When Ger Robinson started his first degree, in philosophy and theology, more than a decade ago, a local priest put him in touch with Kevin O’Higgins.
O’Higgins had moved to Ballymun in 1999, after 15 years teaching philosophy as a missionary in Paraguay. Once a week, the two would chat over coffee in a room on the lower floor of the old eight-storey tower blocks in Ballymun.
“We’d just talk about philosophy and stuff,” says Robinson. Those conversations were a pilot scheme of sorts for what in May 2006 became the Jesuit University Support and Training project, known as JUST Ballymun.
Around that time, only 3 percent of eligible Ballymun residents had a degree, and O’Higgins set up JUST Ballymun to try to bring the figure closer to affluent neighbourhoods, to break down the obstacles that prevent Ballymuners from accessing third-level education.
Since 2006, the team has worked with 432 students, says O’Higgins, the director of the project. Of those, 386 have graduated at least once, and the rest are studying at the moment.
Of those 386 people, approximately 150 have graduated a second or third time too, continuing on from undergraduate to master’s courses or PhDs.
There’s a difference between students from Ballymun, and those who might go to third-level from middle-class areas, says Seán Meehan, who works for JUST.
He is stood in the the kitchen of the presbytery in Shangan Road that serves as the base for the programme. Upstairs, there are cosy study rooms.
“The odds are stacked against students,” he says. “[…] The student who goes from Ringsend to UCD is on her own. The group who go from Mount Sackville, or some other prestigious college, they can support each other.”
At regular intervals, Meehan puts on the kettle and offers tea to the students and mentors who stop by the kitchen for a chat.
Students have taken different routes to JUST Ballymun. Robinson was thrown out of school when he was 15 years old, with “no education, no junior cert, no leaving cert”, he says, sat on the side of a small table.
He knew a couple of people who went to university, though, including his sister’s partner. “I was working in a bar and I was always picking his brains about college. Because I knew like I had a bit of a brain in my head, but I didn’t have the confidence,” says Robinson.
About fifteen years after he had dropped out of education, he went back and did an Access course, finding his way through that on his own. “That foundation year was harder than my degree and my master’s.”
He did a BA and later an MA in philosophy at Dublin City University. These days, he is at University College Dublin doing a PhD in philosophy of science and the mind.
Robinson and others described similar fears as they settled in to university. He was terrified of opening his mouth, in case he said something stupid, he says. “I soon shrugged it off when I did my degree though. I realised it’s not about that, you know.”
“It’s very daunting going onto the campus for the first day,” said Abraham Turner, sat next to Robinson, who is now his mentor.
Turner dropped out of school at 12 years old, and was in an out of prison from the age of 17, after he killed somebody.
After his release from jail the first time, “I just launched into criminality and drugs. That led me down another horrible path again, I ended up becoming addicted myself for all of 25 years, 26 years in addiction,” said Turner.
After a second long stint in jail, he became a born-again Christian and started a few education courses.
Building up confidence is one task for mentors, says Colm Brophy who volunteers with the project. “People believe, ‘Oh no, I couldn’t do this, I’m useless,'” he says. So he tries to boost them, week after week.
That overlaps, too, with the academic support that the mentors provide, working with students on the mechanics of how to structure essays, how to make sure they don’t plagiarise, going over sample exam questions.
Natasha Morgan had started a couple of college courses 10 years ago, she said. But this time around, she found she struggled to translate what she knows into words. “It’s getting it from your mind to paper, and how to structure it, and how to reference.”
With 26 years of chronic addiction behind him, Turner said he thought he would fly through his course on addiction studies. “It’s only when I went on the course, that I thought: ‘I know nothing.'”
Students are matched with mentors who are subject experts. If they need a volunteer with a background in law, or mathematics, or Irish language, and the JUST Ballymun team don’t have that knowledge within their core group, they will find somebody.
Robinson says he can meet with O’Higgins and talk about philosophy for hours. “He’s just a wealth of knowledge. The resource is unbelievable.”
