“Together in the Telling”: The AONTAS “Learners As Leaders” Programme for Autumn 2022

25 Jan 2023
Sharing the stories about how and why someone decided to do a course or a class, and the impact it has had on their lives, can be very inspirational and encouraging to others. People who have returned to learning can become “leaders” in their local communities, and show others that going back to education can be lifechanging.

The “Learners As Leaders” programme, funded through the New European Agenda for Adult Learning (NEAAL), runs twice a year. In 2022, the summer session was “Creativity Takes Courage”, and focussed on older learners and the digital divide. In November, the programme was called “Together in the Telling”, and explored how migrant women in Ireland could tell their stories together, be part of a community, and inspire others through their courage.

These women have come to Ireland from different places around the world, many seeking refuge here from difficult or traumatic circumstances. 

Near FM presenter with adult learner Janet and AONTAS EU Projects Officer Ecem
They have made Ireland their home, and in returning to education have become part of local communities and workplaces.

There were three sessions on Zoom with these women, and at the end of the programme we put together a new radio programme with Near FM, a podcast, and a promotional video which amplifies their voices so that people can hear about their learning journeys and feel it is possible for them, too, to return to learning, in whatever form that takes. 

Setting Up the Course: Recruiting Learners and Planning for Dissemination

The first step in this programme was teaming up with the Cork Migrant Centre – which provides free, confidential and up-to-date information on access to immigration issues and services in Ireland –  with and Deborah Oniah, an advocate for adult learning with whom we’ve collaborated in the past in Ireland and internationally. AONTAS EU Projects Officer Ecem Akarca met with Deborah and with Cork Migrant Centre to discuss how best to structure the programme and how it would work. Deborah recruited women from Cork, Dublin, and Limerick to take part in the programme, and agreed to co-facilitate one of the sessions.

We had 16 women involved, most of whom are in Direct Provision, Ireland’s reception system for those seeking asylum. Under the Direct Provision system, people are accommodated across the country in communal institutional centres or former hotels. This accommodation is often not fit-for-purpose and is a challenging environment for people, especially if trying to return to education, and also care for family and children.

The Communications Officer at AONTAS, Kate Smyth, planned a communications strategy for the programme, including the title and focus, as well as images, and a plan to share the sessions and impact across AONTAS’s social media channels and website. The goal was to raise awareness of the inspirational stories from these women, their passion for education, and why others can consider returning to learning too, following their example.

Once the programme structure and participants were established, we arranged to post a programme pack which included a NEAAL totebag, notebook, pen, mousepad, a headset, a phone power-bank, a Learners As Leaders t-shirt, One Step Up booklet and leaflets, and a welcome letter with the programme details.

We announced the programme on social media, with great reactions across our platforms. For instance, this tweet gained over 7,000 impressions and 126 engagements.

The first session, hosted by Ecem and attended by Kate and AONTAS Research Officer Aisling Meyler, consisted mainly of introductions to the group. The focus of the session was to understand the challenges that the participants faced in their education – for instance, while looking after children and living in temporary, shared accommodation – and an exercise where each attendee stated the last thing they learned, including bead-making, dancing and driving.

Momentum and enthusiasm about the course picked up quickly, and this tweet, which we shared after the first session, gained almost 50,000 impressions and 441 engagements from our audience.

“I am remarkable because…”

The second session was called “I am Remarkable”, an approach taken from a Google initiative, which was facilitated by Ecem, who is certified in this. It has previously been used to empower women and under-represented groups to celebrate their achievements. It is all about confidence-building and encouraging participants to challenge negative social perceptions about self-promotion. As part of the session, Ecem worked with the women to interrogate and change their perceptions of gender norms and the idea of “imposter syndrome”. Deborah also spoke about the importance of adult learners – who have returned to education – telling their stories and sharing their experiences with others, and how this can have a positive effect on someone and perhaps encourage them to try learning something new too.

At the end of the session, the women involved were asked to think of three things about themselves, starting with the phrase “I am remarkable because …” They had ten minutes to prepare an answer, and then each participant reported back to the group. Some said it wasn’t easy to remember things they had achieved, or to say them out loud.

In response to this, Deborah said: “Once, my teacher at my course asked what I’ve accomplished that morning. And I couldn’t find anything to say. I couldn’t think of one thing that I accomplished on that day – nothing important. But then she told me, ‘You woke up, woke up your kids, dropped them at school, put together yourself, and came to your course this morning. There are many things you’ve accomplished this morning. Be proud of yourself.’ That was a shocking moment for me. And now, today, writing and sharing things that make me feel remarkable helps me realise how much I’ve grown, and how I’ve developed self-love over the years. This is something I learned and I feel proud.”

One of the participants, Yetunde, told the group that “writing and saying ‘I am remarkable’ out loud makes me feel amazing!’”

Podcast Time

The third session, also held on Zoom, was called “Podcasting for Everyone”, and was run by Joe Houghton, a podcaster and facilitator. He guided participants about the techniques and processes they could use to make their own podcast, step by step.

After this session, one participant said:

“When I was going to school back in my country, I faced discrimination because of my appearance. My secondary school memories are the worst. I grew up with lots of insecurities. Now I’m here. Entering a new country is a HUGE challenge and difference in one’s life. When I came to Ireland, things started to change. I realized happiness comes from yourself, not from anybody else or anything else. For example, I didn’t know anything about computers. I went to a course in Killarney and now I can use computers and the internet, and it changed my life. Now I feel more confident and feel like I can do more.”

As a follow-up to the three sessions, we set up a radio interview with Near FM. This interview featured Janet, a learner from the “Together in the Telling” programme who agreed to be involved. Ecem arranged for Janet to come to Dublin and they both went to the Near FM studio. This was a great chance to put into practice everything that was discussed throughout the programme – about advocating for adult learning for the benefit of others, about sharing your Learner Voice, and about how to promote and be proud of your own achievements. Janet’s story is really inspirational, and she spoke about her experiences of returning to learning, what she thinks needs to change, and the advice she’d give to others. We’ve been working with production company VideoWorks to create a promotional video about the interview, and we’ll use this to promote the Learners As Leaders programme as well as to share Janet’s story.

Another great output from the programme was that most participants signed up to take part in AONTAS’s research project into Lifelong Learning in Ireland, which is looking into the reasons why people might drop out of a course, or why people feel they don’t have access to education. The research is still ongoing, and is focussing on those who are experiencing the most disadvantage or marginalisation in our society, including those recovering from addiction, people with disabilities, and – here – people seeking asylum or refugees in Ireland.

The research session was facilitated by Aisling Meyler, and the women taking part reported that barriers to education include lack of childcare, unsuitable course schedules for lone parents, unreliable transport from Direct Provision centres, and restrictions on the type of courses they can do (which relates to immigration stamps). We shared about this on our social media channels with this tweet, for instance, gaining 2,638 impressions. The findings from the broader research project, with learners from across Ireland, are currently being analysed, and we’ll use this as an evidence base to advocate for changes to the system, which we hope will benefit learners and make it easier to access education. Find out more about this research here.

We will continue our work in promoting the voices of adult learners across Ireland and Europe, and training learners to become advocates and leaders in their own communities. We will continue to share this work on our social media platforms using the hashtags #LearnersAsLeaders and #NEAAL.

For further information about our Learners As Leaders programme, please contact Ecem Akarca at