Sunday 16 June 2019

You've made your mind up, now it's time to use your mind!

If you leave college with only one thing, let it be a sense of independence, writes Clodagh Dooley

Stock image
Stock image
Clodagh Dooley
Síona Cahill
Síona Cahill

"Independence I have long considered as the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue."

These were the words written by feminist writer and intellectual, Mary Wollstonecraft, in the famous 'The Vindication on the Rights of Woman' in the 1970s. Despite studying Wollstonecraft's treatise as part of the English module of my Arts degree, I didn't think I would ever use it again once I finished college! It is like with many subjects you learn in school - you wonder about the use it will have for you out in the real world.

Wollstonecraft was a believer that society could be improved through self-advancement and self-education. She believed that we should think and live without relying on a supreme being. She likened parents to being in a position like rulers of a state. If they earn their child's respect based on fair treatment rather than enforcing dictatorship, their children will grow up to be more righteous and rational citizens.

I always thought that 'independence' in college meant being responsible, attending lectures that I wasn't being made to attend and making my own dinners, for example. Independence was doing everything my mother might have previously done for me or 'made' me do.

Doing things for myself is independence, but it is just one small aspect - I am realising that real independence goes much deeper than this.

Freedom of expression

Independence is a developmental process, occurring during childhood and young adulthood. The definition of the word is 'the ability to live your life without being helped or influenced by other people'. It is giving our sons or daughters the freedom to develop a sense of self and research has found it to be critical for overall psychological and physical health. The need to have others in our lives who we can turn to for support is essential, but we need someone who encourages our independence, such as parents. However, parents can't fill this role forever. There comes the time when a young adult must move forward and push for their independence.

I took independence for granted at college. I admit that I was practically spoon-fed for most of my childhood! When I was in college a couple of years ago, I went to my lectures, completed my assignments, came home, made my dinner and did it all again the next day. I would applaud myself for being 'independent'.

We all need independence to be able to survive in the world. But while it means standing on your own two feet, this doesn't necessarily mean it is all about doing things just for your own benefit.

I pass by groups of college students on my way to work every day and I often see many campaigning or volunteering outside campus. On reflection, I regret that this wasn't me during my time in college.

"Students have led the way on social change in Ireland since the 70's," says Síona Cahill, President-Elect of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). "We came together and worked with our partner organisations in Northern Ireland and the UK before the Good Friday Agreement. We led the way for legalising contraceptives. We have just seen the largest youth and student turnout in history for the removal of the Eighth Amendment. We have continuously campaigned and fought for third level institutions to be adequately funded and for students who need support to have access to grants."

I admire passionate people like Síona, striving to make changes in society. She registered over 4,000 students to vote ahead of the Marriage Equality referendum with Maynooth Students' Union in 2015 and coined the term 'Make Grá the Law', which became one of the biggest campaigns of that referendum.

Regardless of what views anyone has, standing up for what a student believes in shows courage, strength and, most definitely, independence.

"When working together, the student movement is powerful," says Síona. "It is incredibly rewarding to be part of activism, campaigning and societies in college. It's how you learn about the wider world. It's about being able to make your own mind up on things, but it is also in shared experiences. It's taking the opportunities presented to you and just going for it."

Getting involved

College provides the opportunity to formulate a student's own viewpoint on certain issues and topics, through essay writing and presentations. To get your degree, however, these projects are compulsory.

As Síona says, "Education should come first, but attending class and reading in the library is only part of the experience. You can get a degree, but what shows your innovation? What really shows your independence? Prioritise the academic stuff but get involved while you have the opportunity."

This is not to say that if a student is not part of a campaign or club, they are less likely to get employed. It does boost employability, but I still got my job after college, even though I wasn't a member of a club! But I would have liked to have made use of the opportunities that were available in college, helping to facilitate change, and growing more as a person in the process.

"I still wouldn't consider myself any kind of accomplished debater, but it allowed me to discover what I was good at," Síona tells me. "You don't just campaign on something for the sake of it. You get involved because you know something in society needs to change. Maybe it's about information, or awareness, or maybe it's more institutional, but get involved regardless of what you think you have to bring to the table. Some of the most important people in a campaign aren't behind the megaphones."

It is not too late for me to step up and try to do something new, such as volunteering or campaigning, using my voice and knowledge to make a difference.

But for students, college is the perfect time to challenge themselves to get involved. And, ultimately, to get a headstart to train their mind on becoming independent, so they are equipped to take on whatever life throws at them and stand for what they believe in. As Wollstonecraft said, "Make them free, and they will quickly become wise and virtuous".

Irish Independent

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