A Two-Way Street
The project tries to be as flexible as possible, says Meehan. Its remit is to help people living in Ballymun go to university, but mentors also work with some who have links to the area and on other further-education courses.
“Turning people away isn’t my style,” he said. “I think too many community projects are happy at times to say, no, we don’t do that, but go somewhere else.”
Some students he works with are doing level-five healthcare courses. “Will they become nursing degree people? Maybe not. But their children might, as they see their mum or father doing something,” he says.
Mentoring programmes that rely on volunteers can be risky. They might lose interest and drift off, but the volunteer ethos is part of what makes the programme work, says Teresa Brogan, another mentor.
“We’re always there, we’re not counting our hours, and they know we’re available, freely, they don’t have to contribute anything. For our students, I think that’s very important, they get a sense that we really are there to help them,” she says.
While much of the help is with academic work, sometimes during conversations other problems might creep out: around family issues, or housing, or juggling work and studies – and they try to help with those, too.
Meehan gets a call on a Sunday to look at an assignment before it is sent in on a Sunday night. Brogan gets emails regularly over the weekends, too, and knows that deadlines mean she must be there to respond. “They’re on time limits,” she said.
The data breaking out the proportion of undergraduates who drop out is a bit piecemeal and old. But in 2013/14, 15 percent of new undergraduates didn’t progress from first year to second year on average across all the country’s colleges and universities, according to data collected by the Higher Education Authority (HEA).
“Our drop-out rate has been extremely low,” says O’Higgins. He attributes that to the one-to-one relationship with tutors. If a student seems in danger of giving up, they follow up with phone calls and emails, and check in regularly.
“Some of us are living in Ballymun, or nearby, which makes it easier to maintain contact,” he said.
As Brophy, one of the mentors, sees it, the benefits go both ways. “The tutors get a huge amount from the students. Here I have a book of social policy in my hand,” he says, nodding towards a large academic textbook. “It’s all theory.”
But when he and Morgan talk about the realities of community work, he learns too. “I listen to her talking, in the action, she’s doing it. I’m reading about it,” he says.
Many volunteers are older people who feel its a bit early for them to be put out to graze, says Paddy Greene, a Jesuit who used to be a lecturer and headmaster: “When you reach 65, sawdust does not come out of your ears, although you’re forced to retire at that stage.”
Census figures for 2011 and 2016 show an increase in the absolute number of those living in the Ballymun area with a BA or higher.
In the area known as Ballymun C, for example, the number has increased from 262 to 429. Ballymun D, meanwhile, has seen an increase from 99 people to 124 people.
O’Higgins says that the big increase in the Ballymun C area is largely due to Dublin City University’s student accommodation. But in other areas, and to some extent in C also, it is down to the work of JUST Ballymun and programmes like DCU in the Community.
He says that the majority of their students, more than 75 percent of them, have stayed in Ballymun after graduation.
Robinson said a few years ago, he might have felt he had to hide what he wanted to do and learn for fear of being put down, of being told, “Ah, that fella thinks he’s an academic”. But he thinks that has changed a little.
One of the reason the programme works well is that it has stayed nimble and responsive, capping the number of students to around 100 at any one time.
“I like the small-is-beautiful thing myself,” says Meehan. Larger organisations can become bureaucratic, and start doing all kinds of things that had nothing to do with their original mission which is “often to do with keeping funding going”. (JUST Ballymun is funded by a Jesuit trust.)
What the mentors and students at JUST Ballymun do should be replicable elsewhere, says O’Higgins. But it would mean tackling a few hurdles.
It means finding a core group of qualified educators, with backgrounds in third-level education, within a local community. It means providing stability and continuity – both organisational and financial, he said.
It means finding enough volunteer tutors, who are “essential in order to cover a wide spectrum of academic subjects, and also to keep costs low”, he said.
It would also mean overcoming the “slowness of state agencies to recognise need for supports within local communities” and not just in third-level institutions, he said.
The project may stay small but its ripples can still spread in less obvious ways, too, as those who have been through it pass on the ethos.
Morgan says she talks to younger relatives about college, telling them that they can go, but not pushing it on them. “But that the option is there for them,” she says.