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Looking back (and forward) at student volunteering

By news editor, on 6 February 2012

UCL’s Volunteering Services Unit is marking a decade of facilitating student volunteering with a photographic exhibition in the South Cloisters.

The VSU has also produced a document – Student Volunteering: UCL’s Commitment – that outlines the university’s ongoing dedication to voluntary services. Ben Davies was at the joint launch event on 30 January.

Twenty-two photographs currently line the walls of UCL’s South Cloisters. Taken over 10 years, they show a variety of seemingly mundane activities: individuals gardening, having a cup of tea and a conversation, or preparing some children for a game of netball.

The scenes depicted are of the everyday, but they are also hugely important, for they are scenes of the minutiae that many of us take for granted in our lives, and without which we would be lost: company, conversation, welcoming surroundings and fun.

For the past 10 years, UCL’s Volunteering Services Unit has harnessed and encouraged the energy of the university’s students in helping to provide these often underappreciated necessities to those, both in the local community and further afield, who cannot access them easily.

As Professor Michael Worton, Vice Provost (International), said in his speech to the assembled crowd – made up of representatives from UCL, the student union UCLU, the VSU and voluntary institutions beyond the university – volunteering can make us discover “our own humility and our own power, both as individuals and collectively”.

The sheer range of activity that lines the South Cloisters’ walls is encouraging; even more so is the fact that UCL volunteering continues to grow. In 2007/8, there were 420 students volunteering through the VSU; Professor Worton predicted that this academic year would involve a minimum of 1,500 volunteers.

Professor Anthony Smith, who recently took on the job of Vice-Provost (Education) – and hence the central university’s responsibility for engaging with and supporting student volunteering – spoke of the focus that volunteering provides for many of UCL’s initiatives, from its global citizenship agenda for education to the recently launched Grand Challenges initiative.

VSU Manager John Braime noted the unit’s place as one of the largest operations of its kind in the UK higher education sector. This partly seems to be due to the fact, echoed by all the speakers at the launch, that volunteering at UCL is very much a collaborative effort.

Professor Worton agreed, saying that this institution-wide collaboration means that volunteering not only allows UCL to make a difference in the wider community; it has also fundamentally changed UCL for the better as an institution.

What is also clear is how volunteering, especially within such a supportive background, changes the students who take part. Professor Worton provided us with a few choice quotes from students who have volunteered over the past 10 years, and they offered some evidence of the variety of reasons why students keep coming back to volunteer:

• “Volunteering has made me more confident and less shy.”

• “Volunteering forces me out of bed in the morning in a way that classes don’t.”

• “The feeling of having made a difference – however slight – in someone’s life, and the feeling that my visits are very much cherished and looked forward to, is…more satisfying than anything I have ever done in my life.”

Finally, we heard from Amy Evans from UCLU. Amy told us about her own experience of coming to the VSU to set up a voluntary group, UCL Marrow, and of finding a level of support that “you just don’t get at other universities”.

One of the key things about being a UCL student, she said, was that if you want to get involved, you don’t need to worry about inexperience, lack of community connections or funding, because the VSU is there to provide that support.

I don’t think I could put it any better for an event that was looking at both the past and the future of UCL volunteering than Amy did in her message to VSU staff: “Congratulations on the past 10 years, and best of luck for the next 10.”

Ten years of Student Volunteering at UCL

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