We have five candidates for welfare officer this year, in a race typically illuminated by an overwhelming sheen of niceness and warm concern for others’ well-being and health. Of the selection, all are equally friendly, knowledgeable and inoffensive, hosting picnics, eagerly approaching students and enthusiastically discussing the importance of consent classes, the disability service and a manageable policy around drugs. Good cheer and boundless friendliness are highlighted in every interaction with other students, the media and in their smile-adorned manifestos.
The welfare officer is charged with the well-being of Trinity’s 17,000 students, and so having an approachable individual at the helm is essential. But trading on some abstract and unsteady notion of “niceness” should not be the primary driving force propelling someone’s campaign. While the welfare officer is an essential figure for some students who rely on this one-to-one support for their personal care, this opportunity is dramatically limited. Even if you assume that a welfare officer can see three or four students a day, around a vast array of other commitments like welfare campaigns and meetings, this only amounts to some 20 students a week and perhaps a few hundred students a year, considering that the students who use the welfare officer for their individual support likely don’t do so just once. Less than five per cent of students under the officer’s remit would be supported in this way, even with such generous conditions. And that figure is likely far closer to one per cent than it is to five.
Appreciating the expertise of others and looking for new ways to integrate these organisations into an overarching network of welfare supports would surely dramatically transform the experiences of hundreds, or even thousands, of Trinity students
A nice welfare officer is only approachable to a tiny proportion of students. Any attempt to increase accessibility to the officer – by altering their office hours or expanding their availability to include other campus locations – will have such a small impact that it could almost be non-existent. While one more student helped is still far better than nothing, the time and resources invested into increasing a welfare officer’s face-to-face availability would be far better spent on scaling-up impact by supporting other services. And yet this is not an argument we see this year. Not one candidate mentions involvement with external support services in their manifestos, despite the fact that engaging with organisations like Aware might better inform existing welfare policies and provide valuable new ways to improve the welfare of a larger number of students. While the welfare officer as an individual can see few students on a daily basis, an organisation like Aware provides life skills workshops that can teach techniques for dealing with challenges. Surely then, a pragmatic, welfare-focused candidate would look at ways to maximise their impact on the largest possible number of students, perhaps by running adapted life skills workshops, bolstering partnerships with organisations or finding unique ways to support the Student Counselling Service, which is already attempting to upgrade its impact with its Headspace initiative. And yet, year-on-year, we see the same old focus on “being nice” as a strategy instead.
In response to a question at the media hustings regarding their thoughts on involvement with external organisations, candidates all espoused the importance of working with others in support of student welfare. The candidates agreed that they would need outside help, and highlighted Niteline in particular as a service that could be useful to students when counselling services are unavailable, considering that volunteers involved with the organisation are students trained in supporting others. A service like Niteline or Samaritans is the sort of accumulation of collective wisdom in student welfare that the future welfare officer should aspire to earn. But why try and compete with these services, when you can instead draw on their expertise?
After all, a welfare officer may have extensive experience with various support services, like Student 2 Student and involvement in other welfare initiatives. They may even have been trained in active listening or be ASIST-certified, capable of intervening in occasions of suicidal ideation. But this is no replacement for a trained professional aware of the complex nuances of mental, physical and sexual health. Yet the manifestos this year have next to no acknowledgement of deferring to superior expertise. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, for example, would be well-placed to advise on issues of consent. Samaritans would understand the complexity of an individual in life-threatening distress. Bodywhys could provide integral support in the eating disorders that dog so many young people. For TCDSU, an institution so stalked by financial troubles, efforts to bring in external organisations in a valuable “I-scratch- your-back” arrangement might be an innovative way to alleviate the overwhelming pressure on the Counselling and Health Services. As a young person, with a young person’s experience of complicated welfare issues, appreciating the expertise of others and looking for new ways to integrate these organisations into an overarching network of welfare supports would surely dramatically transform the experiences of hundreds, or even thousands, of Trinity students.
Niceness hampers welfare candidates, preventing them from engaging with their opponents’ manifestos and critically analysing others’ ideas
Niceness hampers welfare candidates, preventing them from engaging with their opponents’ manifestos and critically analysing others’ ideas. At the equality and diversity hustings, when asked what they could criticise about the other candidates’ manifesto points, the majority of candidates struggled to answer or appeared reluctant to risk bringing down someone’s ideas. But critically analysing another individual’s policies isn’t being “mean” – it shows firstly a deeper understanding of the feasibility of various welfare initiatives, and secondly demonstrates that a candidate cares more about the broader well-being of students than they do about potentially stepping on someone’s toes. It’s definitely a difficult balancing act between being contentious and being usefully critical, but someone vying for responsibility for the welfare of 17,000 diverse students with different experiences and unique ways of engaging should be able to traverse more nuanced territory when they interact.
It would have been exciting to see a candidate engage with organisations beyond Trinity’s walls in their upfront policies. When we focus so wholeheartedly at the individual level, rather than striving for scaled-up change, we limit ourselves to small changes and ultimately constrain the number of students who can be helped.