I was delighted to hear about the election of Asha Woodhouse as the first female student union president of UCC in 18 years.
With 53% of first preference votes, she was elected on the first count with just over 2,900 votes out of a total poll of 5,500.
It is heartening that a candidate who has sustainability, gender equality and political engagement at the heart of her manifesto should gain so much support from her fellow students.
However, as Woodhouse highlighted herself, the number of students who actually engage with the student union and vote in SU elections is a small fraction of the 22,000-strong UCC student population.
In fact, one of Woodhouse’s personal targets for her presidential year is to get more UCC students to engage with the union and advocate for change in terms of housing and accommodation, fees, workers’ rights and other issues that affect them.
What’s really positive about the election of Woodhouse is that she will be a strong role model for other female students who might consider a similar position in the future. As they say “you can’t be what you can’t see”.
Student activism is a great training ground for prospective politicians or public life. Well known previous student union presidents include former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and RTÉ broadcaster Joe Duffy.
Both Independent Senator Lynne Ruane and Labour Senator Ivana Bacik started their political careers as SU presidents of Trinity College Dublin.
Students get a bad rap because of anti-social behaviour, particularly in the neighbourhoods surrounding UCC. A friend of mine once lived next to a rented house occupied by students who liked to practice pucking a sliotar off the adjoining living room wall. Understandably that level of inconsiderate behaviour drove my friend demented and caused her to move house.
The Magazine Road Residents Association have highlighted repeatedly the number of house parties taking place during Covid-19 restrictions, with residents eventually forced to take court proceedings against a particular landlord last summer. Similarly, the scenes of University of Limerick students partying recently was enraging to every careful citizen adhering to public health guidelines.
However, for all the infuriating stories it is important to remember that those students are not representative of all students. In recent years student involvement and participation in the Marriage Equality and Repeal the 8th referendums, as well as the Climate Strikes, have helped deliver momentous social and political change in Ireland.
The Student Union of Ireland formed in 1959 around the principles of defending student rights has, over intervening decades, also called for change on wider social issues from abortion to homosexuality.
Large student protests in 1994 about fee increases, an unfair grant system and overcrowding saw 15,000 students bring Dublin to a standstill. The then Minister for Education, Niamh Bhreathnach, introduced her plan for the abolition of third level tuition fees within a year.
I, and many others of my generation, benefited directly from these protests by being able to attend college without tuition fees or the stealth student capitation fee of €3,000.
Students around the world have historically advocated for a wide range of major issues, including access to education, women’s rights, racial equality, peace and democracy. In America, the civil rights movement and now the Black Lives Matter movement have youth activists at their core.
With a turn-out of between one and two million people, the ‘March For Our Lives’ protests against gun violence, organised by survivors of the Parklands mass school shooting in 2018, was one of the largest student-led protests in the U.S since the Vietnam War.
One of the most iconic images of the 20th century was that of a lone Chinese protester facing down a tank on Tiananmen Square in 1989. The so-called Tank Man was identified as 19-year-old archaeology student Wang Weilin, but his fate remains unknown.
The pro-democracy movements of the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong umbrella protests (who were nominated for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize) and the Fridays for Future youth climate movement are all examples of how, as disability rights advocate Helen Keller put it: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”.
When I was a college student, I didn’t vote in Student Union elections. I didn’t even know I could, being honest! I was preoccupied with the adjustment to living away from home at a young age and navigating my way in the world as an adult.
Experience has taught me the importance of people organising together to achieve common goals to build a better world, which is why I am continually impressed that so many young people are becoming politically aware at such a young age.
I hope Asha Woodhouse’s presidency goal of engaging more young people in the issues that affect them will have a positive benefit for us all.