The Jesuit University Support and Training centre in Ballymun or JUST as it is more widely known was recently visited by six executives from the Higher Education Authority. Invited by the Director of the Centre, Dr Kevin O’Higgins, following the recent publication of the report on access to education in disadvantaged areas, the executives wanted to hear how this Centre, which was opened in 2006 has managed in less than ten years to increase three fold (close to 10%) the numbers of local residents enrolled in third level programmes.
JUST which is located in the local Jobs Centre in Ballymun is in touch with the local community and its formula for success is that the volunteer staff, many of whom are retired teachers, offer a range of supports to those who wish to attend third level but also through supportive one to one relationships with the students already in enrolled in third level and throughout the years of their studies.
Sr Maeve McMahon OP joined the Centre in 2007. As a Dominican and retired school Principal of St Leo the Great in New Orleans she is aware of how structural support in education is vital in disadvantaged areas to foster an interest in further education. She believes that the “one to one relationship is very important to assist students with what can sometimes be a daunting process of entering third level”.
The JUST centre now has eight individuals working there, many of whom are Jesuits but all of whom have education experience either in 2nd or 3rd level. It was started by the Jesuits who have a long history in Ballymun. Sr Maeve feels that it also marries very well with the Dominican charism and approach to education, which sees the blend of seeking education and truth as a means of liberation. So much so that the Dominican Sisters Cabra have committed an education fund to JUST. Sr Maeve has worked with wonderful people during her time there. Starting out with 20 students, the Centre now has 100 and has supported 300 since its inception. It has supported five young people who are pursuing PhDs and many others pursuing Mas. The rest are preparing for or participating in undergraduate courses.
She believes that access programmes in the major Universities have been vital but often the students also need support such as assistance with note taking and essay writing and this is where JUST plays an important role. She explains that many of her students have come from families that have been affected by addiction and for this reason may also require support with other personal development skills to cope in difficult family situations. She also helps many to connect with their spiritual side. JUST also aims to address the general educational deficit of many students from an area like Ballymun who have never experienced an art gallery or cultural institution. The centre facilitates cultural outings and also offers regular evening classes on diverse topics like philosophy and psychology.
Sr Maeve explains that “all human beings need to be feel that they are valued and need to be seen and heard” and that in Ireland we have failed as a nation because we have not honoured these basic Christian values.
Dr Kevin O’Higgins has asked the question of how the success of this programme can be replicated elsehwhere? The centre, because it relies predominantly on volunteers and rents inexpensive facilities, has neither sought nor received state funding. And this is the conversation that Dr O’Higgins has commenced with the HEA. The programme taps into the whole ethos of volunteering in Ireland and could be rolled out with larger volunteer organisations like the GAA or where there is a bank of retired teachers who are willing to help.
Sr Maeve believes that structurally in Ireland within the education system, we have serious problems. She draws on a wonderful school model she has seen in the United States called the Cristo Rey network, which was also started by the Jesuits and is the largest network of urban high schools in the country enrolling only youth from low income families. It offers an approach to inner-city education that equips students with the knowledge, character and skills to remove them from a cycle of poverty. This school network now has 100% enrolment into further education and the key to its success has been 24/7 support to the students if and when they need it. Dr Kevin O’Higgins is a strong proponent of this model and believes that it can be replicated in Ireland.
Sr Maeve does not expect JUST to expand further in terms of the number of students receiving support because of her fear that the one on one support would then be lost. However, the overall vision is to continue to offer an opportunity to people who have found life hard to have freedom and a realisation of their own potential through education.
Sr Maeve lived through a challenging time herself in the United States in the aftermath of Hurricane Kathrina which temporarily closed St Leo the Great. She believes that life is a task master and will create its demands but it is attitude that can make a difference in attempting to make the world a better place and she has seen this spirit alive in JUST.
She also believes that every human has an inner flame and we are entitled for this inner flame to be alive so that we can all reach our full potential. It is clear when Sr Maeve talks about her return from the United States and her chance conversation with a Jesuit about the need for volunteers in JUST, that her inner flame continues to shine brightly in the field of education.
For more information about JUST, please visit www.justballymun.org