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 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 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 Jill Nelis, the UCDSU Welfare Officer, on an average day on campus.
I looked up from my book at 10:20 am to see Jill finally enter through the doors of the SU Offices in the Student Centre. Honestly, I assumed that she had woken up late, but in reality she had started the day with an impromptu meeting at the Village to discuss student resources. These types of meetings are common for Jill as unlike Martha (UCDSU President) her day is not scheduled to the minute. Where possible, her days are left open for student visits which she conducts in her office.
Her office, which is next door to the SU President’s office, is a bright but narrow space with a window that looks out onto the quad. There is a jar labelled ‘The Good Things Jar’ sitting on her desk. Jill explains that this was a welcome gift from the former SU Welfare officer Míde Ní Fhionnlaoich, if ever Jill helps a student and effects meaningful change she writes on a post-it note and puts it in the jar.
It is hoped that the jar will remind her to stay positive in what can be an overwhelming job. The jar is still quite empty, but as Jill said, it’s still early in the year.
There are only three scheduled meetings in her calendar for the day; an SU staff meeting to discuss the new UCDSU website and then two conduct hearings. The conduct hearings are held by the Residences Board to investigate acts of misbehaviour in student accommodation. At these meetings, Jill provides moral support and acts as a student representative to campaign for fair penalties for students. Unfortunately, I was not granted access to any of these meetings.
There is half an hour before the SU staff meeting and I take advantage of the time by asking Jill about her academic journey so far and why she decided to join the Union. A Belfast native, Jill says that she had no intention of attending university in Dublin – or in Ireland. Instead, she aspired to study at the University of Glasgow with her best friend.
This changed when her sister had a baby and Jill felt compelled to stay close to home, however, she did not want to stay in the North. She said that Dublin felt “refreshing” and applied to study English and Drama at both UCD and Trinity College. But she took Trinity off her CAO application after watching Normal People. Take from that what you will.
Jill hopes to complete her degree by December. The Welfare Officer explained that campaigning for the role last spring took more time than she anticipated and as a result she has a few essays to hand-in before she can graduate. She is being granted a week of academic leave at the end of the month to complete the essays which she plans to spend in the newly renovated third floor of the James Joyce library.
When asked how her family felt about her deferring her studies to become Welfare Officer, Jill said that they were “not surprised” as she has always been “politically minded”. She proudly cites an exchange she shared with the Health Minister at Stormont when she was thirteen, “I made him cry” she grins.
Minister Edwin Poots was proposing to move necessary supports for people with Osteogenesis Imperfecta to England and re-allocate the funding in Northern Ireland. Jill told him that this was unacceptable. When asked if she felt nervous approaching a member of parliament, she simply stated “if the world is not built for you, you have two options, you can either have a chip on your shoulder or you can do something about it.” The funding was never re-allocated.
Jill said, however, that these experiences did not spark a newfound interest in social justice and that the theory that she is interested in being Welfare Officer solely because of her disability is reductive. “I do not want to be a token piece”.
In actuality, last year’s Welfare Officer recruited Jill for the position. Jill had familiarised herself with the union when she was having trouble with her student accommodation in her second year at UCD. From there, she forged a friendship with some of the Sabbatical team. Jill explains that without Míde’s confidence and support she would not have applied for the job.
Jill spends the next hour in the SU staff meeting, she is optimistic that the new website will be beneficial for students and easier to navigate but hopes that the new appointment reservation scheme doesn’t deter students from visiting her office spontaneously.
The staff meeting is followed by a short visit from a student and then two hours of conduct hearings in the meeting rooms at the UCD Village. At half three Jill takes her lunch break and catches up on her reading. She says that she also likes to listen to music during this time to decompress. Fleetwood Mac was the choice for the day.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in her office as her ‘office hours’ run until six. She explains that although she spends as much time as she can wandering around campus speaking to students, the majority of welfare cases are brought to her through in-person meetings and her UCDSU email.
Jill says that her main priority for the year is to advocate for student wellbeing and to make as much meaningful change as possible. However, a lot of her time is concentrated on meetings with the Governing Authority, the University Management Team, and EDI groups to discuss student experiences. Despite this, Jill says that her job is 85% listening, 10% providing solutions and 5% making people feel at ease.
As for next year, she does not see herself ascending to the role of SU President like so many Welfare Officers before her. Instead she hopes to start a Master’s in Screenwriting but intends to stay at UCD because “it feels like home now”.
If you are currently struggling with your mental or physical health or have issues regarding accommodation or accessibility contact Jill at firstname.lastname@example.org