"Anything is possible once you do not give up on yourself"

Adult Learner Avril Hannifin shares her story about returning to education as a single parent, excelling in community education programmes with Ronanstown CDP and An Cosán Virtual Community College

I had lost my sense of self and was isolated from my friends and family

I returned to education at the age of 19 having entered the realm of motherhood. At the time I had lost my sense of self and was isolated from my friends and family. Some of the wonderful women from Ronanstown Community Development Project (RCDP) invited me in for a cup of tea and a chat. That day changed my life for the better. I went from being a shy awkward teenager to joining Back to Education Classes.

I started a Personal Development FETAC (now QQI) Level 3 course. My precious daughter was well cared for in the community creche, so we were both socialising, learning and developing – fourteen years on and we are still learning and developing. I was inspired by Vivienne Glanville and all of the team in RCDP. Despite cuts to the sector they kept going and passed on their knowledge to us students. By 2014 I had progressed to a Diploma in Women, Gender and Social Justice at Ronanstown, and I wondered what was next for me.

I combatted my fears and registered for a degree 

I was blessed to meet Sharon Bermingham from An Cosán, who advised me about courses and further education pathways. I combatted my fears and registered for a degree in Community Development and Leadership with An Cosán, encouraged by the community and holistic ethos. Community-based centres understand the intersectional factors that impede people of low socio-economic status. We face adversity in our everyday lives and each time you get over one thing another issue emerges. All these issues result in trauma. Therefore, the small classes and on-site support are crucial. The welcoming staff are vital in students’ growth as they provide care and encouragement.

They believed in me when I did not believe in myself

The month I started my degree I was accepted for an internship with the Social Enterprise Development Company (SEDCo) in Ballyfermot Community Civic Centre. I learned more about the community and enjoyed my time with the team. SIx months later I progressed to employment in Clondalkin Travellers Development Group as an administrator where I learned a lot about culture and diversity. Two of my friends became my daughter’s Thursday mammies and I would not have been able to finish my studies if it was not for their support. They believed in me when I did not believe in myself.

When my daughter transitioned to secondary school I made the decision to focus more on our education. I volunteered as a mentor in An Cosán and joined the Young Women in Technology course. I became more interested in technology and joined the Digital Pathways Team as a Learning Support Educator. During that time our team delivered Accenture’s Skills to Succeed training to communities across Ireland. I remember our awe when we won the AONTAS STAR Award for Digital Inclusion in 2018! As learners who came up through the education system not enjoying our experience and then flourishing in community classrooms, we had a different perspective.

I thought back to the days when I could not look people in the eye and on that day I was speaking in front of EU Policy makers 

Six months later I accepted a great opportunity for a six-month apprenticeship in Goodbody Stockbrokers as an IT Support Engineer. I challenged myself and embraced the experience and returned to An Cosán with my new-found knowledge. In March of this year I was invited to the AONTAS STAR Awards. It was lovely to meet all of the nominees and hear about the great work they accomplished. I was honoured to represent learners at the AONTAS International Women’s Day Policy Event: The Impact of Community Education on the Lives of Women. I thought back to the days when I could not look people in the eye and on that day I was speaking in front of EU Policy makers and representatives from many organisations. The effort from community educators and staff has been pivotal in my transformation. 

Anything is possible once you do not give up on yourself

My perspective on education has changed completely: I believe in lifelong learning and have a growth mindset. I went from being a teenager hating school, wishing the day away to a woman working full time in adult education. I could not adjust to what Paulo Freire terms the ‘Banking’ method of education and prefer a collaborative, engaging approach. I am proud to be Tech Support for An Cosán and An Cosán Virtual Community College (VCC) and to work in digital learning which did not exist when I was in school.  I was not meant to recreate the patterns of the past but to innovate for the future. My daughter is looking forward going into transition year and doing work experience – maybe her future occupation does not exist yet either. We have been through a lot, but my education gave me the tools to advocate and persevere through it.  Sometimes life feels like a computer game, you get past one level and earn the gold stars and points and then in the next level you miss the target and fall. The key is to keep trying, be strategic, train and jump higher. Anything is possible once you do not give up on yourself. Life is illuminated with learning and you can shine bright.

Find out about education and training options by visiting or calling the One Step Up Freephone helpline at 1800 303 696 or contact Sam O’Brien-Olinger, AONTAS Information and Policy Officer via email: