For the third year in succession, the role of welfare officer will go uncontested in the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) elections. In the past, however, the race has typically been quite competitive. Key aspects of the welfare officer’s remit – such as consent, counselling services and reporting sexual assaults – have often been at the centre of campus-wide discussions.
Leah Keogh, the sole candidate for the position, is a final-year social studies student with a wealth of experience in the union – last year, she served as secretary of its council and chair of its Oversight Board. She also has a background conducive to welfare – she has worked in the past with children from disadvantaged backgrounds and with behavioural disabilities.
It’s hard to know, then, whether to be surprised at Keogh’s assertion that a lot of her plans revolve around “[continuing] what’s being done”. With her background in welfare-related issues, she perhaps has the nous to push the envelope a bit more, but it’s also arguably fair to call her an establishment candidate – with past experience on the Welfare Committee on top of her other union roles, she has staked out her territory as a stalwart in House Six.
Keogh wants to build on the progress made in key welfare areas, including consent and sexual assault reporting, in recent years. She praises last year’s decision to introduce a full-time consent officer into the union: “The reach [of the workshops] is phenomenal and well overdue. There’s also an awareness there too and people are feeling more informed and therefore more likely to disclose sexual assaults.”
Reflecting on the work of the consent officer, Keogh calls it “a huge asset to the consent team, because someone is now employed to look after consent 100 per cent of the time. That’s their role and I think the role deserves somebody’s full attention”.
Aisling Leen, the incumbent TCDSU welfare officer, ran a campaign with a particular focus on reforming the mechanisms by which students can report cases of sexual assault to the Junior Dean. Leen received criticism for a perceived vagueness, and spoke of a five-year timeline for the changes.
When questioned on Leen’s policy, Keogh speaks about other aspects of the union’s work when it comes to offering support to students affected by sexual assault, as well as an anonymous reporting tool that College’s counselling service hopes to roll out by the end of the academic year.
She does note, however, that “there’s still ways to go in terms of the disciplinary procedure and the process in reporting [cases of sexual assault] to the Junior Dean”. But she contends: “We’re on the right track.”
As well as continuing the work of past officers, Keogh is eager to make progress on the issues that she personally feels are important to the student body. Asked what she thinks is the biggest welfare issue facing students today, she is emphatic: “I think student finance is a huge one.” Citing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, she says that “if you can’t afford to be here, or to manage college, you can’t self-actualise. You need your basic safety need of accommodation, of finance”.
Keogh considers the lack of financial support for students as the wellspring for other student welfare-related issues. “Financial hardship can lead to issues that we’re seeing like mental health, addictive behaviours. There’s definitely an overlap, but I think that if we start with the basics, we can then move forward and tackle the other areas.”
When it comes to how she thinks financial hardship might be tackled, Keogh argues that the measures currently in place are not nearly doing enough. “There’s the student hardship fund, and there’s student assistance fund, but there’s nothing that directly compensates for accomodation, nothing for fees, so there’s loads of work to be done.”
“I’d hope to work with Academic Registry to build that relationship, and hopefully making College just a little bit more accessible for more people.” She also plans to use the position of the welfare officer on various College committees to promote the importance of providing more financial supports.
As someone who has been a part of the union’s hierarchy for almost four years, it’s understandable that Keogh views the structures of the organisation as an essential support for the role of welfare officer. But she doesn’t hide from her own limitations: “I view the role as almost a triage, in some instances. I understand that I can’t do everything on my own.”
“I know I won’t be the best-versed on ethnic minorities in college. But I’m confident in the ethnic minorities officer and really willing to work with them to put on refugee week to ensure that the voices are being heard”, she explains.
Keogh repeats the “ensuring voices are heard” maxim several times during our conversation. When it comes to introducing new campaigns, Keogh is keen to “listen to the student voice” to source inspiration for ideas. “I think as welfare officer, I’d definitely be able to reach a lot more students.”
Given TCDSU’s historic problem of poor engagement with the wider student body, the idea that the role of welfare officer might give Keogh greater reach is dubious. Keogh states that she wants to be an “inclusive” welfare officer, but she’ll have to buck a longstanding trend to achieve this. And, for a candidate so well-versed in other areas of welfare, she’s unusually vague when asked how she’ll go about it: she says she wants to use the union’s communications office to engage with students across campus. “I think provision of information is huge for me. I’d love to work with the communication officer and just get it out there early on – through talks, through the publication materials, through outreach, just general advertisement in council.”
It’s clear that Keogh is well equipped to take on the role of welfare officer given the experience she has gained through her academic studies, coursework, off-campus social work, as well as her knowledge of TCDSU hierarchies. While some of her manifesto points may need refining, her enthusiasm for student wellbeing will stand to her when she asks voters to support her in February.