Celebrating student volunteering in every form, every day!

Students have long been recognised as powerful social activists. Statistics in a report published last year by the National Union of Students (NUS) estimate that 725,000 higher education students (31% of the UK student population) give an average of 44 hours of their time a year, with 60% volunteering once or more a week. Last week’s Student Volunteering Week, though, showed us something that the statistics can’t: the diversity of student involvement. It got me thinking about my own time volunteering as a student…

My experience volunteering as a student

I, like many of my peers, spent a large amount of my spare time at university involved in various extracurricular activities. Some was what would be defined as ‘formal volunteering’: volunteering in an agreed capacity with a recognised organisation, such as running activities as a youth leader or packing bags for a refugee charity. Most of what I did, though, I didn’t think of as volunteering until I came to fill in a form for a vInspired volunteering award towards the end of university. Only at that point did I realise that things like running a student society and organising a social action campaign on campus – things that I had done simply because I wanted to be engaged with my student community, and get a bit of experience while I was at it – were indeed volunteering.

What is student volunteering?

With that confusion in mind, then, what do we actually mean by student volunteering?  According to NUS’ report, the top three activities for student volunteers are getting involved in events, fundraising, and teaching/tutoring. Those are certainly things which I generally considered to be volunteering when I took part in them.

Also featuring highly in responses, however, are leadership/committee membership (32% say they have held such roles at some point), representing others (18% of respondents), and campaigning (14% of respondents). There is no indication of the channels through which these activities took place – it could be for an external voluntary organisation, or it could be on campus, among other students.

Through my experiences at university, though, I observed a rich variety of voluntary activities. From student union officers and society presidents through to RAG (raising and giving) committee members, course representatives and ‘Freshers parents,’ it was inspiring to see the enthusiasm with which many students pool their skills for themselves and their peers. I wonder how many, though, like Past Me, might not immediately equate their involvement with volunteering.

What do students get from volunteering?

With such a large range of volunteering opportunities for students, each can give something very different, ranging from soft to hard skills. Focusing on volunteering roles within the campus setting, for example, a student society president or union officer develops their volunteer management, events management and budget management skills, and a course representative learns stakeholder management, interpersonal skills and the basics of consultation and impact measurement through their responsibilities.

Why do students volunteer?

We’ve just seen how extensive the set of skills developed through student volunteering can be, but according to the NUS report, the two primary motivations for students to volunteer are to help others and to gain experience for their CVs. Developing skills is only the fourth most cited motivation, though 40% say that linking opportunities with their studies or career aspirations could encourage volunteering. This highlights a strong need for student volunteering coordinators (whether these are faculty members or students themselves) to emphasise the skills-based benefits of volunteering. Any form of unpaid student engagement, whether with a multi-national NGO or with a single fellow student, is an opportunity for students to reap the benefits of a well-supported volunteering opportunity and make the most of the £9000 tuition fees that many pay.

The power of student volunteering

If I’ve taken anything from Student Volunteering Week 2015, it’s an appreciation of how central volunteerism is to student life, and an understanding of how much students gain from getting involved. I would suggest that the one thing in common to any type of student volunteering is the strong sense it gives of being part of a wider movement, and that is definitely worth celebrating for longer than just a week!

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Abigail was NCVO’s trainee volunteering policy officer. She volunteers at the Separated Child Foundation where she's managing their team of volunteers.

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