The Students’ 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 Students’ 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 focuses on Sarah McGrath, the UCDSU Education Officer. Unfortunately, Sarah told me that shadowing her was “not feasible” on any day due to her busy schedule. I spent an hour with her earlier this month to find out why.

Sarah McGrath UCDSU Education Officer. Photo credit: Hugh Dooley (The College Tribune)
Sarah McGrath UCDSU Education Officer. Photo credit: Hugh Dooley (The College Tribune)

Unlike the President and Welfare Officer, Sarah shares an office with the remaining members of the Sabbatical team. She likes this and explains that it prevents scheduling unnecessary meetings and gives her a sense of what all the other Sabbats are doing. For the purpose of the interview, we sat in the Welfare Office.

Sarah started her time at university in Trinity, where she studied Human Health and Disease for a year before deciding that her passion lies in Radiography, and to study Radiography, she had to move to UCD. Sarah was completing her third year when she decided to campaign for the spot of UCDSU Education Officer.

When asked why she decided to become a Sabbatical officer, specifically why she would put her degree on pause to dedicate a year to the Union, Sarah said that she has always aspired towards leadership positions, even as a child. When she was 11, Sarah founded a student council in her primary school, “what was I doing” she laughs, “but it’s still there” she continues “so that’s something”.

Issues surrounding clinical placements during the COVID-19 pandemic introduced Sarah to the Union. She campaigned for pay for radiography students, following the success of student nurses, however, that has yet to be achieved. “We were on placement in January 2021, during the UK strain, or whatever they called it, and it was the first time we had eight thousand cases a day in Ireland. Student nurses and midwives were pulled from placement, but we still had to go. It was very intense.”

Originally, Sarah believed that becoming a Sabbatical Officer was impossible for her to achieve due to the strict placement and training schedules within Radiography. But this was not the case. Sarah added that her year in Trinity already left her ‘behind’ her school friends, so it was not a hard decision to take another year out from academics.

“It is objectively the most boring job, but I like how it works, it is a lot of boards and committees…”

When asked what she found enticing about her role, Sarah said “It is objectively the most boring job, but I like how it works, it is a lot of boards and committees… I am on between thirty to forty university boards, committees and review groups, I like the policy side of it, it’s where the interesting stuff happens.”

In the past, many have criticised the fact that many SU voices are from the Law and Social Science side of campus. I asked Sarah if she feels any pressure representing the School of Health Science and why she thinks that an academically diverse set of officers is necessary. “It is part of why I ran, things like that don’t change unless someone puts themselves forward”.

Sarah added that instead of condemning the fact, people should start asking why students from other schools are not applying for Sabbatical roles. “Certainly, for those from health science-related degrees, it has a lot to do with clinical placement and your certifications. I thought it was important for me to run to show that it can be done.”

Sarah said that the words “meetings, policies and organisation” are the three that she would use to encapsulate her work as Education Officer.

“The role involves a lot of paperwork and analysis to find any clause that may say something it’s not supposed to. Then meetings that may be three hours long and you have to stay on the ball as you are the only person there representing students. You have to think about all students and if what is said or suggested will impact each of them in a positive way. Because if I am not paying attention things can still pass with ‘student approval’.”

To gain a better understanding of these meetings and committees I asked Sarah to walk me through her Google calendar from the week before. The calendar was meticulously colour-coded and I’ll admit, completely full. From policy meetings, budget discussions and event planning to meetings with the Governing Authority and politicians regarding student housing, Sarah McGrath was busy.

Sarah currently does not have anybody in mind to take over from her next year. She explains that often people are less interested in the role as it is not public-facing and involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work.

“It’s a lot less shiny than the other positions. The stuff that I do now won’t actually make a difference until a few years’ time. It’s work that tends to be on a rolling basis, I’m not gonna be on the working groups next year but their work is gonna still continue. It’s more long game stuff, but I prefer stuff gets done properly and makes actual change rather than doing something small and shiny just to say, ‘look what I did’.”

“The stuff that I do now won’t actually make a difference until a few years’ time.”

I asked if the extent of the behind-the-scenes work done by sabbatical officers aids the misconception that nothing is being done by the SU to help students.

“I think the way students’ unions work is really dependent on their relationship with the university. In the past, previous [UCDSU] presidents may have not had a good relationship with the university and at that stage, the union was doing a lot more shiny visible things, like when they went up to the UMT meeting about rent increases. You do those things because the relationships are so strained. But now, we are in a good place where the internal stuff is working. There’s a lot of stuff happening.”

Sarah further explains that by raising the same key issues in multiple boards and committees, the issues will be amplified by the time they reach university management. It will seem to be coming from all angles and will have to be addressed – that’s the goal anyway.

“I suppose it could probably appear that we’re not doing that much…compared to TCD”. Sarah says, referring to TCDSU’s recent demonstrations including a blockade of the Book of Kells exhibit to demand rent decreases on campus. “But I would imagine our working relationships with the university are probably slightly better than theirs at the moment.”

For many years, there was a pipeline from Welfare Officer to President, this year that pipeline ended when Martha Ní Riada, former Education Officer, was elected as SU President. When asked if she would like to continue in Martha’s footsteps next year, Sarah laughed “I think I’d prefer to finish my degree.”

Emma Hanrahan – Co-Editor