Simon Coveney T.D. presented awards at a graduation ceremony at MTU’s Department of Tourism & Hospitality on Friday, 12th April, where the first group of students with Down Syndrome in Ireland, along with MTU’s BA (Hons) Home Economics and Business students, will be recognised together for their participation in a very unique pilot programme.

This remarkable pilot programme, which commenced in January of this year, came about when Team Up, a Cork-based organisation that works to facilitate inclusion in society for persons with Down Syndrome, approached Dr Noel Murray, Head of Department, Tourism & Hospitality, MTU, with a proposal for a “Team Up for Home Economics and Business Pilot Programme”.

Using the proven “buddy system” principles employed in several other Team UP community-based initiatives, this hands-on academic collaboration saw members of the local community with Down Syndrome pairing up with 2nd year Home Economics and Business students, on an eight-week pilot programme.

Dr. Murray, having a background himself as a Learning Support Coordinator in a previous professional role, immediately came on board putting forward his department as a fully-committed co-partner on the project. Dr. Murray recognised from the outset that this pilot was a very unique and dynamic opportunity to implement two-way learning, of equal value and relevance to both MTU students and community students alike.

The majority of the students within the Home Economics and Business course plan to go on and become Home Economics secondary school teachers, of which there is currently a great shortage in Ireland, most especially those who have specific special education needs (SEN) experience. Given that up to a quarter of students in any secondary school classroom today have some type of additional need, Dr. Murray saw the value of this initiative for all students involved, most especially those preparing for a career as an educator.

Dr. Murray said, “I am delighted to see the success of the ‘Team Up for Home Economics MTU Pilot Programme’, which has had an incredible impact on the community participants, by providing a pathway for a positive University learning experience. This has been dovetailed with an equally positive experience for our BA (Hons) in Home Economics & Business students, who have had the opportunity to apply their pedagogical skills and knowledge, while simultaneously gaining valuable experience in supporting adults with special needs. At MTU our mantra is ‘Succeeding Together’, and this programme epitomises this ambition.”

Maggie Cusack, President of Munster Technological University, remarked, “The societal impact of this programme is significant. Through hands-on experiences we gain confidence and break down stereotypes. Such confidence cannot be attained through books or lectures alone. I’d like to congratulate all the students on their achievement today and wish them the very best in their futures. I hope the skills and values they have learned as part of this unique programme will be of great benefit for many years to come.”

Simon Coveney TD said, ‘’It is an honour for me to be asked to present these awards to a very deserving and hard-working group of students. This programme is commendable and huge credit is due to the participating students and the staff at MTU for their dedication. I want to make a special mention for Team Up – for their vision in delivering an idea that shows these students even more of their potential and opportunities ahead’’.

Alison Nolan, Chairperson of Down Syndrome Cork, shared her thoughts, stating, “I am absolutely delighted to celebrate the success of the ‘Team Up for Home Economics Pilot Programme. This ground-breaking initiative fostered social inclusion and skill development by bringing together our students with their mainstream peers from MTU. It created a unique learning environment that extended beyond the classroom. Students gained valuable Home Economics skills while also having the cherished opportunity to sit down together after class, share a meal, and build meaningful connections. These interactions, often limited after second level education, provided a vital space for our community to learn, socialize, and create a more inclusive future for all. We look forward to building on the programme’s success in the future.”

Therese McNamee, Founder of Team Up, expressed her gratitude, “It was an absolute honour and a privilege to get to know so many fantastic students, both community-based and from MTU. I was incredibly impressed by their enthusiasm, courage, and commitment to the pilot. A massive thank you to Breda O’Mahony, MTU’s Home Economics Lecturer, who also threw herself behind this pilot programme and embraced the adventure without the slightest hesitation.”

The main goal of the pilot was to establish if a Team Up approach would prove to be mutually beneficial in a third level teaching environment. “I felt confident the pilot would prove to be a positive experience for the community students, and it most certainly was, but I have to admit I was surprised and delighted at the extent to which the MTU students not only engaged with the pilot but how much they actually enjoyed it, reporting they had found it to be a fantastic learning opportunity.”   She also remarked, “The warm reception we received from all staff, including the staff at both MTU’s Access Centre, Students Union and MTU’s café, The Bistro, was truly heartening.”

One of the community students with Down Syndrome, Sean McMahon, shared his experience, stating, “I feel happy doing Home Economics.” He expressed his enjoyment of being at MTU, particularly enjoying cooking in the kitchen and sharing a meal afterward with the group.  According to Therese McNamee “one of the hidden jewels of this programme was the casual after class opportunity for MTU students & community students to sit, eat   discuss a recent shared experience, building friendships and fostering true inclusion”.

The graduation ceremony serves as a testament to the success and impact of this pioneering collaboration, underscoring the transformative power of inclusive education initiatives. Simon Coveney TD’s participation further highlights the government’s commitment to fostering inclusivity and recognising the achievements of all students, regardless of background or ability.