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Clíodhna Hannon (1998)

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Cliodhna Hannon

Ten years before the first students arrived at the Development Studies Centre, my parents were prepared in Kimmage Manor for a two year posting to Nigeria. They returned to Ireland in the mid-1960s to develop Ireland’s first Comprehensive School, in that ‘great wave’ of widening access to education.
I have spent the last fifteen years helping to build TAP, which works towards fair access and wider participation in higher education for low income groups. I met a student in June this year, sitting in the sunny Front Square of Trinity College and I asked him how his first year exams went.

“Great, I passed them all”, he beamed, “..but you know what?”, he added, “It isn’t even that I got the exams, it’s hard to describe, but I feel like nothing about how I see the world this year is the same as it was two years ago…

This is the kind of moment my time in Trinity has been built on. From 40 students in 2002, TAP has grown significantly. There are now 900 TAP students in Trinity. Our graduates have had a ‘ripple effect’ on their families and communities, inspiring others into education. We work with a wide range of partners internationally. It has been humbling and hugely rewarding to be part of providing to TAP students, often belatedly, the right to education and the great sense of freedom and possibility it can confer.
Although I had completed my primary degree in Trinity, the Development Studies Centre first gave me the gift that irrevocably shifted my own self-perception and understanding of the world. For the first time, I felt that learning was both a safe harbour to which I could always return and an expansive ocean, always promising something new. I still circumnavigate the theories of Friere, Marx, Gramsci, Giroux and Habermas with a clear sensation of my first real encounter with the potential of their thinking in practice. I have added some more archipelagoes to my voyages since then and I continue to do so, year on year, trying to re-frame my own very limited understanding of what it is to be alive and how I can make my time count. This search is best captured in a ‘primer’ I first encountered in Kimmage, a quote from Oscar Wilde:
 “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

 

Amazing Ambassadors

Amazing Ambassadors

This profoundest of feelings, brought with me from both my own parents’ values and Kimmage, has in turn given me the great joy of seeing thousands of TAP students undergo a similar process of ‘homecoming’, a discovery of self that both empowers them and frees them to a different future. Their route through Trinity is not easy. They often have ‘compartmentalised lives’, with identities split between their community of origin and who they are becoming. But it is in this ‘becoming’ space that people are in a strong place to contribute something new to how we see the world.
In 2013-14, TAP has been celebrating its 20th anniversary. One aspect of this was a research report on the family and community impact of TAP Trinity alumni. It includes some very compelling personal stories. But the report also reflects a continuing challenge. Trinity is a walled university, surrounded by communities that are still poor, with low levels of education. In the research, one alumnus remarks that TAP is located off the main campus of Trinity, saying:
“It is like you are leaving the campus to go to where you really belong. You have to understand as well that if you come from a working class area, you will have a complex about that … because you are entering Trinity, which is a symbol of something completely opposite.”
I am interested in this perception of Trinity’s wall. The French philosopher, Simone Weil, describes how two prisoners in adjoining cells learn to talk to each other by tapping on the wall.  The wall is the thing which separates them but it is also their means of communication.

A second aspect of TAP’s 20th anniversary was a performance of the Willie Russell play ‘Educating Rita’. In the film version, Julie Walters knocks through a wall in her house, frustrated as she is with the changes to her relationship, her life, her identity – she senses that the future is alive in the present.
In each of these examples the wall is a structural barrier to be overcome but it can also be used as a form of expression, as something to be broken through, made permeable or as a means of communicating with others. The same symbolic role could be attributed to other famous ‘walls’ we might call to mind – from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, to the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China.

When I think about the stories I have watched unfold and the progress made so far, I wonder what would it take in the next twenty years to make these walls – personal and structural – much stronger links of possibility between one world and another, rather than barriers? What would it take for the ‘ripple effect’ to become a ‘great wave’? Bearing in mind that the people collected together for this important 40th anniversary have huge potential power to effect social change, and if the future is alive in the present, then I will finish by posing the question, what will that future be?
Cliona Hannon is Director of the Trinity Access Programmes (TAP), Trinity College Dublin, which works in partnership across the education sector and with students, teachers, families, communities and businesses to widen access and participation at third-level of under-represented socio-economic groups.

 

 

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