Volunteer Work at University

Deputy Features Editor Catriona Aitken looks into the different avenues through which students can volunteer in St Andrews.

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Rachel Cripps

University life can often seem like one long endeavour to craft the perfect CV. Students compete for top opportunities and seek out experiences that will help them to stand out in a sea of graduates.

One popular CV-boosting pastime is volunteering, in all its various shapes and sizes. With a multitude of opportunities available, and numerous pathways into finding the ideal role for you, volunteering is one CV addition with endless possibilities.

As a keen volunteer myself, both during my secondary school years and in various roles within the University, I was eager to hear from other student volunteers and learn about the many and differing routes they have taken.

It can be easy to assume volunteering requires national, or even international, reach with a major charity or organisation, but in fact, a huge proportion of volunteering opportunities are right on our doorsteps. Conveniently, the Bubble is home to several charity shops which encourage students to drop by and apply to volunteer. In addition, Fife Voluntary Action and the St Andrews Voluntary Service are just two local groups helping people to secure roles which work well for both the volunteer and those they are working with and for.

University of St Andrews Careers Centre director Paul Brown spoke enthusiastically about the extensive range of options provided for students by these two services. “Popular options include supporting pupils in schools, environmental activity and sport coaching,” said Mr Brown.

Third year student Kenalyn Ang is just one student who has benefitted from this route. “Service has always been a huge part of my life, since I was a young teen. Apart from working at the local Humane Society back home, at various points throughout high school, I also served as an usher and concessions clerk at a local theatre, tutored at an after-school kid’s club, and participated in several one-off events such as river clean-ups, food drives, charity walks and fairs. At my high school, I was the head of the service and volunteer work council,” Ms Ang told The Saint.

“I now help out at Cats Protection Dundee, ‘socialising’ with the cats and maintaining the cleanliness of the kennels and shelter,” she continued. “I searched for animal related service opportunities through St Andrews Voluntary Service. I knew at honours level I’d have less contact hours and more free time, and having previously volunteered at an animal shelter in high school, wanted to reconnect with that sort of work.”

As one of the recently elected public faces of Nightline, third year student Fiona Blackwood has transitioned from her anonymous volunteering role providing support for students calling in to the service to a voluntary managerial role as deputy director.

Ms Blackwood explained to me her main reasons for taking on this role. “I’ve always done lots of volunteering… It’s always been a big part of what I do. I didn’t really get involved with that much when I started university, so as it went on a little while I was kind of looking out for things which looked interesting and [volunteering with Nightline] just seemed really worthwhile to me, and a really good skill to have as well because there’s quite extensive training.”

“There is such a breadth of volunteering opportunities in St Andrews,” continued Ms Blackwood, “but I think this stood out to me because I believe mental health is a really important issue. Obviously, it isn’t just about mental health, but I just thought the service was really good, and something that I knew people could benefit from and that I could probably have benefited from myself at times.”

The University itself does, of course, provide ample volunteering pathways as well. Third year student Niamh McGurk plays a crucial role in this. As societies coordinator of the University of St Andrews Charity Campaign, as well as last year taking on the additional position of Scotland representative for the National Student Fundraising Association, Ms McGurk sees the extent and impact of student volunteering on a daily basis.

“I went for societies coordinator as I was interested to see all the different great work the societies are doing,” said Ms McGurk. “Throughout my time at school, I was always getting involved in different volunteering opportunities. They definitely impacted on my desire to keep volunteering; it’s a great way to do something you enjoy and help people at the same time. I’d say the main benefit is when we meet the charities we have been fundraising for and hear about the difference our money has made.”

As a student ambassador myself, the final pathway I investigated was that of the associate ambassador, who spend their first year involved in the scheme carrying out tasks on a voluntary basis.

First year student and one of hundreds of associate ambassadors, Gemma Kwok, told The Saint why she decided to join this volunteering scheme. “I originally heard about the student ambassadors from my friend who came to St Andrews before I did. She was really enthusiastic about showing other people around St Andrews and the University she loved, and I wanted to try doing it too,” said Ms Kwok.

