The Student’s Union is facing an engagement issue. The disconnect between UCD students and their student representatives has resulted in student apathy, poor voter turnout, and in 2021, a vote of no-confidence driven by the Instagram account ‘UCDConfessions’ which resulted in a by-election. Since then, UCDSU vowed to improve its engagement levels to little effect. Admittedly, before I started writing for the College Tribune I knew next to nothing about the Student’s Union and the work that they do. Even now, after three years of reporting on student politics, I am still uncertain about what they do on a daily basis.
Here is what I do know: there are six sabbatical officers and six editions of the College Tribune published in an academic year. SU Elections are held in April and require students to vote for the candidate they believe to be the best fit for each role. However, very few students actually know what each sabbatical officer does.
In an attempt to remedy this, the College Tribune will run an SU Series in which I follow a Sabbatical Officer for the day to get a better understanding of their role. Each print edition of the Tribune will feature an interview with a different Sabbatical Officer. I hope that by the end of the spring trimester students will have a better understanding of the Students Union and will be more confident when voting in April.
The story below follows Martha Ní Riada, the President of the UCD Student’s Union, on an average day on campus.
9:00 am – Tuesday 12 September
I met Martha at her office inside the ground floor of the Student Centre, it is a narrow, bright space with a window that looks out onto the quad. There is a small canvas on the windowsill exhibiting a recreation of Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. Ní Riada explains that it was from a ‘drink and draw’ class that the Sabbatical team took together as a bonding exercise during the summer. I got no explanation for the red sparkly cowboy hat that sat beside it.
We sit down and I take the opportunity to ask her a few questions before her 9:30 appointment. Martha admits that she wasn’t actively involved in student life until she became housemates with Ruairí Power (2021 UCDSU President) and Míde Nic Fhionnlaoich (2022 Welfare Officer) who persuaded her to run for Education Officer in 2022. Ní Riada explained that two of her undergrad research projects ignited her passion for student representation within education but that without the encouragement of her housemates she would not have put herself forward.
Martha studied Law and Social Justice and was at the end of her final year when she began campaigning for Education Officer. Each Sabbatical role is considered a full-time job, students who are elected are paid close to €30k for the year and are expected to defer their classes if they are in the middle of their degree.
9:30 am – Tuesday 12 September
I am introduced to Miranda Bauer (Campaigns Officer) and a social media manager who would prefer not to be named. We all walk outside to the front of the Students Centre to record Instagram Reels that are set to be posted later in the week. The videos, regardless of how organic they may seem online, are all scripted and edited with the help of a media team.
I quickly realise that the SU is not just the six faces on the banner hanging over the James Joyce walkway. There is another team of people working behind the scenes in the Students Union offices. From accountants to event planners, there are full-time staff who ensure that everything runs smoothly. It is a credit to those staff that the average student doesn’t know that they exist, their smooth operation of events leaves them below the radar. They are the backbone of the Union.
10 am – Tuesday 12 September –
Coffee break – for me anyway! Martha prefers Diet Coke. After our quick caffeine hit, Martha checks her inbox. The SU President says that she can expect up to forty emails per day, most of which are meeting agendas or schedule changes, others are press releases or requests for comment from student journalists (guilty)! Surprisingly, the least common are emails from students – most of which will be forwarded to other Sabbats, but Martha says that she will try to personally respond to as many as possible.
11 am – Weekly team meeting with all six Sabbatical Officers and back-of-house staff. I wasn’t allowed in.
11:30 am – Tuesday 12 September
Lunchtime. Myself, Martha, and Miranda walk to the SU shop in the Student Centre to buy food. Martha confesses that she is a creature of habit and has been eating the same mozzarella panini from the deli for the last few weeks. When asked why she takes her lunch so early, Martha says that her days are tightly scheduled and that she rarely has enough time to eat in the afternoon. As a dedicated journalist, I decided to copy her order to fully immerse myself in the life of an SU President but saved it in my bag for later.
11:45 am – Martha was not exaggerating when she said that she had no spare time. Once we bought our paninis we were out the door and on the way to the Smurfit campus in Blackrock. Myself, Martha, and Miranda were kindly given a lift by Sarah McGrath (Education Officer). The new Olivia Rodrigo album played in the background as the three went over their plans for the event.
12:00 pm – Tuesday 12 September
We arrived at Smurfit and walked to the courtyard where UCDSU staff had already set up a stand and provided boxes filled with leaflets, free Red Bulls and pre-packed tote bags. It was Orientation week at Smurfit College and the SU wanted to make their presence known, they also wanted to recruit class reps and a business college officer for the Union.
I sat across the courtyard and ate my panini. For the next two hours, I watched as Martha, Miranda, Sarah and Marc Matouc (Graduate Officer) fulfilled the SU stereotype of handing out free things to students. But to my surprise, within minutes there was a queue to speak with Martha and that queue did not disperse until we had to return to Belfield.
1:45 pm – Tuesday 12 September
Suddenly realising the time, myself and Martha leave Smurfit to get to Belfield for her 2 pm meeting. She orders a taxi while assuring me that this is not a regular practice. She would normally take a 17 bus or cycle, but this meeting was the first of the year and she didn’t want to be late. The taxi cost €8.80 – she charged it to the Union.
When asked if she ever feels intimidated in meetings with members of teaching staff or University management, Martha said that she did in the beginning, particularly as Education Officer, but that she has since found her voice and people who she knows will help to amplify that voice. She also says that her anxiety levels depend on the meeting, some will take days of preparation and others will have her searching the word ‘student’ in the agenda pdf mere minutes beforehand. It depends.
I was not allowed inside any of the scheduled or last-minute meetings that Martha attended in the afternoon. However I later found out that her meetings covered the promotion of the Irish language at the University and a review of the pathways into the University and how to widen participation. I also realised that Martha is a member of the interview panel to recruit the new Deputy President and Registrar of UCD. A busy person indeed. Martha finished her day at Belfield at 6 pm but said that she would try to catch up on emails at home.
What did I learn during my day with the SU President? I learned that Martha truly cares about students. I learned that one of her least favourite aspects of the job was campaigning for the role. I learned that Martha’s favourite part of the job is attending various boards and committees and getting ideas across the line. I learned that a lot of her role involves advocating on behalf of students rather than interacting with them. Therefore, it is incredibly important that students vote for the right person.
Emma Hanrahan – Co-Editor