By Stephen Holland
A programme which saw 24 Travellers graduate from NUI Galway has won a prestigious adult learning award.
Graduate Keith McDonagh said that winning “felt brilliant” and hoped their achievement would “convince younger Travellers to stay in school”.
“24 Travellers getting diplomas from a course, I don’t think it has ever been done before,” he said.
The Power in Participation project won an AONTAS Star Award and was organised by the Galway Travellers Movement (GTM), Community Action Network as well as NUI Galway and saw the participants graduate with a diploma in Community Development Practice.
Dr Helen Casey, a lecturer in NUIG, said that the project could “be rolled out nationwide” and there has “been discussions with a Traveller group in the midlands about a similar project”.
GTM member Martin Ward said that the award gives the project national recognition and hopes this recognition will encourage other Travellers the get involved in higher education.
“If we are 1% of the population, why aren’t we 1% of the students on campus? We need to ensure that every Traveller that wants to get into the educational system can start and finish that journey, and that they don’t have to go back after 20 or 30 years because that’s just playing catch up.”
“There’s huge damage been done to the Travelling community in the past and it’s not going to be undone unless there’s lots of resources put in and lots of programmes like what we’ve rolled out in Galway,” he said.
All the participants in the course were Travellers and this meant there was a shared sense of community that is usually absent for Travellers in higher education.
Nora Mongan, a participant who also works with GTM, said this shared culture was integral to the success of the programme.
“There was a mixture of men and women which is not really a done thing in the Traveller community. We helped one another, we had life stories, life skills, and a lot of knowledge which brought us together as a collective group,” she said.
Kathleen Sweeney, a graduate of the programme, said the project gave Travellers who never had the opportunity to go onto higher education and hopes this can lead to real lasting change following on from the State’s symbolic recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority in 2017.
“I would like to see us getting formal recognition and written into legislation, so that when services are being rolled out, it is services that will bring a lot to our young community,” she stated.
Mr McDonagh said going back to education after leaving school at 14 was “a serious achievement” and he “felt thankful” for the chance to do the course and have his family witness him graduate.
He hopes their achievement demonstrates to other Travellers that they “can go onto college and be what they want to be”.
“We’ve kicked down that barrier and the doors are open for them now,” he said.