President of Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU) is one of the highest offices a student can hold during their time in college. Often a person’s motivation for running for the position involves a sense of duty to instigate change or an interest in student politics. When I ask Aine Lawlor what first sparked her interest in the role, she laughs down the phone. “This is so upsetting”, she says, “but a friend of mine fancied the education secretary at the time so basically she dragged me along to meetings”.
An unconventional beginning, perhaps, but one that inspired Lawlor to stay engaged in student politics and to eventually run for the position of TCDSU President. From there, she launched into a career which has spanned over two decades. For 16 years, if you turned the radio on between 7am and 9am during the week, as so many do on their way to work or school, Lawlor’s voice would have greeted you. Having been at the forefront of Irish broadcasting with Morning Ireland, she now presents the News at One and The Week in Politics on RTÉ.
Talking to Lawlor, it is easy to see how she has perfected her craft. Her every word is carefully thought out. There are long pauses in our conversation as she sifts through exactly what she wants to say in her head before she voices it. In first year, I attended a panel discussion which she officiated. She carefully guided the panel, which consisted of women from varying backgrounds, through difficult issues such as sexism in the workplace, bodily autonomy and childcare.
This wasn’t the sort of confidence, however, that she was blessed with when she first walked through Front Arch and into Trinity life. “I remember being terrified walking in”, she explains, “I wanted it for so long that I felt so out of my depth.” This was compounded by the fact that, coming from Coolock, few of her peers chose a similar path.
Due to her background and heading up the union, Lawlor was very aware of the problems that students faced in attempting to secure a university education. Even with the many issues currently surrounding higher education funding and the lack of access for many students, she feels that things are much better now than when she graduated in 1984. “It cost my parents so much to put me through college”, she says. Admitting it’s still nowhere near what it should be, she believes that “once people get the points, for a lot of people, it’s more accessible”.
The problem of improving access to higher education is only one of the issues that remains startlingly similar to those that she faced as president. “It’s funny because these things don’t change”, she says. With thousands of students preparing to march in the next few weeks on issues such as publicly funded third-level education and repealing the eighth amendment, very little has altered since she was a student. While the pace of change can be incredibly frustrating, indeed, she admits it would “drive you to distraction” at times, it also results in more thoughtful outcomes. “Evolution can be incredibly frustrating but it can be more lasting than revolution”, she wisely informs me. This nugget, however, is followed by a quick laugh. “Not that I thought that when I was in my teens”, she quips. “We’re a debating society, that’s what Ireland is.”
Lawlor counts herself lucky that she has been in and out of Trinity over the years. She often facilitates society discussions and in 2008 she was awarded the Trinity College Alumni Award. Two of her children also attended Trinity and she enjoys seeing how the “fundamentals” never differ, but with a sea of new students taking over the college each year, there are always some slight differences. Lawlor’s advice to incoming freshers, therefore, is as clear, concise and well thought out, as everything else she says: “This isn’t school. It’s a chance to reshape yourself and your life in ways you can’t imagine yet.”