Owen Ward, the first Traveller to be elected to NUI Galway’s Governing Body gives us all a lesson in unflinching determination!
By Miriam Kerins
Owen Ward is a proud Irish Traveller man who left school at the age of 16 without having the benefit of either a Junior or a Leaving Certificate. However, rather than allow his lack of formal education to restrict him, Owen was determined to succeed, and, making the decision to return to education through NUI Galway’s Access programme, Owen put his head down, dedicated himself to his studies, and, securing a place at the university, impressively graduated with an Honour’s degree!
Owen is a History and CSPE teacher in a post primary school located in Galway City.
Currently teaching History and CSPE in a post primary school located in Galway City, Owen, who told us he’s ‘the first in the family to go to University,’ is currently in the final stages of completing a Professional Master of Education. In addition he mentors students coming from what he describes as being ‘disadvantaged backgrounds.’ This means Owen works with all ethnicities, as well as students within his own culture, i.e. the Traveller community, in order to help them become successful within the higher education sphere.
Owen is first Traveller elected to NUI governing body, Údarás na hOllscoile!
However, while all of this is highly impressive, Owen holds another stellar string to his bow in that he has been elected to sit on NUI Galway’s Údarás na hOllscoile, the university’s governing body in this country, making history as the very first member of the Traveller community to hold such a position. In addition, it must be mentioned that Owen is a co-founder of the Mincéirs Whiden Society and readers will be familiar with this organisation as meaning ‘Travellers Talking’ in their own unique community language of Cant. In addition, Owen sits on NUI’s University of Sanctuary steering committee and is proud of the fact the third level centre has piloted the University of Sanctuary Scholarships Programme for International Protection applicants, vulnerable migrants, refugees and, something which will be of huge interest to our readers, members of the Traveller community.
I personally didn’t have a good experience at school, but now I’m a teacher!
We caught up with Owen to find out why he works tirelessly alongside university staff and senior Higher Education Authority (HEA) staff, and the students’ union etc., in order to try and ensure more positive outcomes for every student, but in particular, anyone who hails from a ‘disadvantaged’ background where extra help may be needed. “I personally didn’t have a good experience at school, but now I’m a teacher, I’ve found out that this was down to me more than it was them (teachers). The mindset has now changed. Here we target every student linked in a community setting in order that we can help them; and a big part of our national Access plan is that we actively encourage Travellers to come to the university and we encourage them to apply for scholarships too etc.,” Explained Owen, adding “We have now created the environment where we can have a conversation saying this is what’s wrong and this is what we need to do to fix it. When you consider that in 2016 there were only 81 Travellers in higher education, and now we have approximately 20 Travellers in NUI Galway alone, so it’s clear things are changing.”
As a proud Traveller, Owen is passionate about his culture and about helping his community, and he told us, “I’ve had to overcome many barriers but this successful outcome shows just how inclusive and how respectful NUI Galway has become. It’s my plan to be a proactive voice and to represent the diversity of issues affecting all postgraduates on campus, not just those affecting the Traveller community,” says Owen. This remit will include offering supports to students within the cultural and social body which will include ethnic minorities, those requiring extra supports due to disabilities and specific needs etc., and those within the LGBTQ+ community.
When asked about the biggest challenges facing Travellers entering further education, Owen said he believes creating a more inclusive environment is key and praised NUI Galway in taking that first step through their scholarship programme. “The whole campus has put their foot to the floor on this and a lot of changes have come on board. The School of Sanctuary initiative has touched on this. In addition, in forming the first Traveller Student Society in higher education I believe we’ve created a space for Travellers to come to. Some are happy to identify as members of the community and some aren’t and that’s fine, but now they have a safe space where they can meet.”
As a teacher, I want to connect with every single student in my class; not just the Traveller children.
As a teacher, Owen not only recognises the benefits of a professional and recognised qualification from an educator’s point of view, but he also recognises it from a parent’s point of view. “The most important foundation for education to be successful for any child is the relationship between the teacher and the student and between the parent and the teacher. As a teacher, I want to connect with every single student in my class; not just the Traveller children. When I have done that I will know I have done a good job. However, in order to do this, teachers have to work in collaboration with students, schools, communities and with the parents. My approach would always be to tell parents to attend all parent/teacher meetings. I’d advise parents to engage with teachers because when a teacher sees a parent engaging with them they know that parent is serious about their child’s education and that can only lead to a positive outcome for the child.”