’I was nervous entering college. It had to be a new chapter for me’

From entering first year to life beyond, four succesful graduates tell their stories of third-level education

Sam Blanckensee

Occupation: Sam Blanckensee is national development officer at the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland. Earlier this year, he was named in the Forbes list of 30 people under 30 who will impact Europe over the next 50 years. Forbes said he is "an outspoken voice for the trans community across Irish media and politics". In 2014, he was given a UCD President's Award for his advocacy work for transgender students.

Education: Veterinary nursing, UCD.

“I was nervous entering college. It had to be a new chapter for me. The first thing I did was contact the UCD LGBTQ+ society and ask about how I could go about changing my name on the register. I had gone to an all-girls school and I came out as male about three weeks before my Leaving Cert, so college was the first time I could really be myself. There was no question.


“I was so happy to start off with a student ID which had my chosen name, rather than a female birth name, on it. UCD were really supportive, and my lecturers didn’t know I was trans until I wrote about it in the student paper.

"I lived at home during college, commuting up from Greystones every day. I got really involved in college life so I would stay until 10.30pm, get home at midnight and then leave in the morning. I started off with all the will in the world to join every club and society. As it turned out, the LGBTQ+ society took up most of my time and I was on the committee by the end of first year. In second year, I joined the Music Society choir and sang with them once a week.

“In second and third year, I was the LGBT co-ordinator for the students’ union. We put in a lot of motions around gender identity and marriage equality, and I seconded a motion around repealing the eighth amendment. I ran for students’ union welfare officer and, while I didn’t get in, it gave me a chance to get to know so many people on campus and bond with friends. They believed that I could make a change and a difference, which felt amazing.

"In third year, I founded the UCD Harry Potter Society and became their first auditor. I loved that. I'd spent so much time working on LGBT issues and trans activism both inside and outside college, but PotterSoc meant I was making friends that were not attached to my activism. The culture we created was in keeping with JK Rowling's message in Harry Potter: acceptance and friendship. It was less important that people were into Harry Potter than that they were a nice, inclusive person who is respectful of everyone.

“Of course, college costs money. I relied on my parents but also tried to work as much as I could. I worked in a pet shop at the weekends, but did find it hard not to have a day off during the week, and I was also managing my transition. But I struggled with my mental health throughout my time in college and needed to get essay extensions and repeat my practical exams,

“In some ways, I loved studying veterinary nursing, and I did well in my degree. I went to the classes and I kept up the work but my peers may have been surprised by how well I did. And so was I.

“Ever since I was four years old, I had thought I wanted to be a vet. It took me aback when I realised it wasn’t for me after all. A lot of what I learned on my course, however, has been helpful. I learned how to understand what clients want for their animals, how to support a client who has to euthanise the animal and how to help them cope with death.

"I learned about 'compassion fatigue' which happens when people in caring jobs or roles don't look after themselves. I have a good knowledge of the endocrine system and of medical issues. All of this has been useful in my work with Teni, where I'm focused on mental health and helping and support trans groups around Ireland. So, while veterinary wasn't ultimately what I want to do, I'm really glad I stuck it out and came out with a good degree and a huge of amount of experience – which I mostly gained from getting involved in societies and activism as well as from my academic work – which has helped me in my current role.

“If I was to give some advice to my younger self, I’d say not to worry too much about the Leaving Cert and college choices, as there’s always a way to get there, even if it wasn’t the route you initially imagined.”

Tara Flynn

Occupation: Tara Flynn (48) is an actor, writer and comedian. She was a founder member of comedy troupe The Nualas and is a core member of Dublin Comedy Improv. She has worked extensively as an actor in Irish theatre, radio and TV and has written two satirical books. She rose to international attention for her satirical videos, particularly Racist B&B for which she won satirist of the year at the Swift Satire Festival 2013, and Armagaydoon which she co-wrote with Kevin McGahern.

Education: Bachelor of arts (English and French) at UCC.

