Junior sophister English student Aoife Bennett believes that Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union can be “Better with Bennett”. Running uncontested for Welfare and Equality Officer, Bennett believes that “welfare and equality is the backbone of the SU” and that she has the experience to carry it further. Bennett previously served as welfare officer for Trinity Hall JCR and is currently a research officer for the TCDSU Welfare and Equality Committee.
According to Bennett, it is her own experience as a student that sparked her passion for student welfare: “My year was the Covid year, so our first year was online, and I did find that transition quite hard. It made me become more aware of college services and look into welfare in Trinity.” She noted that “because of that, I kind of fell into running for welfare officer in second year for Trinity Halls and that experience has confirmed that I love what I’m doing, and it’s something I really want to do”.
Like previous welfare and equality officers, Bennett will be responsible for alleviating difficulties faced by students with disabilities if elected. Bennett acknowledged that facilities “campus and off-campus are both very inaccessible”, and she wants to focus on “long-term change” and get the “time, permission, and sometimes construction for meaningful change”.
“I would consult with students to identify the main areas of need in the college and off campus,” Bennett explains: “I would also work with Trinity’s Occupational therapists to do a report on accessibility on campus to lay the groundwork for long term change, so next year’s officer can continue to build on this work.”
Bennett believes that there should be “better services in College” overall, “with reduced wait times and more staff”. While advocating for these long-term changes, Bennett wants to make the current process easier for students: “Students need clearer direction in how to get the correct help outside of College, especially international students who may be unfamiliar with the Irish health system. For example, how to get set up with a GP in Dublin, or information on services like the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA).”
“Similarly, student counselling only offers short term treatments. But often students need more than just six sessions” Bennett continued. “Once you are signed off from counselling it can be hard to know where to look for or how to find/fund a counsellor outside of college.”
To alleviate this Bennett “would like to work with student counselling to have a referral system in place with recommendations of external counsellors and how to contact them to make the process less overwhelming for students”.
As a previous resident of Trinity Hall, accommodation is also high on Bennett’s list of priorities. Bennet wants to change the pricing for on-campus accommodation as well as lobby for a family friendly remodelling of Cunningham House.
Bennett thinks that “there’s a big fear that it would be remodelled into something more expensive. Like the brand-new swanky accommodation rather than [financially] accessible accommodation”. If elected, Bennett hopes “to lobby for it to remain the affordable accommodation that it was”, while also advocating for family units.
“If they’re about to remodel accommodation, it would be really good to have an input… because if student parents are needing accommodation, there’s not really anything from Trinity’s end that would work for them or be open to them.”
According to Bennett’s manifesto, she also plans to advocate for a “sliding scale” on the price of campus accommodation to “reflect the amenities offered by individual rooms rather than the location of the building so students are not segregated based on price points”.
“If you lived in Front Square, and you had a double bed and a double room, you’re going to be paying the same price as somebody who has a single bed and a much smaller room and is maybe sharing a bathroom with more people,” Bennett explained. “Being able to be like ‘I’m going to take this smaller room and then pay less money’ is currently not an option.”
Approximately 2,000 students live in Trinity Hall and campus accommodation, with the majority of students on campus in their final year. However, there are approximately 20,000 total students attending College. When asked about how she plans to support students struggling to find and pay for accommodation, Bennett said: “Beyond college accommodation options, I would continue to promote the Accommodation Advisory Service in College, that has advertisements for renting/digs exclusively for Trinity students.” She also “would also provide information on renters rights, how to hold their landlord accountable, what to look for in a house viewing, so that students are living in safe accommodation”.
Bennett also noted that the accommodation issue extends beyond College: “The housing crisis is a national crisis. I would lobby the government to take action on the housing crisis as the current situation is unacceptable.”
Bennett wants to advocate for student welfare not only on a college level, but nationally. She wants to lobby for a nation-wide change towards free period products in higher education. She noted that “this year Chloe [Staunton] did some really good work for improving college period product services”. However, she stressed that, “the union would just be stocking it themselves in bathrooms, which is a great thing to do, but just couldn’t be feasible long term”.
Bennett also referenced movement in policy elsewhere explaining that “in Scotland, they have free period products in higher education, in Northern Ireland, they’ve passed it as well… I don’t think it’s not feasible to aim for the south to take a similar approach”.
Considering other national policies, Bennett explained that she wants to promote the free contraceptive scheme for women aged between 17 and 26: “I would like to continue to promote and advertise this initiative in College, and publicise how students can avail of these services as well as lobbying for the government to extend the age range.”
Discussing the current Union’s mandates, Bennett also plans to “continue the support for initiatives such as renaming the Berkley and decolonising the curriculum next year to make sure they don’t lose momentum in the change over of officers… I would also be there via office hours/casework to support ethnic minorities students on a personal level and advocate for them in College”.
“Additionally, I will work to reform the dignity and respect policy to have better reporting structures in place for students, so students reporting instances of racism on campus feel more supported and have clarity on how the reporting system.”
She also wants to reform the college’s Dignity and Respect policy towards a more trauma informed document: “The policy currently has no area at all for sexual assault. It’s just within the general dignity and respect.”
“When I say trauma informed, the document is really not… the way they advise you to report, is as soon as possible. That’s just not like how things always work. Sometimes it can take someone a while for them to come to terms with what’s happened to them, people shouldn’t be rushed into coming forward.”
Bennet wants to reestablish consent workshops in Trinity Halls and establish them beyond Halls residents to all first year students. She thinks “they should be very wildly encouraged and promoted”, but she does not want to make them mandatory, as people have found them triggering in the past.
Bennet also wants to provide diversity training to society committees. Discussing the interactive online diversity-training TiLT. She thinks “it would help with making sure societies are running inclusive events” and “help with making a space that’s welcoming for everybody”.
Bennett also wants to extend TCDSU campaigns and events to off-campus locations, in a bid to reach a wider student base: “Some people never have classes in college. You just feel like the union’s not really for you as much.”
“Obviously, you can reach out and receive the same supports. But when you’re not getting the fun stuff, the little freebies, and you’re not seeing them, and not building a relationship with people in the union that you can talk to, or feel like you can reach out to, I feel like it’s easy to feel a bit isolated from College”.
Bennett thinks that previous events in off-campus locations have been “received really, really well. People really enjoyed it because they enjoy the interaction”. She concludes: “I think it’s worth taking the time out to see them.”
Despite severals plans to lobby for long-term changes within College and on a national level, Bennett pledges not to lose focus on the day-to-day casework that is integral to the welfare and equality officer’s position: “Casework is such an important part of the welfare officer’s duty and I think there are so many services in college, and there’s so much information, but it’s hard to find when you’re looking for it.”
“I really want to create an environment where the people feel like they can approach me and can come to me with questions and concerns. Obviously, I’m not a counsellor, but I would be there to chat to anyone and signpost them on and make them aware of college resources.”
Finally, Bennett discussed what she plans not to do if elected to the role of welfare and equality officer: “I wouldn’t isolate myself from the college community. As this is a full time job I think it’s easy to become removed from student life and the students themselves.”
“However, being visible to students is so important. If you’re around college and a friendly familiar face you become more approachable and easier for students to go to with problems or concerns.”
Additional reporting by Shannon Connolly and Ellen Kenny.