Aonghus Ó Cochláin
In the student unions, the Welfare Officer is an extremely important job. Perhaps more so than any of the other sabbatical positions, the Welfare Officer is required to be personable, friendly, approachable and a have very specific skill-set. A certain type of person is required for the job which sets it apart from Communications or Ents for example. The two candidates for the position this year both feel that their own personal experiences are just as important as their past positions within the SU and College society.
This year has seen a close race between Welfare candidates Daniel McFadden and Ian Mooney. This is a change from last year, which saw current SU Welfare Officer Stephen Garry comfortably secure his position unopposed. The race initially included a third candidate, Helena Hughes, but she pulled out before its start.
In an interview with Trinity News, Welfare candidate Dan McFadden spoke about what best qualified him for the position. Envisaging the qualities of a Welfare Officer as someone who is approachable and capable of handling a variety of issues, the third year Social Work student cites his experience as JCR Welfare Officer as evidence of this, working on welfare related issues for over a thousand students in Trinity Halls. Further experience includes course-related placements and voluntary work in areas such as mental health and disability.McFadden commented on what he considers the three major manifesto points of his campaign. The first of which being Health Centre reform, he commented that students are often forced to wait in the cold for far too long when seeking access to emergency appointments. Moving the queue to an inside location with a ticket system would improve the quality of service for students according to the welfare candidate. Elaborating on what he considered an unacceptable state of affairs, Dan stated that “no matter what College is saying, students are disadvantaged here” and that reform is necessary.
Along with this is his second manifesto point of is improving on the already existent accommodation services offered by the SU. His idea for a consolidated TCD landlord database would see a “solid, reliable database of landlords who have been recommended by trinity students, so that when it comes to students looking for houses, they know that they will have this database to go to.” Despite the good job he feels the Accommodation Advisory Service has done, he believes “looking into the future” is important.
His third and final major point is his campaign’s “Sharing to Help” welfare blog. According to Dan, the blog project lets “different students share their different experiences, be it mental health, be it family troubles or be it financial difficulties,” with the hope that other students would in turn learn from their experiences. “I feel like facts are great, I think you can give them out all the time, but I think what’s so rich and can be more meaningful is someone’s own personal story teaching other people as well.” The initiative, which has already been launched online as of last week, has supposedly been read in countries all around the world. Dan further said: “I believe if elected it will become a nationwide thing where students from all over Ireland will be able to submit stories to it.”
When asked about what some see as a disconnect between the SU and its students, Dan commented that he feels his three point manifesto is getting through to students and showing them how they could really benefit from the Union. “There can be a lot of apathy towards the Union, maybe a lack of believing in what they can do,” the Welfare candidate remarked, “I’m showing them something they can use and this is why you need to be engaging with the Union, and this is how the Union can help you.” He further stated that a better awareness of the Council process was necessary for holding Sabbatical Officers accountable for their promises.He also commended the Electoral Commission in bringing down the budget this year, saying that “it’s making it more accessible for students to run for these positions by bringing it down, so I would be majorly in support of that and I thought it was a great initiative on behalf of the SU this year.”
Further commenting on the relationship between the SU and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Dan said he would love to work more closely with the USI if elected, but that there needs to be more concentrated attention paid to mental health initiatives. “Trinity have done so well in mental health last year. I think Stephen Garry has been really on the ball with it, and so I think the USI are actually lagging behind in that,” Dan commented.
Speaking to Trinity News, Welfare candidate Ian Mooney commented what he sees as the three main roles of Welfare Officer as casework, campaigns and representation on college committees. “Being Student2Student President this year I’ve been able to work with particularly mental health campaigns,” according to the fourth year Chemistry student. “I am able to coordinate 600 mentors in the society, work with international students, mature students, LGBT, all different parts of the College and coordinate them together into these great campaigns.” Further experience includes having done education-related casework as EMS Faculty Convenor. Yet what Ian cited as what made him most qualified is his personal experience of depression when he was younger, making him relatable: “Having someone who’s there, who knows what it’s like to hold in a dark secret, to be afraid of people judging them, but more importantly to know what it’s like to actually come out about this kind of stuff and how good it feels to actually talk about it as well.”
Similar to his opponent, what Mooney considers the biggest criticism of the SU as is its lack of approachability, as well as a lack of awareness of what the role of Welfare Officer even is. First years in particular, being those going through the hardest time trying to transition into a new environment according to Ian, have no idea that the services are there for them. “I would love to set up a Welfare blog, like a weekly update about what’s going on in that week so people know what’s there for them” further remarking that even “going around giving lecture addresses and canvassing indoors in Halls is such an effective way of getting the message across.” Even with the other Sabbatical Officers, he remarked, getting out of House 6 a bit more and visiting the off-campus locations is something that is said every year but is hardly ever done.When asked what would be the first steps taken if elected Welfare Officer, Ian said the biggest thing he would like to change would be the major weeks in College. “They’re there for a week every year, but they’re not five day a year issues, they’re constant issues that we need to promote consistently throughout the year and make sure the information is always being given to students on a regular basis,” according to the candidate.
In the area of LGBTQ issues, Ian feels particular attention needs to be paid to transgender issues, commenting that “the rights of trans* students are 20 years behind the rest of the community” and that even in the LGBTQ community they are not included as well as they should be. Particularly with regard to mental health issues, citing that transgender students are far more likely to attempt suicide, “making sure transgender students are aware that there are support services there for them, and then helping them to be included into society as well” is an important part for his campaign. When asked about the level of cooperation between the SU and the USI, Ian said he was “a bit sceptical of the whole thing at first,” but further commented he thinks it is good for College to be able to express itself on a national basis. “The resources just aren’t there for Trinity to do it alone, so uniting colleges to get a national message across, even an international message almost, I think that’s important, but I think some reform does need to be done on the USI to better progress the issues.” Further stating that mental health issues do not just affect Trinity students, “it’s something that amongst young people if some people start talking about it then everyone starts talking about it, and it snowballs and snowballs, but if half the country is afraid to talk about it then it just won’t work.”Responding to the infringements of EC regulations by his campaign, Ian felt that, although its importance to have rules, they could be a little more lenient. “The rules are there and I did know about them before hand,” according to the candidate, saying, “the thing about those rules is that only some of close campaigners or those who are really interested in the SU side of things are going to know that those rules are there, and I guess that falls on us, the candidates, to let our campaigns teams know that those rules are there. Ultimately, he said, he would “take [his] punishments as they come.”
In response to whether the accommodation shortfall of earlier this academic year, Ian agreed that “[Welfare Officer Stephen Garry] probably had a bit of a tough year, they were completely overwhelmed at the start,” but that the system currently in place at the moment does not need a large scale overhaul. “I mean, putting more resources into it is a bit difficult but I’m sure it’s definitely achievable,” according to Ian. He further said, “the system is good but a bigger push behind it,” rather than “going out, trying to find a new system that may or may not work.”
Making final comment on the disillusionment felt by some students with annual Sabbatical elections, Ian remarked that as far as promises in his manifesto, he has tried to keep them as achievable as possible. He commented, “there are one or two things there that I think will be a real fight on our hands, but I do think it’s possible to follow through with them.”