college connect

College Connect

Introduction to College Connect 

College Connect is a collaborative initiative from the Midlands, East, and North Dublin (MEND) higher education cluster, which comprises Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT), Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT), Dublin City University (DCU), and Maynooth University (MU). It is a three-year project, Programme for Access to Higher Education (PATH) 3, funded by the HEA, which aims to admit 400 additional students from specific target groups (e.g. Irish Travellers, one parent families, in/were in the care of the state, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities/programme refugees, mature students etc.), who are under-represented in higher education. College Connect marks a departure from the traditional ‘singular’ approach to widening participation toward a collaborative, regional approach, which prioritises people within the MEND region experiencing multiple barriers to accessing higher education.

College Connect will use community needs analysis as a basis to co-design imaginative and creative interventions with our target groups and stakeholders, which include community organisations, local authorities, and industry. The interventions will reinforce and support: aspirations towards higher education; educational attainment; and college awareness. Supports within the College Connect project will also assist participants in developing skills critical to higher education participation and employability. Drawing on existing national (e.g. the Census, Pobal HP Deprivation Index) and institutional (student profiles) datasets, the All-Island Research Observatory (AIRO), will develop a detailed spatial analysis of the MEND region. AIRO, in collaboration with the project team, will identify untapped higher education ‘cold spots’, track barriers to higher education at local levels, evaluate the impact of the project, and monitor higher education progression and employment outcomes over time.  


Project Vision and Mission

Our vision is a student population that reflects and respects the diversity of the community in our region. 

Our mission is to change who goes to college by working together as education providers and communities. This new partnership will empower future students to make informed choices and fulfil their potential. 


Project Values

We believe in the transformative power of education and embrace diversity as a resource to the MEND HEIs which drives organisational and academic excellence. This project is informed by the community development principles of participation, empowerment and sustainable development. Community partners will be located at the heart of this project and our actions will be guided by the educational needs of people in our region who typically do not progress to higher education. This project aims to make a meaningful contribution to the advancement of social justice and cohesion in our region. 


The College Connect Team

The College Connect Team, the Programme Director and four regional Community Connectors, all from a community and youth background, have been newly recruited for the duration of the project. The team have extensive experience working with and engaging with people in various community settings, building and maintaining effective relationships for sustainable intervention outcomes.


Meet the Team

Emma Gilchreest is the regional Programme Director, based in Maynooth University, for the MEND region College Connect programme. She began her career in Zambia, addressing the barriers to girls accessing second level education at FAWEZA (Forum for African Women Educationalists of Zambia). During her time in Zambia she initiated the building of a SAFE house for girls who were experiencing danger walking to and from school every day. A community development approach to the project contributed to its success and the Zambian Ministry of General Education has now incorporated the SAFE house concept in the Revised National Education Policy.  Upon returning to Ireland Emma took up post of Managing Director with the Offaly Traveller Movement. Emma led the Movement through its most robust restructuring process of its history which has resulted in a thriving Traveller rights organisation today. Offaly Traveller Movement has many programmes responding to the needs of Travellers in; health, mental Health, men’s health, youth, education, enterprise etc. Most notably Emma co-designed and developed the Travelling to Wellbeing Service which was initially funded for a 3-year pilot and was then successively taken on by the HSE in 2016. Emma holds a B.A in Humanities and a Masters in Equality Studies. She is passionate about human rights and access to meaningful and appropriate services. 



Anthony Burrowes is the regional Community Connector based in DCU, for the MEND region College Connect programme. Anthony began his career working as a youth worker with several diverse communities, empowering young people to have their voices heard in decisions that will affect them. Most recently Anthony was the youth and community outreach worker with Jigsaw Dublin City. He was working with communities and young people to change the way we all think and talk about youth mental health. For the past four years Anthony has represented the voice and concerns of young people of Ireland on the European Youth Forum (the largest youth advocacy platform in Europe). Anthony has been an International trainer working with a diverse range on international organisations.  Anthony holds a B.A in Social Science and a Masters in Youth and Community Work. He is passionate about working with seldom heard people and ensuring their voices are heard. Anthony is interested in working with communities ‘where they are at’, either on an offline or online space. He is creative and strives to bring that creativity in to the work that he is participating in. 

Carmel Hennessy is the regional Community Connector based in Athlone Institute of Technology, for the MEND region College Connect Programme. She holds a B.A. in Economic and Social Studies and an M.A. in Community Development, completing a thesis on Community Education as an approach to counteracting the effects of educational disadvantage.  In 2009, she moved to Vancouver BC and worked with diverse teams and communities, particularly refugees and aboriginal youth and their families, in wraparound support models. Her most recent role as the Supervisor of a National Programme in Canada – Pathways to Education (2014-2018) - provided a comprehensive set of academic, financial, social and one-to-one supports for youth living in communities experiencing disadvantage, to overcome barriers to education.  Throughout her career, she has been privileged to be involved in programmes that prioritise peoples’ access to educational opportunities through community development principals.


Declan Markey is the regional Community Connector based in Maynooth University, for the MEND region College Connect programme.  Since completing his studies in Social Science and Social Research, he has been designing and delivering educational programmes and coordinating educational services specifically aimed at widening participation amongst groups under-represented in higher education.  After Declan co-coordinated the BA in Housing and Community Studies for Respond Housing Association and UCD, he became the education coordinator with the Ballyfermot Chapelizod Partnership. Developing educational supports that are experiential, participatory and inclusive are fundamental principles underlining Declan’s approach and as a member of the board of Partners: Training for Transformation these principles are inherently applied to all areas of his work.  Declan is a certified mediator and recently completed the Level 8 Certificate in Restorative Practice. Declan has also been involved in other community inspired art projects such as HEED FM (part of the Arts Council Art 2016 programme).

Joanne Griffin is the regional Community Connector based in Dundalk Institute of Technology, for the MEND region College Connect programme.  Joanne began her career as a hairdresser and progressed to working as a trainer with global hair product companies, where she designed and delivered training programmes, including soft skills business training.  She then attended college as a mature student and holds a BA in Applied Social Studies and an MSc in Children and Youth Studies. Joanne has worked with young people in various settings, including a youth diversion project, and her most recent role as acting Co-ordinator of a Youthreach Special Educational Needs Initiative (SENI) centre, afforded her the opportunity to work with young people following a multi-disciplinary approach.  Joanne is committed to, and passionate about working with and empowering young people to fulfil their full potential, encouraging them to have a voice and make informed decisions in matters concerning themselves and their peers.

Imelda Rea is the regional Community Connector based in the Athlone Institute of Technology, for the MEND region College Connect Programme. Like Joanne, Imelda’s career began in hairdressing, overtime progressing through a diverse range of work environments including working with Refugee and Asylum Seekers, Community Crèches, Age Action, Foróige and Community Radio. Through extensive world travel she has experience of many cultures and is passionate about empowering people to achieve their potential. With a desire to contribute more to the wider community she returned to education as a mature student. Imelda now holds a B.A. (Hons.) in Applied Social Studies in Social Care, a B.A. in Community Development; completing a Thesis on Mature Student Stress at 3rd level, and an M.A. in Child and Youth Care, completing her research Dissertation on Fostering - within the Family Unit.

Imelda has worked with people of all ages and abilities in a variety of settings. Designing and delivering Health Care Support modules, as an Assistant Co-ordinator of a Local Training Initiative and most recently in the role of Assistant Lecturer within the Department of Social Science in Athlone Institute of Technology.