“I thought student ambassadors was a really good way to get to know the University and its traditions. I also thought that it was a really good way to meet different people in the University who were in different years or doing different subjects that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Networking and meeting new people was a benefit of volunteering echoed repeatedly among the students interviewed, with Ms Blackwood describing the Nightline organisation as “an incredible community of people,” while Ms Ang majorly attributed her enjoyment of her voluntary work to working alongside new people, often from different universities, as well as getting to know a new city too.

While some clear challenges of volunteering, such as balancing time with academic commitments and sometimes being faced with tough or distressing scenarios, did arise from my many conversations, it was clear that these were vastly outweighed by benefits, with some of the most prominent including seeing the impact of your work, contributing to something you are passionate about and feeling as though you’ve spent your time well.

“It feels meaningful and it feels like a good way to spend my time,” commented Ms Blackwood, “It’s been really nice, since I became a public face, to actually be able to talk about something I care about, and it’s helping me to realise that I would have to do something, career wise, that I feel like I believe in, and that I can actually be enthusiastic and passionate about. I find it hard to give energy to things that I’m not [passionate about].”

Gaining skills for the future is a clear perk for all of the interviewed students. Although each implied their interest in potentially pursuing a career which would draw on their experience as volunteers, in no case was working in a non-profit, service or charities sector a student’s sole aim, but rather all were hoping to use their experience to inform their interests. As summarised by Ms Blackwood, “There’s lots of different ways to do a job that makes you feel like you’re contributing something positive to the world, and that can be through the charities sector, or that can be through doing something else and keeping up some voluntary work, all sorts of things.”

Ms McGurk said that “the third sector is something I’m certainly considering career wise,” and stressed that her volunteering experience has equipped her with crucial transferable skills. “I think that volunteering has given me the chance to see my own strengths and weaknesses which I think will help when it comes to deciding on a career. Personally volunteering, particularly individual projects, has given me the confidence to pursue opportunities I would not otherwise have applied for. A lot of the skills I have picked up during my volunteering, such as budgeting and event management, will be useful in many careers”.

Similarly, Ms Kwok has noticed increased confidence as a result of her voluntary ambassador role, “I feel like the skills that I have gained through this experience, such as communicating with many different types of people, will really help me in the future when speaking to a large audience, as it has helped me gain confidence as a public speaker.”

Careers Centre director Paul Brown emphasised that whatever route into volunteering a student chooses to take or future career they aspire to, it is something that he would absolutely encourage with regard to preparing for their future career.

“Many people find out about the values which are most important to them through volunteering,” Mr Brown said. “A good choice of career always involves finding the right values match for yourself. Volunteering also throws you into the company of many other people from whom you may learn about other career possibilities.”

Eager to impart a little wisdom derived from experience, the students interviewed each offered their top tips for other students considering entering into voluntary work.

“Don’t be turned off by what might seem inconvenient,” urged Ms Ang. “Also, it definitely helps to have a genuine interest in doing what service opportunity it is you are signing up for rather than just doing it for your CV. Try to be more open to opportunities you might not have done or considered before.”

Ms Blackwood’s advice mirrored Ms Ang’s thoughts almost exactly when she said, “I think there’s a lot available so go through the options and have a think about what sort of thing appeals to you. But also don’t worry if something doesn’t feel perfect straight away; just do something which sounds interesting to you.”

Ms McGurk also noted the importance of planning time for volunteer work in just the same way as you would for coursework. Having a conversation with people and reaching out can be the simple first step to finding something you enjoy to do. AsMs Kwok said, “Starting the dialogue can be quite scary but, as you get used to it, the conversations can be very enjoyable and rewarding.”

While the interviewed students represent only a tiny section of the volunteering work occurring among students in St Andrews, their message is clear: when it comes to volunteering, there really is something for everyone who cares to check it out.

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