Megan Nichols was 16 when her mother died of a severe asthma attack. On Liveline, Megan spoke clearly and quietly, pausing every now and then to gather her thoughts. Her story touched the listeners deeply, as Joe Duffy could tell from the reactions coming in as she spoke. Megan told Joe that Julie, her Mum, was only 36 when she passed away in the middle of the night. Megan says she was alone from then on, as she has no other family. Now 20, Megan has just finished first year in college in Letterkenny. She received a SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) grant for her first year, and even managed to save a little. But now money is tight, and getting tighter, as she told Joe:
"I have to go to the food banks. I've had to go to Letterkenny food banks more than a handful of times because I don’t have the income."
Jobs are few and far between, she says. Employers looking for full-time staff won’t consider her, as she will be going back to study. Megan hasn’t been able to get a part time job, despite making almost 30 separate job applications and distributing her CV widely. Megan says she secured only two interviews and no job. Eventually, through the college she found out about a grant that could have helped her, but applications had to be in before starting college. Megan says she just didn't know about the grant until it was too late:
"This grant is for disadvantaged people, and I covered all the criteria for it. But you could only apply before you enter the college and you only ever hear anything about it if you’re digging desperately for information, or if you end up going into the college and find something on it."
Megan is now living off the tiny amount of money she miraculously saved from her first year grant. She says she is dependent on charity for some of her food and most of her clothing, and is lucky enough to have an understanding landlord; for now. But as she explained to Joe, there is no financing available for the summer months:
"Over the summer, SUSI doesn’t give out your grant. It’s the summer, so they expect you to have your parents to take care of you. I don’t have any parents and all I really had left was whatever I’d managed to save up over the course of my college year."
Megan says she’s in a bit of a bind: if she can get a full time job, she won’t be able to study. If she takes on part-time work, it may affect her grant, which she can barely live off. And the grant is set to be almost halved anyway, Megan says, due to an anomaly in the system, which gives her the full rate in first year, but then leaves her snookered in their second year, she says:
"This year, because you can’t get welfare as a student, my SUSI rate is going down to €350 a month. Because you can only get the €650 if you’re on social welfare when you apply, which you can’t do as a student."
Megan says she has no social life and is worried about losing her accommodation. She could give up on her studies and work or qualify for support while on the job hunt, but she badly wants to stay in full-time education. At the moment, Megan spends a lot of her time pacing the streets of Letterkenny, as she tells Joe:
"I just walk around the town, honestly. But it even gets stressful. Because I’m just trying to think of places, like I can try and find somewhere. It’s harder when you can’t drive, you’ve never had the ability to get that far."
Megan says she has no-one to fight her battles for her, so she’s speaking up for herself and anyone else in a similar position:
"That’s why I’m advocating for myself and I’m advocating for the other people who don’t feel like they can."
Joe read out a general statement from the Department of Social Protection on Liveline and Megan says she's happy to be put in touch with someone who can speak to her situation. In the meantime, Megan says books and reading have always been her happy place:
"I absolutely love reading. It’s actually one of my main escapes. Mostly fantasy or horror [...] It helps a lot."
You can listen back to Megan’s full interview with Joe Duffy on Liveline here.
If you're affected by any of the issues that came up in this interview, you can find information on helplines by going here.