Three adult learners received a standing ovation after sharing their stories of transformation through education at An Cosán’s International Women’s Day fundraiser on the 10th of March 2023. Just two hours earlier Ireland’s largest community education organisation had been named winner of the social inclusion category at the AONTAS Star Awards in Croke Park. The three graduates were interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan in front of almost 300 An Cosán supporters at the organisation’s 25th International Women’s Day (IWD) celebration in the InterContinental Dublin. Each shared how their experience of adult education had transformed their own lives and that of their families, giving them a more sustainable future.
Tanya Shields, a Level 6 Early Childhood Care and Education graduate, who now works as an Early Years Educator in An Cosán’s Jobstown centre, said she was a different person now. “An Cosán has given me my life back,” she said. “I never had a voice before: I was always Mammy, I was wife, I was friend, I was sister. When you’re confined to school runs and the dinners and you finally find a space that you can be 100 per cent yourself, and you’re accepted for who you are, it’s life-changing.” Tanya, who hopes to go on to do a degree, said she had very little confidence when she started at An Cosán. “I thought I’d never amount to anything,” she said. “But the new me sees I can do anything I put my mind to. It didn’t matter that I had been out of education for so long: I received a warm welcome from everyone and, because the classes were smaller than they would be in a bigger college, it quickly became a safe space where I could be myself. The additional supports, like financial and digital supports, made all the difference. Without them, I’d have given up for sure.”
Sineád Grogan also said she had low self-esteem when she first joined An Cosán’s Community Employment (CE) scheme three years ago, after spending a number of years childminding. But with the welcome she received, she said her confidence quickly grew and that she had enjoyed the experience of working in a number of areas within the organisation, including administration, reception, hospitality and finance. “It was scary the first day coming into a new place not knowing anybody,” she said, “But I have to say I have loved every day of it and I now consider An Cosán my second family. Without them and their support, I wouldn’t be the woman I am today.” Sineád’s new-found confidence gave her the courage to sign up to An Cosán’s six-week Return To Learning course that equips adult learners with computer and personal development skills, enabling them to sign up to further education and improved employment prospects. She is now on the fourth module of An Cosán’s Level 5 Business Administration with Digital Skills programme, which she hopes will help her secure an office role when her time on the CE scheme concludes.
Sineád said she was grateful for An Cosán’s additional supports, including the counselling service (available for anyone living in the wider Tallaght area), for helping her come to terms with the loss of her baby some years ago. “I’m so much stronger now,” she said. “I feel more confident in myself personally and in my work life, thanks to An Cosán. I had been scared I wasn’t going to get a job but, with my new skills and confidence, I know I will get something. An Cosán has changed my life and I have seen it change the lives of others too.”
Ashling Johnston, who was appointed An Cosán’s Digital Skills Tutor 18 months ago, said that, like many women, she felt guilty when she resumed education as it meant taking time away from her children. She said it was the support of women around her that kept her going and the realisation that, by involving her two children in her educational journey, they were benefitting too. Ashling developed a thirst for learning at the age of 40 and has since gained a BA in Sociology and Anthropology, a Higher Diploma in Adult and Further Education and a Masters in Education from Maynooth University. “It’s never too late to return to education and to learn digital skills,” she said. “I’m passionate about equipping and empowering adults, especially women, with digital skills and digital tools to support them returning to education and in getting better paid jobs.
“Gaining digital skills and access to online courses opens things up for women because access to education is still a problem for women who have young children,” she continued. “That’s where An Cosán’s additional supports are a lifeline. Most of our learners are parents, and many are lone parents, so our wraparound supports, like early years’ provision, laptop loans and IT support, and one-to-one mentoring and counselling, are like wrapping somebody up in a blanket. It’s about nurturing the learner, bringing a sense of well-being into the classroom and providing tailored supports to ensure no-one is left behind.”
An Cosán CEO Heydi Foster said An Cosán’s Digital Inclusion Team, the first of its kind in the country, was playing a valuable role in the drive to bridge the digital divide and in ensuring that Ireland reached the European Union target of at least 80% of all adults having at least basic digital skills by 2030. “This year’s United Nations theme for International Women’s Day – DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality – could not be more aligned to our work,” she said. “An Cosán is leading the way in Ireland in developing digital skills and amongst those with greatest needs. This is important to our feminist cause because digital access has the potential to empower women and break down barriers. There can be no equality without digital equality. “The work we do and the supports we provide mean that we can support our learners through their darkest times, giving them opportunities to learn and develop careers that will secure their future,” she continued. “Today is about celebrating the achievements of our inspiring learners. These powerful women are a beacon of inspiration for their families, communities and this country. There are no better role models and we are so proud of their accomplishments.”
There were cheers of celebration whenAnna Durkan, Chair of the Board of An Cosán, shared the news that An Cosán had just won the social inclusion category of the AONTAS Star Awards. “It is fantastic to receive this recognition for our ground-breaking WorkAbility programme, which we have been delivering since 2019,” she said. “The programme promotes equity of opportunity and access to employment for people living in marginalised communities using a three-pronged approach that combines education, career coaching, and employment outreach. Learners engage part-time where they live in a supportive learning community provided both face-to-face and online.” Anna said that providing women with education and opportunity was the way to improve society. “By educating a woman, you create a ripple effect that spreads out and touches the lives of so many others around her,” she said. “Through that ripple, you have the key to transformation, the key to active citizenship, to breaking the cycle of disadvantage. This is the foundation of our One Generation Solution to poverty, and we know it can be achieved.”
An Cosán CEO Heydi Foster commented “We were thrilled to win the Social Inclusion category of the AONTAS Star Awards in recognition of our ground-breaking WorkAbility programme, which promotes equity of opportunity and access to employment using a three-pronged approach that combines education, career coaching, and employment outreach. “We have been delivering WorkAbility since 2019 with the aim of addressing issues of low education and high unemployment in underserviced and marginalised communities. Learners engage part-time where they live in a supportive learning community provided both face-to-face and online. A particular benefit to learners is the provision of wraparound supports, such as early years’ education and care, family support and counselling, digital skills enhancement, flexible part-time learning, mentoring, and an informal community-based setting. “In 2022 an evaluation of WorkAbility found that it equipped learners with the foundational skills needed for employment and an improved sense of self-worth about their career, parental competence, and general psychological wellbeing. We are immensely grateful to our Level 5 Business Administration with Digital Skills learners and tutors whose input and feedback over the past couple of years have helped WorkAbility evolve into the programme it is today.”
An Cosán offers a wide range of courses, including Access and Further Education classes in Tallaght and Higher Education programmes delivered blended or online nationally. Find out more at www.ancosan.ie, email email@example.com or tel: 01 462 8488.
Caption: Tanya Sheilds with Sinead Grogan, Anne Genockey, Miriam O’Callaghan, Aisling Johnston and Heydi Foster, pictured at the An Cosán International Women’s Day Lunch held in the InterContinental Hotel, Dublin. Pic. Robbie Reynolds