There were great celebrations in UCC today as 21 women from the Travelling Community in Cork and Kerry graduated from University College Cork.

Aged between 20 to 60 years of age, 16 of the women had all successfully completed a ground-breaking socially and culturally inclusive diploma course aimed at encouraging women to take on leadership roles in their community.

Five others were awarded certificates.

Described as 'life changing' the two year programme, co-created by the Southern Traveller Health Network (STHN) and UCC's Adult & Continuing Education (ACE), was developed in response to needs identified by the Travelling Community, and to encourage Traveller participation in higher education.

Initially to run for one year, such was the enthusiasm within the Community that it was upgraded to a two-year Diploma course requiring today's graduates to attend UCC two mornings a week for lectures on topics such as health, education and accommodation.

Anne Burke of the Southern Traveller Health Network said the two year course will change lives.

"The rate of second level education among Travellers is atrocious, so to have these women avail of third level education is life-changing - not just for them but for their families and their wider communties," she said.

"Here we have women who never benefited from education but who had the ability to go on and achieve this. It shows that people, with the right support, can achieve things."

The diploma course was supported by Access UCC, and funded by the SOAR project.

An evaluation report published last week on the diploma programme identified several factors that inhibit Travellers from accessing higher education from experiencing segregation in the education system in the past, to fear of racism and discrimination, and lower literacy and digital skills due to early school leaving.

SOAR Project Co-ordinator Sheila McGovern said the report highlighted the importance of working with the Traveller Community to design programmes to enable greater participation.