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Galway TY teenagers enjoy Brussels experience – and come home with political aspirations!


From this week's Galway City Tribune

From this week's Galway City Tribune

Galway TY teenagers enjoy Brussels experience – and come home with political aspirations! Galway TY teenagers enjoy Brussels experience – and come home with political aspirations!

Two Galway TY students set their sights on a very different type of work experience this year, spending a week in the European Parliament with MEP Maria Walsh – and as Cróna Esler reports, they learned even more than they bargained for.

When it comes to sourcing work experience as part of the Transition Year curriculum, the majority of students opt for a placement that is on their doorstep, but every once in a while, a few really think outside the box.

Galway teens Maeya Cunningham and Mary Biggins are two such examples, recently spending a week in the European Parliament in Brussels, as guests of Midlands-North-West MEP Maria Walsh.

Both students of Galway’s Coláiste Iognáid – the Jes – Maeya and Mary have been best friends since first year, and so it came as no surprise to their families when the girls decided they wanted to go on work experience together.

The location of the placement, however, was by no means run of the mill, but when the suggestion first arose, their parents were fully supportive, and were confident it would be an experience the girls would never forget.

While Maeya hails from Barna and isn’t far from the Jes, Mary actually lives in Headford, but chose to attend the Sea Road secondary school as her mother is a teacher there.

Coming from Headford, of course, Mary doesn’t live far from Maria Walsh’s home in Shrule and so the teenagers were well aware of the local connection to the European Parliament and had been keeping an eye on Maria’s progress in the local and national media, and indeed through her social media presence.

“We were both really aware of Maria and thought it would be a great opportunity and something fun to do in Transition Year. We wanted to go over to the Parliament, to see how everything works over there, and explore if it might be a job we would like to do in the future,” Mary recalled.

“We approached Maria for work experience because we wanted to experience something totally new. I had seen Maria on Instagram and other social channels and always thought she was really inspiring,” Maeya added.

Despite a general awareness around Maria Walsh as an MEP, the girls are the first to admit that they really had no idea about life in the European Parliament prior to their trip.

“Before visiting, I had a small interest in politics, but I didn’t know a lot about the European Parliament. I just knew it was a place where big decisions are made and that a lot of politicians work there. When we went to Brussels, it was my first time in a political setting. I had seen how the Parliament looked on television, but it was much cooler in reality,” Maeya added.

During their week in Brussels, the teenagers were welcomed into Maria’s team and given an introduction and background on the European Parliament and its workings.

Mary and Maeya were also lucky enough to be in the Belgian capital for a Mini Plenary. The majority of plenary sittings take place in Strasbourg, with Brussels playing host just three times each year.

Across all meetings, votes and other business, the students were given the opportunity to shadow the MEP for the week. Maria also invited them to attend committee sittings, where they heard directly from the European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders.

Here, they also got to witness how the translation boxes work in Parliament and were fascinated by the speed at which business is done, and how quickly politicians switch between different languages.

In order to get a better understanding of their own constituency, the girls also took a closer look at the 13 counties in the Midlands-North-West, learning about the various issues and challenges that can arise across the region.

A visit to the Parlamentarium, Europe’s largest parliamentary visitor centre, was also on the agenda for Mary and Maeya, with the museum offering a fun and interactive look at the workings of the European Parliament. As well, they took a trip to the House of European History, a museum and cultural institution focusing on the overall history of Europe, rather than having politics at its core.

A whirlwind experience by all accounts, the week in Brussels was a far cry from their classroom in the Jes.

“We were exposed to so much in terms of how the Parliament operates, the topics Maria works on, and so much more. We really didn’t know what to expect before we arrived.

“The week gave us such a huge insight into life in Maria’s office and how busy she and her team always are. We learned about how the 705 MEPs vote and it was really interesting to see it all in real life.

“Looking back, I now realise how little I knew about the European Parliament going over, and how much more sense everything makes now,” Maeya continued.

As well as their new-found knowledge, the Galway girls have come away from Brussels with huge appreciation for the European Parliament and personal admiration for MEP Walsh.

“Maria was brilliant and so welcoming. I think she’s very brave in her job and there’s no doubt that it can be a very difficult and stressful position. I really think she’s so inspiring and that she works on some really important topics,” said Maeya.

“I found the whole week really interesting, and I learned so much. Without a doubt, this has been the highlight of Transition Year and we’re both so grateful to Maria for enabling us to have this experience.”

Interestingly, what began as a novel work experience idea has culminated in so much more. As well as leaving lasting memories and creating political awareness, the experience has stirred some political aspirations for both Mary and Maeya.

“The week taught me a lot about politics and it’s definitely something I would consider when I’m older,” Mary admitted.

“I have such a great understanding of the European Parliament now,” Maeya added. “I’m still young and haven’t fully decided yet what I want to be when I’m older, but after the week in Brussels, politics will definitely be one of the options on the table.”

Watch this space…

(Photo: MEP Maria Walsh, Maeya Cunningham and Mary Biggins in the European Parliament).

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