James Cunningham, a Junior Sophister Politics and Economics student from Belfast, is the only candidate in the Welfare race this year. Cunningham was last year’s JCR Welfare Officer in Trinity Hall and served as the Halls’ Representative on the SU Welfare committee. He is currently a member of the same committee and was also the former campaign manager to Laura Grady, last year’s runner up to current Welfare Officer Damien McClean.
Cunningham credits Mental Health Week and Rainbow Week in first year with igniting his interest in welfare. Cunningham describes how as JCR Welfare Officer, “he got a lot out of it” and emphasises the one-on-one, casework aspect. “The most serious part of helping people is one-on-one,” he said when discussing the transition between the JCR and SU role. Cunningham acknowledges the step up, but he feels ready for it. “The fundamental aspect of the role is something that doesn’t change and it’s the same thing of helping people with their individual problems and that’s something I’ve done well.”
Cunningham, who has risen through the ranks of College welfare positions and underwent S2S peer supporter training and SAFEtalk training for suicide prevention, is strongly of having a Welfare Officer in College. He considers himself an approachable figure and, as Welfare Officer, he would act as a “stepping stone to get you to the people above”. For some students, it’s far easier for them to communicate their problems to another student before “just jumping straight into the professional aspect…it’s less intimidating,” he said. This is a job he doesn’t think can be filled by S2S mentors: the role of Welfare Officer goes beyond being another student you can “relate to”. It is also about connecting the various welfare related services that College has to offer, and helping them “engage with the students and send that message through the Students’ Union”.
As for the future of the union, Cunningham believes the focus should be more on local rather than national issues, again emphasising how the Welfare Officer should focus on the “individual needs of the student”. Cunningham’s focus on these individual needs is a pattern reiterated through his interview, repeating that the welfare role is about the union, “casework” and above all, meeting students “to talk about their problems and refer them on to the necessary services”. For Cunningham, the students’ union job is “definitely more based on local issues, and helping people with the one-on-one things affecting them, rather than national issues”.
When pressed, Cunningham agrees that national issues can have effects on students in Trinity, but returns to the specific needs of individual students in the welfare role. “It is important that we have a say in what’s going on nationally but again within the welfare role that would not be a priority, the priority would be helping students in the college.” Harm reduction and a renewed campaign for drugs decriminalisation are prominent policies outlined in his manifesto.
“One of my big things that hasn’t really been addressed is student poverty and how that can affect the students”. In his manifesto, Cunningham talks about how “most students don’t know if they’re eligible for financial aid” and plans to promote the service in College. For Cunningham, “it’s just about telling people…that the help is out there”. Publicising the numerous financial aids available to students is crucial for Cunningham as is could be the “difference between someone dropping out and staying in college”. Cunningham has first hand experience of these supports. He recalls last May meeting with his tutor where for the first time he learned “about all these different funds that were in place that could help me”.
Considering the accommodation and rent crisis, and examining how this affects student finances, Cunningham does not have a determined strategy. The subject is not addressed at length in his manifesto. “It’s not something one person or myself could just fix automatically. I think it’s something that needs to continue from year to year within the union officers but I think it’s just about working with the accommodation advisory service and lobbying for more [affordable accommodation].”
Apart from highlighting existing policies, Cunningham also wants to introduce a food token system in the SU café. This he describes as a substitute for getting a “big financial loan”. Struggling students can go to the Welfare Officer to obtain food tokens, which can be redeemed in the SU café. “It’s just something more simple that people can avail of instead of taking out a “stressful welfare loan”.
Regarding student finance, the conversation moves on to the upcoming preferendum. Cunningham mentions the injustice of holding “modular billing for ransom” and says absolutely that the “introduction of supplemental fees is not feasible right now”. Cunningham addresses the issue of college fees, first mentioning that he is from Belfast, where they have a loan system, before replying: “I don’t see why there should be college fees, we didn’t have them in the past so no I don’t think they’re necessary.”
Consent is another topic Cunningham is passionate about, a policy that featured heavily in Laura Grady’s campaign last year. Drawing on his JCR experience from Halls, he plans on replicating similar policies on campus. “I was the Welfare Officer in Halls for the pilot year of those [consent workshops],” he said. He sees expanding consent workshops to campus as “the next natural step” and considers this an effective method to sustain the conversation around consent. In particular, he wants to involve societies, believing that societies have a reach the Union may not. Society involvement in consent issues presents new “role models for certain demographics of students that the consent workshops don’t reach” otherwise.
As mentioned before, Cunningham wants to pursue decriminalising drugs by encouraging lobby groups to renew their existing work. Harm reduction is a full point in his manifesto with Cunningham summarising his position as “the underlying message with regard to students taking drugs is that, whilst I’ll never condone it, I wont turn away any student who needs help”. Any lobbying around decriminalisation he feels would be primarily facilitated by “getting students on board who are passionate about that, interested in that” and forming a working group.
Counselling waiting lists are a pertinent issue discussed widely this year. Trinity News reported in November 2017 that following an initial consultation it can take up to 3 weeks to be seen and a further 6 weeks to be given access to services. What would Cunningham do to alleviate this? “I think it’s about getting people to support themselves as well and find ways to solve their problems without having to go to counseling all the time”. Cunningham indicated that Niteline and S2S mentors were alternatives to counseling which could be consulted more. He wants to raise awareness of other facilities available so that “you can help yourself if something’s going wrong and you don’t have to go straight to the counselling services”.
Cunningham’s last question concerns engagement. Regarding the anti-SU feeling on campus, reflected by a small pool of mainly male candidates and a perception of TCDSU as disengaged and ineffective, he believes: “There could be sort of, more promotion of what the Union can do for you on a day to day basis, and I think it’s about getting more people involved”.
The sole candidate has no shortage of experience and has dedicated time and effort over the last two years to improving the welfare of Trinity’s students.