Joanne O’Riordan is finished being a fresher

First year at college can take lots of getting used to after the familiarity of school and living with mum and dad. So imagine if you were disability campaigner, Joanne O’Riordan? Ailin Quinlan caught up with her to see how she found life at UCC.

SHE’S no budgeting wonder-kind, she admits, but in her first year of college, Joanne O’Riordan managed not to end up living on pot-noodles.

And, in the best student tradition, she conscientiously brought her dirty laundry home to Mum, managed to make it to most of her lectures — and somehow had a bit of spare change left in the kitty by Friday.

“I slept out the odd time, but that’s all part of college life and, sure, I managed to make a few of the lectures anyway!” Mealtimes were no problem in the college accommodation the Millstreet shared with an American exchange student.

“My best friend’s Dad owns a chipper so we got a few chips and burgers free now and again!” College life, in other words was a total blast for the 19-year-old ‘fresher’ from Millstreet, who earlier this month finished the first year of her Criminology degree course at University College Cork, where she is studying under a Quercus Scholarship.

“It was about doing my own thing! I got to have control of the remote now and again, and I was able to decide when I wanted to eat and do various things when I wanted to.

Joanne O’Riordan is finished being a fresher

“I liked the freedom of being away from home,” says the former Millstreet Community School student, who, as one of a small number of people in the world with Total Amelia, was born without limbs.

Third-level social life was simply ‘grand’ says the teenager.

“A lot of my friends from Millstreet were in UCC with me and I made more friends on the course; I went out and had fun like every other student.” And no, since you’re asking, her Personal Assistants didn’t cramp her style.

Both young and in their twenties, O’Riordan’s assistants — one is supplied by UCC for the day on campus, and one is supplied by the Irish Wheelchair Association for outside college time — knew all about being a student.

“They knew exactly what student life is like and they just went with the flow. They were there to help me and they did help me, and they blended in very well.” Yes, those first weeks were a bit nerve-wracking for Joanne and her friends, she recalls.

“We just followed each other; usually somebody knew where we were going.

“We were a bit lost in the first few weeks but we had each other and we were all going through the same thing and learned to do it ourselves.

“I was lucky, because all my lectures are in the Boole, near the library on the main campus so I didn’t have far to travel.

Joanne O’Riordan is finished being a fresher

Breaking down Barriers Conference, with Niall Breslin (Bressie)

“I learned to find my way around very quickly and the PA knew where everything was so it was easy.” Did she miss home?

“I found moving out of home very exciting, I enjoyed it, I loved living independently — it was 100% super fun. We touched base with home now and again, but mostly it was a new life, separate from home and you learned to adapt — and the majority of us did adapt.

A lot of students find the first year tough, they’re not really prepared for life — secondary school is very structured. However, there is a timetable in college, so you can structure your day if you’re prepared to do it.

“There’s nobody looking over your shoulder waiting for you to do something, but there are only about 56 students in my Crimonology class so they know where to find us if they want us.”

Joanne O’Riordan is finished being a fresher

Joanne with Enda Kenny

The work itself was fine, she reports. “I’m used to meeting deadlines and doing speeches and writing for the Irish Examiner, so I’m very used to having assignments and getting them done on time,” says the teenager who made a worldwide plea at a UN conference two and a half years ago for engineers to construct a robot that could act as a personal assistant for her — the School of Engineering at Trinity took up the challenge and have built a 4ft 7in robot called Robbie.

“However, I have to say, the work at college is 100% different — they don’t tell you want to read, you have to go off asking and looking to get what you want. You have to be more DIY-minded in college than you are in school. I liked that, but then I was lucky because I had a PA and she knew her way around.”

She’s full of praise for the college, and for its Disability Support Service. “I found UCC very open-minded and accessible, I rarely had a problem but if I had, they were very quick to help me solve it.

“ I found the college Disability Support Service very helpful — they were great with things like accommodation and any other thing I needed.” Overall?

“I loved the year. It was mad. It was crazy. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world.”

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