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Award Finalist: Henry Owen

Posted on 18 Feb 2015

This week we are introducing you to the five students who have been shortlisted for the Student Volunteer of the Year Award. The winner will be announced at our Parliamentary Celebration on Monday 23 February.

Today, we meet Henry Owen, student of biomedical sciences at the University of Oxford.


Over my time at university, volunteering has shaped my daily activities, my mental map of Oxford, and my group of friends. To be honest, I rarely think of ‘volunteering’ as a specific activity anymore, it’s part of my life because I find it fun (putting on a dinner with surplus food and music with Oxford Hub), challenging (wondering if internships can sit with Transition Network’s values and aims) or fascinating (developing a longitudinal study of study engagement with social action). It’s got as much to do with the people I do it with, as the people/change I do it for.

"When I 'volunteer' I'm not just making soup, I'm trying to do something about the injustices of our society"

I’d identify more with social action than volunteering as a label for what I spend some of my time doing. The term 'volunteering' frames my activities solely in terms of 'giving', whereas in reality I also gain a great deal from these experiences. ‘Volunteering’ lacks a sense of the compulsion that I feel to take action in society. Additionally, the term 'social action' places my activities in their broader social context; when I 'volunteer' I'm not just making soup, I'm trying to do something about the injustices of our society. I think this is an important distinction, as real structural change is the aim - and I don’t think just volunteering will get us there.

Social action for me at the moment also means doing things I wish didn’t need to be done. I’d love it if there was no food waste to use up and no need for charitable support of communities trying to become more sustainable and resilient. But there is. Given that there is such clear need, it’s lamentable that so much social action is unpaid. People should be able to support themselves by doing good in society, and the inability to do so restricts the involvement of large sections of society with social change (usually those whom systematic change would benefit most). So unpaid social action is ultimately something I’d like to stop doing, or at least stop feeling such urgency to do.

I am angry about the injustices of our society, and I think that anger is a legitimate response to injustice. That said, as a relatively privileged individual, for me social action is probably the most positive outlet for this anger. I’m hugely grateful to the friends and organisations that have supported me to be positive about, but not lose touch with, this powerful feeling.

Henry Owen

Henry is a student of biomedical sciences at Oxford University.

Categories: Award