“I wasn’t really sure want I wanted to do. I thought about drama college in the UK but couldn’t have afforded it. I could afford the fees for arts in UCC, so that’s where I went. Then I got a scholarship in second year from the French department. This took a lot of the pressure off but it also ended the pipe dream of drama school.

“This turned out for the best though. UCC had a great drama department and, instead of poetry, I took every drama and linguistics module going. I was thinking of how I would use the courses after college but now I regret this: college offered the luxury of delving into poetry.

"The student drama society, Dramat, was really strong; John Crowley, director of Oscar-nominated Brooklyn was involved and he was in my English classes. The extracurricular activities were what interested me the most and it was so great to leave school and find like-minded people. Yes, college has it cliques but these are people heading into adulthood so there isn't the same level of bullying.

"I was in college before fees were abolished. I shared a flat with my sister, Sarah; my parents paid the rent and we had to look after the rest. I had to earn money, so I took on a variety of Saturday jobs including babysitting and chambermaid. I used to busk on Winthrop Street in Cork, singing with a guy called Mark O'Sullivan who I was in bands with, and I loved this: it didn't give the sense of dread you might get if you were going to work in a shop for the weekend. Sarah worked in Roches Stores, which was a classic college job.

“In college, you need to have a strict budget for yourself and, although we are relatively wealthy in global terms, there’s a good learning curve in making the tins of beans last for a few days.

“I don’t think I was that interested in relationships in college – there was one or two towards the end – because I was more interested in having my eyes opened and in going to gigs. There wasn’t enough time. I was very shy and I learned that shyness is okay, and that you can be shy and strong and still know who you are. Besides, I was dealing with any need to be the centre of attention by getting up on stage.

"In second year, I did let the study slip a little. I thought I could squeeze in all the study and extracurricular activities. I picked up again in third year. I loved my courses but it's fair to say that I learned the most about myself through getting involved in college life. I had great teachers, including Dr Elizabeth Okasha who taught old English and linguistics: she was a fascinating, formidable woman. Ger Fitzgibbon was an amazing drama teacher and nobody came through drama in Cork without being touched by his knowledge and wisdom.

“I moved straight to Dublin after college, signed on and got part-time work where I could. The voice work took off and that got me on my feet. I’ve done some stand-up over the years but I was happy to leave it behind because I believe you should play to your strengths. I do love emceeing and performing, though I’m still always nervous before a gig or a speech. My real love and draw is acting which is really about being other people. It brings out my inquisitiveness and deals with my shyness.

“I was impatient when I younger. I rushed through it and now I’d tell my younger self to value that time in college. I loved my time in UCC and am always mad proud to go back there and give talks.”

Martin Stapleton

Occupation: College is often put forward as the ideal aspiration for all school-leavers, but it's not for everyone. Martin Stapleton (age 50) is a former apprentice who is now chief executive of CDS Architectural Metalwork. He was formerly selected to take part in the World Skills Competition for Ireland.

Education: Metal fabrication apprenticeship.

"I did the Intermediate Cert, which later became the Junior Cert. I applied for a trade as a carpenter and, at the time, there were lots of trade jobs in Aer Lingus and the ESB. I had to go through an aptitude test, which I passed, but I failed on the interview.

“So I went on to do my Leaving Cert and ended up on a mechanical engineering course in IT Carlow. Apprenticeship wasn’t really put forward as an option and, indeed, it still isn’t; career guidance teachers are only beginning to get up to speed on what is needed. I wasn’t prepared for college and, once in it, discovered it wasn’t for me. I stuck it out, sat the first-year exams, passing what I was good at and failing what I was bad at. Repeating wasn’t an option for me as I knew I would fail again.

“I found out about an open day at AnCO (the predecessor FAS which, in turn, is the predecessor to education and training agency Solas), went along and realised that I should do an apprenticeship. My father, who had a building contractor firm, was able to sponsor me. I took on metal fabrication because I’d been really interested in metalwork for a long time and my dad had a workshop in his company.

