How do you help marginalised people? For Irish student Niamh Skelly this is more than a theoretical question. She is doing an MPhil in Social and Developmental Psychology, but has had hands-on experience of helping in groups dealing with homeless people and those at risk of homelessness as well as doing voluntary work with disadvantaged children.
The aim of her work is to understand the issues that contribute to marginalisation in their widest sense – including addiction and mental health in the case of homelessness as well as problems such as educational disadvantage.
For her MPhil, for example, she will look at teachers’ perceptions of children with ADHD. She is interested, she says, in how ADHD is diagnosed and how the educational problems that result from it and end up marginalising such children can be countered. “Children with ADHD don’t tend to do well in educational settings and have poor peer relations. I am interested in finding ways to work with them and provide them with better opportunities,” she says.
Niamh grew up in Waterford, Ireland, with her older brother and younger sister. Her parents are accountants, but both she and her older brother were drawn more to psychology than spreadsheets. “My brother definitely influenced my choice,” says Niamh. “I had no idea what I wanted to do after school except that I was interested in literature and social sciences. School subjects in Ireland tend to be fairly traditional and so I did the usual mix of things like chemistry, history and economics to keep all my bases covered, but at university I chose Psychology and French.”
She went straight to Trinity College after school, where she was head of the student council. However, in her second year at university she was able to go abroad for a year and studied at the University of Toulouse II Le Mirail as part of the Erasmus programme. It was the first time she had gone abroad on her own. “It made me realise how lucky we are in Ireland in terms of funding for higher education,” she says.
After completing her Erasmus programme in 2007, she started working for Les petits frères des Pauvres in Paris and working with marginalised elderly men and women.
She returned to Ireland and finished her undergraduate course.
In her third and fourth years, she volunteered every week as a tutor of children from disadvantaged schools near Trinity, an experience that she really loved and found rewarding. She has also worked on summer programmes for academically gifted children in the UK and at the Irish Centre for Talented Youth. During her third year, Niamh, who was herself a student of CTYI as a teenager, worked as a coordinator of their Saturday classes for primary school children. She says these experiences “were really what fuelled my interest in developmental psychology”.
During her time at university she also became involved in green politics and was treasurer of the student branch of the Green Party. One of the main focuses of her green activism was sustainable housing.
She did her dissertation on neuroscientific studies of sustained attention as Trinity had a world class reputation for neuroscience. “It’s very different from what I’m doing now,” she says, “which is about social and developmental psychology and more about quantitative than qualitative research.” She says she was keen to be well rounded academically.
When she graduated in 2009, she did a graduate training programme for people interested in social work and clinical psychology. During this time she worked at the Focus Ireland advice centre in Dublin, a day centre for people who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.
“We supported people, listened to them, found them a bed, gave them clean clothes, helped them with meals and offered social welfare,” she says. She also helped refer them to agenciee who could help. “We also had to manage behaviour when it got out of hand.”
She says that, at the time, the recession was beginning and the organisation was seeing some people who would not have been homeless in other times. However, most of the people she dealt with were suffering from mental health problems and addiction.
Niamh, 23, is enjoying being a Gates scholar and says having all the social network it provides has helped her settle into Cambridge.
She would like to work in the NHS and eventually become a clinical psychologist. She says she is keen to broaden her experience outside mental health and addiction, but the main focus of her interest remains marginalised people.