Welfare race: Sierra Mueller-Owens focuses on how to serve the individual student

The Gender Equality Officer discusses tuition fees, gender-neutral language, and consent workshops

It was as an S2S mentor for Erasmus students in her second year of college that Sierra Mueller-Owens began to engage with the welfare problems that students face at Trinity. Mueller-Owens is an international student in her final year of a Law and Politics degree, and is one of two candidates running to be next year’s Welfare and Equality Officer.

As an international student herself, one of Mueller-Owens’ focuses if elected will be the financial welfare of international students and, in particular, Non-EU students: “I did high school in the United States and so I am very cognisant and vocal about Non-EU fees and how they affect students”. In order to combat the high tuition fees these students are obliged to pay, Mueller-Owens “wants to work with the college to create a fee freeze for international students”, which would mean international students would enter college with a fixed fee that will remain the same, and not fluctuate as they so often do, throughout their years of study.

When asked about the tuition fees paid by Irish students, Mueller-Owens assures students that she does not “want to exclude Irish students from [her] passion about making student fees…less expensive” and plans to “be a voice for all students…and no matter what fees [students] will be paying, [she] will be pushing with the Education Officer and hopefully the President to lower those fees”. Mueller-Owens also plans to bring the new Provost in on the discussion as soon as possible and to inform them that the students’ union are serious about lowering the fees for all students.

Mueller-Owens recognises that much of the discussion around the high cost of tuition has intensified over the past year due to the pandemic and the lack of face-to-face teaching  students have been receiving. On the subject of the pandemic and the other ways in which it has affected students over the past year, Mueller-Owens explains how she wants to work to ensure the safety of immunocompromised students and those with other vulnerabilities once in-person teaching resumes: “it is important to keep everybody in mind as the college starts to reopen and have face-to-face learning”. She will advocate for safety measures to be put in place for vulnerable students so that they may return to face-to-face learning as soon as possible.

“I really want to have training for staff to learn about what it means to transition and what pronouns are and how to use [them] respectfully.”

Like all of us during lockdown, Mueller-Owens has had to adapt to the changes brought about by the pandemic. In particular, it has affected her role as a consent facilitator at Halls, meaning that the consent workshops she helped to run were moved online. However, despite the circumstances, she still considers the workshops to have been a success and Mueller-Owens sees a future for these online workshops in a post-Covid world: “now that we have this online curriculum, it would be so much easier to bring it to other first-years and societies and sports clubs”, meaning that it could reach parts of the student population that it could not have done if the workshops were solely held in person.

Not only does she want to ramp up consent workshops to promote an accepting and safe environment in the union, but Mueller-Owens also plans on creating a physical space where students can feel comfortable to speak about issues that may be troubling them. Ideally, Mueller-Owens plans to create group office hours during which students can approach herself and other individuals with any issues they’re having. Recognising how students can be “hesitant to walk into House Six with an issue all by [themselves]”, as Mueller-Owens remembers she was in first year, she hopes to make the students’ union “more welcoming and inclusive”: “I really want to create a space where people can come with any issues they are having”. That said, Mueller-Owens recognises that students like herself are not qualified to deal with certain issues that students may be facing, but still hopes she can encourage students to bring problems to her, and will refer them on to the counselling services if needed: “I don’t have the expertise to [stand in as a counsellor]…but I want to be a welcoming sounding board and I want to be able to be a first-instance sounding board, so I can give people advice on next steps”.

What Mueller-Owens would also like to do as Welfare and Equality Officer is bring student services like NiteLine to the attention of the student body, as well as focusing more on what can be done on the stress relief side of things: “I want to work with societies like the Meditation Society, the Yoga Society, sports clubs, and work on making mindfulness and activity more…accessible, and I want to have more options for students who want to work on stress relief”. Along with this, Mueller-Owens hopes to set up online adult colouring classes and journaling classes, among other initiatives, in the hope of giving students space to decompress. She wants to focus on mental wellbeing not just during Mental Health week but the entire year, specifically in the SU weekly email: “one of the ways I will try to promote…student services is by mentioning them in the SU email…[and] having the contact information easily accessible in the email”.

“It’s not about listening to the majority, it’s about actively listening to every single person who has a chip in the game.”

One of the other issues that Mueller-Owens sees as affecting portions of the student population is the lack of gender neutral language in the college environment. As the Gender Equality Officer, Mueller-Owens has had experience doing casework with transgender students and believes that it is important that trans and non-binary students are made to feel respected: “I really want to have training for staff to learn about what it means to transition and what pronouns are and how to use [them] respectfully”. As far as reaching such a large population of staff and students, Mueller-Owens recognises that not everybody will participate in this awareness training: “I am not expecting every staff member to come to a workshop on using gender neutral language, but I think the more people we have who are aware of the language they are using and how it will impact students, the better it is and the more normal it becomes”.

Mueller-Owens’ goal is to be a welfare officer who represents all, who “stands for every single student”: “it’s not about listening to the majority, it’s about actively listening to every single person who has a chip in the game”. Her goal is to reach out to minority students and societies and to let them know that their voices are equally important and that they should be equally represented by the students’ union: “it’s really important to be active and trying to include as many people and as many groups as possible”. As well as minority groups, Mueller-Owens wants to advocate for students who are on work placement this year, particularly student nurses, by working with other union officers: “this will be another group effort [and] I would love to work…with the entire sabbatical team” to resolve the issues they have been faced with over the past year. She wants these students to know that she “stands in support of students who are working right now…in any field, and I think it’s important [that] we listen to their needs and push for those needs to be heard by the college and…the USI”.

Finally, Mueller-Owens says that as Welfare and Equality Officer she would like to promote more student engagement with the union and create a more diverse TCDSU: “I think my personal strategy will be…to represent all students…[and] creat[e] a community and an SU that addresses the issues that students are facing. I will try to be a person who promotes and engages all kinds of students, and not just focus on my perspective and my experience as a student”.

Rebecca Deasy-Millar

Rebecca Deasy-Millar is a Staff Writer for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister English Literature and French student.