"The apprenticeship took four years to complete. I had a really great instructor in Tommy Weldon, and he asked me to represent Ireland in the apprenticeship competition, which helped me get further in my training.

"Much of the learning in apprenticeships is on the job, but there was an element of college or classroom learning, and perhaps even more of it now. We did blocks of learning in a FAS centre in Waterford. It was all quite male-oriented and men and women tended to go for different types of trades. We also spent one day a week at WIT working on drawing, so I did have a taste of the college experience as well. I made some really good friends who I am still in touch with.

“All this time, I was working weekends to earn extra money; today, as then, apprentices get a wage. There is no doubt that doing an apprenticeship was a much cheaper option than higher education, although I did still have to find accommodation and there were three or four of us living in digs, all men, sharing a converted garage and we got our dinner every evening.

"I think apprenticeship is a really good option, but is often overlooked. It's a dirty word in career guidance and it has been for years. It was unspoken about at career guidance meetings and career talks were all college, college, college. If it wasn't for apprenticeship I wouldn't be where I am now, running my own company with Rolls Royce, the Three Arena and the Aga Khan as clients.

“We forgot that someone has to do the work of building and making and that every college graduate depends on tradespeople. Now, I take on one or sometimes even two apprentices a year. It is a passport for life and a way of earning money while getting experience. I wouldn’t change it.”

Sarah Johnson

Occupation: Sarah Johnson (23) is a biomedical engineer. She is working on developing heart valves with Creganna in Galway as part of her PhD.

Education: BSc in biomedical engineering, NUI Galway.

"I always liked maths and science in school, and I considered becoming a doctor but thought I would miss studying maths. Since I was little, I had volunteered with Croí, the west of Ireland cardiac foundation, which my father Neil Johnson founded and runs, so I'd always been interested in healthcare.

“I chose to study in Galway because I knew how lucky I was to have a really good university on my doorstep, and it was cheaper to live at home. On my first day, my dad dropped me off at the gates, just like school. I was nervous, particularly coming from an all-girls school and going into engineering which can be so male-dominated. But I soon realised it didn’t bother me and now most of my college friends are men.

“Academically, college was a shock at the start. Nobody was giving us homework or checking it. Nobody was forcing us to study. It was much less structured than school, although we were in from 9am till 6pm most days and had labs in the evening. It didn’t leave a lot of time for clubs and societies particularly as I was still playing hockey with my club.

“There’s about a 50/50 gender mix in biomedical engineering although there were more men in the other classes that we were mixed in with. Because working in engineering involves a lot of group work, there were a lot of group projects. Luckily, my class became my friends and we all got on really well.

“Like a lot of people in college, I had to work to earn extra cash. I did some coaching which helped with nights out. I brought my own lunch to college. I worked during the summer in Creganna Medical in Galway for two years. A great benefit of study at NUIG is that they focus on providing work placements for their undergrad students in the various course offerings, and this experience is invaluable as you enter the world of work.

"I spent my entire third year studying abroad, at Purdue University in Indiana. It was very different from any other city I'd been to in the United States, but it was a big shock for someone who had stayed in Galway all her life and had imagined I would go on to work in Galway's med-tech hub. Suddenly I realised how big the world was and how many opportunities there are in engineering.

“I’m now two years into a four-year PhD. I really like what I’m doing and the people I’m working with. Outside college, I play tag rugby with my PhD research group. I hope that, when I’m finished, I’ll travel to another lab in another part of the world and do some research there.

“That year in America, I learned how to adult. I’d already been fairly independent while living at home, cooking my own meals and doing my own washing, but being out alone was a different story. What surprised me most about college was the freedom. Everyone says they are the best years of your life and it’s true. You meet people from all over the world and from such different backgrounds. You can make your own choices and decisions and nobody is spoon-feeding you. And this means that you control how your year goes. It is up to you.”