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Sara Fernandez: The power of student volunteering

Posted on 24 Feb 2014

At Student Hubs, we meet so many students who want to have a positive impact in the world – or, as we have short-handed it, do “the good stuff”.

The good news for these students is that every day there are more and more opportunities for young people to make change happen: you can look to the youth social action coalition Generation Change to get an idea of how diverse and thriving this sector is.

This is the best time to get involved as a young person – there is something out there for everyone, and real change to be made every day.

SVW’s Good Deed Day is the perfect opportunity to (re)discover that warm fuzzy feeling that comes with ‘doing good’; but it’s important to remember that there is more to volunteering than that momentary buzz of doing something for someone else (satisfying as it is!).

Volunteering gives you the opportunity to critically engage with complex social and environmental issues: to question the status quo, challenge everyday injustices and address the roots of the inequalities which are embedded in our society.

For a student, the first step could be taking the time every Wednesday to tutor local students who are struggling with their GCSEs, instead of playing football during the weekly sports afternoon. The second step should be to get to know your tutee; seek training and resources which will increase the impact of your hour-long session, and engage in the ongoing debates about the national curriculum, exam regulations and educational disadvantage in the UK.

With these skills, knowledge and understanding, your ‘good deed’ becomes truly valuable on three counts: to your tutee, who you can better support to reach their academic potential; to yourself, your university experience and your CV; and to society at large, in which you can intelligently campaign for educational reform and tackle the social injustice which perpetuates the cycle of disadvantage.

There’s no doubt that all this skills- and knowledge-development comes in handy when it’s time to apply for jobs: having real world experience of tutoring through a programme like Student Hubs’ Schools Plus will improve your application to the Teach First graduate scheme (or even that summer placement at the local accountancy firm). I wouldn’t have got my first job at Oxford Hub without any previous volunteering experience – a commitment to social action is in the Hub’s DNA! Corporate recruiters are also increasingly on the lookout for social action in the CVs that pile into their inboxes.

But, while employability is important, your social impact should always come first.

At Student Hubs, a focus on impact is at the core of each of our programmes. We know that, practically speaking, students are not always best placed to tackle social and environmental challenges which are as complex as they are widespread. As a transient population in communities and lacking the specialist skills so often necessary to make a difference in the world, it’s easy to see how student volunteers could do more harm than good.

Mindful of this risk, our student-led projects are always carefully incubated to put the community first. What does this mean in practice? It means that when we work with schools, we require students to make a long-term commitment to the programme and the training sessions which we deliver. It means that when we work with children who have been referred by Social Services, students work within defined boundaries and with clear responsibilities; so that they don’t become just another adult who has moved unreliably in and out of a child’s life.

It means really tailoring volunteering opportunities to the skills that individual students have; and leveraging these skills to create social impact. Imperial Hub is a great example of this – with so many budding scientists and mathematicians at the university, they help charities with their technology needs and teach kids how to code.

It’s the immense versatility of the students with whom we work that drives Student Hubs. With so much talent, passion and innovation, you can see why we believe that students have the power and potential to shape a better world – in any number of ways and with every-increasing impact.

Sara Fernandez

Sara Fernandez is the Executive Director of [Student Hubs]=>www.studenthubs.org

Categories: What volunteering means to me