How to make volunteering matter to university students

Do you want to get more from your university experience than just your degree?  Are you someone who wants to help in the community, but feels a student life won’t offer the time to get involved? In this blog Joe Crook from the University of East London, talks about volunteering, student life and explains how it can all fit into a busy student lifestyle.

As we roll into another academic year at our university campus, we are more excited than ever about engaging our students in volunteering. As a student, volunteering can be the last thing your mind during your time at university. What with orientation, studies, deadlines, socialising, and just getting by, it can be challenging to make space for it. We keep hearing the refrain which has almost become a mantra: “students are time-poor”. But who isn’t these days? I am fairly sure most students, as most people, still find time for Netflix and browsing aimlessly on social media. Our task is to make volunteering relevant, accessible and desirable.

How do we do that to students in 2018? Firstly, without wanting to state the blindingly obvious, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a “typical student”. Forget The Young Ones or any other cliché you might have about university students in your mind. At UEL 70% of our students identify as coming from ethnic minority backgrounds. A quarter of our students are parents, many of them are in their 30s and our oldest volunteer last year was 63. For many of our students a typical week might mean commuting to university, attending lectures, studying in the library, getting the kids ready for school, picking kids up from nursery, working a shift at a local shop or care home and finding some time for relaxation or church or mosque over the weekend.

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We find that life is complicated for most students. But what unites pretty much all of them is that they are at university to make a better life for themselves. They want a better job after university than the one they came in with. So our message to many students is perhaps a little shocking to them: “your degree is not enough”. We find many are entirely focussed on their studies. Naturally this can be a good thing. But it can lead them to ignoring all of the other ingredients that will empower them to succeed and flourish in today’s jobs market.

Coming out with a good degree is rightly at the forefront of our students’ minds. But a good CV is equally as important, as is a good covering letter. And for some our students their CVs look worryingly anaemic. What we help them to appreciate is that volunteering is a flexible way for them to develop transferable and specialist skills that they can use to strengthen their CVs and ace job interviews, drawing on recent and relevant examples to demonstrate their skills and experience.

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Importantly, it is essential that we are able to signpost students to volunteering roles that fit in with their lifestyles. There is no point promoting a volunteering role that demands two days per week commitment as that would simply not be possible for most students. Also, we encourage people not to talk about “giving back” because frankly many of our students feel they are sacrificing a lot to be at university in the first place. We find roles that they can do at times that suit them; evening volunteering, online volunteering, one-off volunteering, whatever they can manage, we will help them find it. And instead of painting volunteering as a sacrifice we demonstrate clearly what career-relevant skills they will be doing so that they can make informed decisions about which roles suit them best.

So as we eagerly await our students to come flocking back to campus we are refreshing and upgrading our programme; preparing a veritable cornucopia of relevant, dynamic and challenging volunteering roles that will complement their degrees and help them get to wherever they want to get to after leaving UEL. Because, after all, isn’t that why we are all here?

Joe Crook
Volunteering Manager at the University of East London.