Breaking the class divide

Coming from an underrepresented area to Trinity brings complexities we need to challenge

Its stature and reputation is impossible to miss, you can see it from the bus window as you pass through the city centre. Trinity College Dublin, sitting at the top of Dame Street, looking in all directions at those who walk by: watching, mocking, judging. It’s the same place you were told about it as a kid, the place where the geniuses and rich kids go. The place that only started letting women in just over a century ago, despite being established in 1592, and that Catholics could attend only in 1970. A place so well respected by academic elites and so disliked by those that it discriminated against. A place that when you drive past, you don’t know whether you should look at it in awe or disgust.

Yet for some, because it was set up with the intention of keeping such a large number of people out, forming an opinion of Trinity is the closest they’ll ever get to it. The residue of this concerning past still haunts us today. Trinity’s motto declares “perpetuis futuris temporises duraturam”, or in English, “it will last into endless future times”, but we are forced to ask the question – what exactly is it that will last?

“In short, it’s becoming an outsider in the world you grew up in, and also, in the world you’re growing into.”

Some would suggest that it is College’s reputation and prestige, and the high regard with which it is held both nationally and internationally. However, when you don’t fit into the
traditional mould of what you are led to believe a Trinity student is – private-school
education, upper-middle class background, polished accent, coming from a family of
university graduates – and grow up as one the many kids who are given tours of the place, knowing you have very little chance of ever getting there, the only thing that seems to be everlasting is how inaccessible it feels to many in disadvantaged areas.

You might be smart, but are you smart enough? And surely the least intelligent kid in a
private school is better suited to Trinity than the most intelligent in a public school? And if
your intelligence doesn’t prohibit you, your common accent definitely will. Can you
really fake an accent for four or five years? But even if you do make it in, by some miracle,
you won’t know anyone in there, and you’ll stand out. You’ll never really fit in, because
you’ll always be an outsider to a place that you never thought you’d get into.

These may seem like naive anxieties, but being a student who asked myself the same
questions when applying for university, I can assure you that there’s no shortage of students from underrepresented areas asking themselves the same things. There is a stereotype and an image associated with Trinity that leads so many people to feel as though they’ll never be able to make it there.

Whether you come from Sheriff Street or Bawnogue, Northside or South, entering Trinity
from an area that is underrepresented at third level is not an easy thing to do. On
the one hand, it’s going to the college that you were always told was “the best in the country”. The college that you joked about going to as a teenager when the school guidance counsellor told you that you should apply for wherever you want to go, though never believing you’d ever really get the points to go there.

“In short, it’s becoming an outsider in the world you grew up in, and also, in the world you’re growing into.”

On the other hand, however, it embodies stepping into a world that is so far from your own. It is going to a place that your grandparents would never have been accepted into because of their religion or family circumstances. It is a place where you don’t know anybody. The place you were told was full of the smartest and wealthiest people from across the country. The place you joked about on school tours, labelling it “posh” and swearing you’d never go there and become one of “them”. It is being one of, if not, the first in your family to go onto third level education. It is becoming a victim of the small island mentality within some communities and not really fitting in anymore because you’re seen as “arrogant” or “stuck-up”.

It is being seen differently, and being held to higher standards. It is being introduced as the person who “goes to Trinity”, because when you’re from an underrepresented community, and go to such a prestigious and elitist place, it becomes irrevocably linked with your identity. In short, it’s becoming an outsider in the world you grew up in, and also, in the world you’re growing into.

Yet things shouldn’t be this way. In a world where we have never been more connected, it is ludicrous that such divisions still exist. Why should a kid from a public school in Tallaght feel less capable of succeeding in their education than one from a private school in Dún
Laoghaire? In a city as small as Dublin, how can the divide be so large?

Over the past few years, Trinity has succeeded in working to bring in more students from
disadvantaged areas, with initiatives such as the Trinity Access Programmes and Bridge 21
engaging consistently with secondary schools across Dublin to make Trinity a more
accessible place. However, the work is far from done.

Even if you live only ten minutes up the road, Trinity can feel like a world away for
someone who doesn’t think they’re good enough to get there. There’s an aura
surrounding the place that is intimidating and off-putting when you’re looking at it from the outside. It has got nothing to do with the staff or students – it’s the name itself.

The years of classism and exclusivity promoted by a college behind looming stone walls meant that the aim of the university was to keep you out, rather than welcoming you in. When you are a teenager in a public school, whose parents didn’t go to college, and who has few friends that attend, you don’t necessarily see Trinity as a place of learning and of opportunity. Instead, you see it as a place that you wouldn’t be welcome in, a place where your kind don’t belong. Of course, this isn’t true, but until you get there, you believe that it is.

It is our duty as students, and particularly those of us who come from such
backgrounds, to do what we can to keep in touch with the people from areas like our own
and do what we can to show that where you come from does not have to limit where you can go.

“Diversity enriches and expands, monocultures repeat and stagnate.”

Being a Trinity student carries with it a certain weight. While some people are happy to use that weight to massage their ego, it would be much better used engaging with younger people and helping them to see the potential they have within themselves. It’s not an easy task, but it is a worthwhile one. Diversity enriches and expands, monocultures repeat and stagnate. Something as simple as going back to your old school during College Awareness Week to give a speech on student life, or simply making contact with anyone you know that is approaching the end of secondary school and speaking to them about college. This can go a long way towards encouraging them to think bigger.

Normalising third-level education is the first step. If students from disadvantaged areas are shown that college isn’t this place that is forever destined to be out of their reach, then they’ll be a lot more inclined to consider it. It is not about forcing people into college, but simply showing them that they have the option and the supports to get there. If Trinity has any hope of continuing to rank among the best colleges in the world, it must work to encourage more people from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds to believe in themselves enough to want to go there. As students, we all have our own particular role to play in that.