like me, this year I called Jimmy probably every second week, just to check in and to say; “this is happening, do you have any additional information you can give me?” and he’s always there and I’d like to make sure that’s the same for next year.”
Andrew: “I think it’s really important that everyone who comes into this office makes it their own. There are some things that every officer has to do, the basic work and responsibilities that the job demands, but I would encourage my successor to embrace his ambition, to go forward and try to achieve what he set out to do in his manifesto and to know that the office is his, so he can make what impact he wants to make. It’s a massive opportunity for anyone who wants to take it.”
What comes next for you?
Megan: “I don’t know; I might go on holidays. Look I want to take all my experience this year, and all the training I know Lorcán is going to give me and absolutely give it my best shot. A year is such a short time, even though I’ve already been here doing the welfare job but there were things this year that I kind of knew I had a taste for and wanted to do more, which is why I really felt like with that leadership. I know I can take this forward and I really want to do this so, for me it’s going to be about giving it my all. Building a really strong team is really important, we have a new exec next year and a lot of changes coming in so I want to be the one to make sure that all of that runs smoothly and that we just continue to be stronger.”
Lorcán: “So I have two years left in college, so I’m going back to med, and it won’t be exactly going back to the lecture theatre because I’ll be permanently on placement from then on and I’ll just be across the road I suppose, waving from the operating table. I mean as immediate past president you’re still kind of around in terms of the board of trustees and that kind of thing, so your finger isn’t on the pulse but you’re still around every few months. So that’s me, I finish July 1, I’m taking July off and then I’m back in the emergency department for an elective in August and then my course starts back in September.”
Andrew: “I am travelling to Chile, so I’m going as far away from Galway as I can. I’m a man from the west you see, I went to school in Galway, I did my undergraduate in Galway, I did my postgrad in Galway and I’ve been working for a whole twelve months here in the students union, so I need to broaden my horizons and then hopefully I’ve applied as well to take up a placement in the European Parliament, so the idea is to take the baseline experiences that I’ve learned from this job and the want and desire to make an impact, take those inspirations with me and then try and use them in bigger and better places.”
By Rebecca Fisher