Before I left for Trinity Hall last September my relatives, misty-eyed with nostalgia, assured me “the friends you make in university are the friends you’ll keep for life”. Despite their advice doing little to settle my nerves, it did make me wonder: having developed and blossomed in the optimum conditions of the Trinity bubble, how do college friendships help us acclimatise to the cold, hard reality of the working world?
Speaking to members of the Trinity Women Graduates organisation, it is easy to find truth in what my family professed. Devoted to maintaining meaningful connections between the university’s female graduates, they have celebrated the success of our female alumni for over 90 years.
Speaking to The University Times, incoming President of Trinity Women Graduates, Associate Professor and Trinity Fellow, Deirdre Ahern, explained how the organisation aims “to provide an outlet for people who came to Trinity to meet up in relation to cultural events, social events and careers networking”. Active on every major social media platform, Trinity Women Graduates promote both the forging of friendships and the establishment of professional contacts in a setting that is very informal and sociable. “It can be quite good on the career side of things”, she points out. “Just to know that amongst our members there are people in lots of different fields and that they can give a hand to younger graduates or people who are looking to change their careers.”
For Lorna Jennings, a former history and political science student and the current President, Trinity Women Graduates allows its members to access communities of like-minded people on national and international levels: “We take a representative role with the National Women’s Council and also with the Irish Federation of International Women. Equally, they’re part of European and international women groups designed to promote the education of women, such as Graduate Women International.”
Just to know that amongst our members there are people in lots of different fields and that they can give a hand to younger graduates or people who are looking to change their careers
Both Lorna and Deirdre are keen also to integrate young women into the community. Noting that women are less likely to attend career networking events, Ahern hopes to dispel this reluctance: “Networking sounds like a scary thing to do, but what I like about our events is that it can happen quite organically. So you could have a talk by someone on how to use social media for your career, but you might have a glass of wine at the reception afterwards and it will happen quite naturally that people will start to chat with each other.”
Jennings also recognised the importance of these events, mentioning their conference in October 2015: “It was around this whole idea of getting Trinity women who’ve achieved a lot and done some really interesting things in their lives, getting them to reflect on the theme of ‘If I knew then what I know now, what advice would I give my former self?’.” Alumni of every decade from the 1960s to the present spoke. One such member was Senator Ivana Bacik.
“It was a fantastic conference”, she said. Speaking to The University Times. “Really lively, really stimulating and I think I probably said, from memory, not to be too anxious about things. I always tell my law students just to go with what feels right, things have a habit of working out well.”
Throughout her career as a barrister, academic and senator, achieving equality between men and women has been high on Bacik’s agenda. “The report I authored for the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice on Women’s Participation in Politics really paved the way for the introduction of the quota legislation in 2012. The argument that it would have happened naturally was completely undermined by the fact that it hadn’t”, Bacik said. Despite some strong opposition, the quotas have led to a real change in the Irish political landscape.
Ahern is another supporter of quotas. Acknowledging that Trinity has been awarded the Athena Swan Bronze Award in recognition of the high number of women in leadership positions, she praised the College for being “extremely good in terms of gender equality”. Having researched the area extensively, however, Ahern has found that a decision-making forum must consist of at least 30 per cent women before a female will begin to feel comfortable in leadership.
Trinity Women Graduates continues to contribute towards addressing of inequality through their support of the Trinity Access Program (TAP). As well as sponsoring two scholarships each year for female undergraduates, the organisation awards a prize to the student who achieves the highest results in their first-year exams. “We might confidentially hear that they’re in a difficult way and money we raise from events, if we raise any money at all, is going back into charitable purposes for current students and graduates”, explained Ahern.
Understandably, ensuring that young women both at home and abroad that access to higher education is possible is an integral part of what Trinity Women Graduates stands for. The student loan proposals contained in the recent report of the government’s higher education funding working group are strenuously opposed by Trinity Women Graduates’ members.
It was around this whole idea of getting Trinity women who’ve achieved a lot and done some really interesting things in their lives, getting them to reflect on the theme of ‘If I knew then what I know now, what advice would I give my former self?’
Bacik believes that education should be free at first, second and third level: “I think it’s vital that students get behind the campaign. I came into politics through my student union activities so it’s something I feel very strongly about.” Ahern echoed this sentiment: “This would only serve to increase inequality and to narrow the basis of students who come to university.”
Such an image of elitism is often associated with Trinity, despite the efforts made by groups such as the Trinity Women Graduates. It was interesting to see whether the President of the organisation, in her extensive interaction with alumni, had noticed this phenomenon, or whether it is simply an outdated cliche. “When you look at the stereotypes out there, they don’t develop without being a little bit true”, Jennings conceded. Yet she was eager to convey that, in her experience, Trinity’s diversity is its most distinctive feature. “We had people from TAP backgrounds, different countries and a very different kind of mix. But the one thing I really find about Trinity graduates is that they all have those really fond memories of their college experience.”
Many newspaper inches are dedicated these days to both the challenges facing recent graduates and the entitlement of the millennial generation. How true are these competing narratives of graduates in the 21st century? “Everyone I’ve encountered so far has been smart, confident, really capable and really willing to get stuck in, so my experience with this new generation has been very positive”, said Jennings. Despite the fact that Trinity taught her to think critically and approach situations in a strategic manner, she admitted that “I wouldn’t say I left with a huge amount of practical life skills. Things as basic as working an Excel spreadsheet or a copying machine”.
It seems that graduates have to contend with a constantly evolving idea of what is expected of them as they join today’s workforce. “The world of work has changed entirely, it has become completely different in terms of the pace of change, the way in which we do things and the flexibility and adaptability that’s required from people now”, noted Jennings.
We had people from TAP backgrounds, different countries and a very different kind of mix. But the one thing I really find about Trinity graduates is that they all have those really fond memories of their college experience
It is possible that this trend has developed in response to the gradual recovery from the economic recession. Graduates who initially emigrated are steadily returning to an extremely competitive jobs market. “They have a huge amount of really interesting experience behind them”, Jennings said. They do face difficulties such as “a lag in terms of finding the right role because there’s such a demand for Irish-specific experience”.
Yet despite the undeniable obstacles, Trinity Women Graduates is confident that a supportive community, and an awareness of one’s own boundless potential, are the most invaluable tools. “To join something like [Trinity Women Graduates] allows members to get inspiration from the role models around them. Being able to come along to events where you get to see people doing what you do, it helps to actually think: well that’s possible for me”, Ahern said.
Jennings said that “to get stuck in and go for it” is a task all graduates should set themselves after leaving behind their college years. Bacik too encourages students to do what excites them and follow what they’re truly passionate about: “If you want to do something completely different and not take the traditional career path, just do it because you’re better off in the long run following what you actually want to do.”
Trinity Women Graduates reaffirms the notion that hard toil, generosity with time and knowledge, and a desire to do good are truly the most important attributes we should seek in our leaders and in ourselves. For Ahern, achieving success comes down to a simple philosophy: “The most important thing is to get along with other people, and treat everybody the same no matter who they are.”