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RTE Doc Teacher hopes to inspire other young Travellers to stay in school

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A second level teacher from the travelling community has opened up about the discrimination she faced at school as she aims to entice young Travellers into education. 

Just one percent of the Travelling Community in Ireland carry on into third level education, which is something that Cork’s Chrisdina O’Neill wants to change.

The 23-year-old from Charleville now works in a secondary school in Doncaster in the UK as an English teacher.

But she revealed the difficult path she had to walk in order to make it into third level education.

“I had good and bad experiences in school,” she told the Sunday World.

“In primary school, straight away, there were preconceived ideas that I needed to be taken out of the mainstream classroom and put into different classes with other members of the travelling community.

“And I was fine, and I could read and write just fine, but from very early on, they said that we were different.

“I remember my mother coming up to the school but they told her that if I wanted to get the free books that I had to keep with the remedial classes.

“I used to ask why couldn’t my friends come out with me because my best friend was from the settled community, so you were treated as different form the start.”

Chrisdina said she was often the subject of racist name-calling by her peers, which she could not understand as a young girl.

“I had great friends from the settled community but there was also others that would call me names.

“I didn’t know how to take it.

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“When it came to people my own age it was hard because I didn’t understand why they were calling me names like 'dirty knacker' and 'smelly tinker' because I was very young at the time,” she said.

When she left primary school and went to the local Deis school, Chrisdina admitted she flourished as most of her teachers believed in her ability.

But it was one teacher, who constantly put her down, that secretly pushed her to succeed.

“It was really small and it is closed down now but I was sent to a Deis school while my friends would have gone to the convent in town.

“It was a disadvantaged school but if I didn’t go there I wouldn't be where I am now.

“They gave me the attention I needed and I loved that and when I got that I did more and I realised I loved learning and the praise that came with that.

“I had a rough patch in my Leaving Cert year because I had one teacher who always picked on me because I was from the traveling community.

“I took that personally and I wanted to prove I could do it and I knew I wanted to be a teacher that pushed people to do well.”

Chrisdina secured a place in UCC and studied English and History much to the dismay of her parents.

“There were a lot of fights with my parents,” she said.

“They didn't want me to go because they just didn’t understand this.

"They thought college was for posh people and to think that their daughter wanted to go was unnerving.

“We didn’t talk for a couple of weeks but eventually they agreed to let me go, thinking that I would drop out after a couple of weeks.

“They didn’t expect me to be still going five years later.

“They just wanted me to have an income and be independent for myself, but under their rules.

“No one had ever done this in my family and because it is the unknown, tradition had created that we stay at home, that's how we were brought up.”

Chrisdina is one of seven former students taking part in My Uni Life, a five-part series which follows the lives of seven students at various stages of their university journey.

Starting tonight on RTÉ ONE, the show aims to challenge the stereotypes associated with socially disadvantaged backgrounds.

And Chrisdina admits that she agreed to take part in order to challenge people in both the settled and the travelling community.

“People at home thought I would go away and get all these big ideas and come back and influence others in the community,” she said.

“It’s not like that at all. I just want to show other people that this is an option for them at all.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t see anyone doing well in school or going to college and that definitely would have helped.

“It is the same for those outside of the travelling community, I want to prove that there is more to us then what you see in those programmes (my Big Fat Gypsy Wedding).

“We have our heritage and our culture but we are also more than these old stereotypes.

“I hope people from both sides will see my story, and maybe I can change a few opinions.”

My Uni Life starts at 7.30pm tonight in RTÉ One.

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