Trinity students take ‘privilege walk’ to highlight access issues

Need for ‘levelling playing fields’ emphasised at university event

Students take part in the  TCD Privilege Walk at the university’s Front Square. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

Students take part in the TCD Privilege Walk at the university’s Front Square. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times


What do a woman from Tallaght who dropped out of school when she was 15 because she was pregnant, an Irish citizen who was born in Nigeria and has come up from his home in Cork to study in the capital, and a former pupil of Omagh Grammar School and proud Traveller who qualified for Trinity College Dublin with good A-Levels have in common?

Why privilege, of course.

TCD students’ union president Lynn Ruane has joined many current students, including Henry Adedeji and Patrick McDonagh, in the college’s front square on Tuesday for a Privilege Walk.

They are aware that they may not be the first people you’d expected to meet, but they are here to make a point about “levelling playing fields”.

All three are conscious that by getting a degree at TCD they are currently sucking up privilege themselves, so are happy to play this game of give and take.

The event, organised by the Trinity Accesss Programme (Tap) in conjunction with the university’s equality fund, sees the front square covered with lines.

“We have put a line right across the square and everyone will start from the centre line,” explains Ruane.

“We are calling out questions, and the questions are based around sexual orientation, class, gender, disability, down to more simple questions like whether there were books in your house when you were growing up.

“The person who has had the privilege will take a step forward and if you haven’t had that privilege, you will take a step back. Usually the people in the front are the most privileged of the cohort that have participated.”

Ruane makes it all sound so easy, but the idea of standing up and having your “privilege” checked may worry many, we suggest.

“We don’t want to make you feel bad for having a privilege, it’s more about taking a pause and asking is it fair that someone is behind me just because of where they live or maybe because of their gender or sexual orientation?

So who is at the top of the privilege line?

Ruane laughs. “Probably young males… middle-class... white….straight…able bodied….”

Asked where she fits in, Ruane replies: “Obviously, due to social mobility, your privilege changes.”

She has completed three years of her politics and philosophy degree and has a year to go after she finishes up as union president. She is now seeking election to the Seanad on the TCD panel.

“Originally I’m from a working-class background in an area of disadvantage with low college participation and early school-leaving.

“I was an early school-leaver and teen mother, so there was a lot that was of disadvantage, but definitely since I’ve managed to gain an education and definitely since I became president of the SU, I have been in a position of privilege where I have a national platform.”

She said 140 people had registered to take part in the event. “Students are idealistic and so if you can instil a sense of diversity in them, that is good.”

Patrick McDonagh is a second-year history an economics student. What direction will he be heading on the Privilege Walk?

“I’m not privileged, because I come from a Traveller background,” he says unequivocally.

He got into Trinity with his A-levels from Omagh Grammar School and only found out about the Trinity Accesss Programme (Tap) when he got there and applied. He qualified.

McDonagh’s identity as a Traveller is strong. He is only aware of four Travellers at Trinity, however, “and one of them is me,” he laughs.

The Privilege Walk is a good idea, he says. “But I’m not sure where Travellers fit in. We need a separate programme, maybe, as we get very little educational opportunity.”

Henry Adedeji has moved out of the home he shared with his care-worker mother in Cork to live in Rathmines. He is a Tap student too. He is really happy to be studying Business Economic & Social Studies (Bess) at Trinity. “It gives you the chance of change, the chance to bring out your full potential whatever your background.

“The course has opened my brain to all sorts of possibilities.”

Now the man who wanted to be a teacher is discovering he has more choices. Adedji is thinking he might become an economist or a banker . Then he will definitely have to check his privilege.