Traveller who became ‘role model’ teacher recognised at mayoral reception

Owen Ward hailed by Galway mayor as ‘inspiration’ for young members of community

Owen Ward said even after becoming a fully-qualified teacher he felt something of an ‘imposter’ in the profession.

Owen Ward said even after becoming a fully-qualified teacher he felt something of an ‘imposter’ in the profession.

 

The academic achievements and social contributions of a Galway Traveller, who left school before sitting his Junior Certificate, were recognised at a mayoral reception on Friday.

Galway city Mayor Mike Cubbard praised Owen Ward as an “inspiration” for many young Travellers.

“In a time where members of the Travelling community face challenges of inequality on a daily basis, Owen Ward showed courage to break that glass ceiling and has set a pathway for others,” Mr Cubbard said.

The words “inspiration” and “role model” don’t sit naturally with Mr Ward, who stressed he has been “very fortunate”. His father was illiterate and his mother never progressed to secondary level but Mr Ward said he always wanted to progress to third-level education.

Despite having no Junior Certificate or Leaving Certificate, Mr Ward found a way into university, which he said proves there are “different routes” to suit different people.

“The Leaving Cert is seen as the traditional route, but the access programme route is there too . . . NUI Galway’s access programme saved me. I am a firm believer in a more holistic approach, where people are assessed on a one-to-one basis and supports are put in place,” he added.

Teaching at post-primary schools for a two-year period, the fully-qualified Mr Ward still felt something of an “imposter”.

“I was teaching Junior Cert and Leaving Cert students for their exams and I hadn’t done the exams myself,” he said, laughing.

Making a difference

As a teacher, Mr Ward conversed on occasions with some of his students in the “Cant” Traveller language: “That was very powerful. I am so aware of the lack of diversity within the teaching population,” Mr Ward said.

Had he been taught by someone from his community or from another disadvantaged background, he may have built stronger links with his teachers and continued with his secondary education, he added.

Mr Ward’s educational success has put him in a position to help people from his community and other disadvantaged backgrounds. Less than 1 per cent of the community progress to third-level education, but Mr Ward is currently working with more than 20 Travellers at NUI Galway in his role as the university’s access centre programme coordinator.

“I am one of the lucky people, and I do believe I am making a difference,” he said.

It is important that young Travellers and others seeking to break down barriers can hear his story of overcoming adversity, he added.

He stressed, too, that he has not lost his connections with his roots and that he has never had to hide where he came from: “I wouldn’t trade my Traveller identity for academic achievement. I have always been a proud Traveller man, and I think that helped me along the way.”