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Ahead of Student Volunteering Week, Lucy Furneaux explores the double benefit of volunteering and social action

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At the end of February the University of York will be one of many institutions across the country participating in Student Volunteering Week (SVW). YUSU Volunteering Officers and student volunteers alike will come together to celebrate and advertise the multitude of volunteering opportunities available to York students, in the hope of engaging more young people in these important projects.

As a devoted volunteer myself, having worked with various organisations and charities since the age of 13, I'm acutely aware of the impact that local volunteering can have both on the community and the volunteers themselves. However, as students we're often strapped for cash as it is, so is there really anything to be gained from working for free? Can our efforts really make a difference, or will anything we do just be a drop in the ocean?

V Volunteers, Manchester City Farm 15/10/07
Image: vInspired

These are the misconceptions that Student Volunteering Week, which will run from the 22nd-28th February, hopes to dispel. Student Volunteering Week is a partnership between Student Hubs, the National Union of Students and the Student Volunteering Network, who according to their website believe that "all students should have access to volunteering and social action opportunities" because "students are often at the forefront of promoting different social issues and interests". Student Volunteering Week aims to publicise these opportunities at universities and engage students in university- and community-based volunteering and social action projects.

Last year 86 colleges and universities hosted Student Volunteering Week events, and as 2016 is the 15th anniversary of the project that number is due to increase to over 100 institutions, with over 10,000 students expected to participate in more than 500 events across the UK. Here at York, the provisional timetable promises taster sessions with various long-term projects, including a whole day devoted to a Help Day with the RSPCA. There will also be networking events such as a Volunteering Fair and Careers Talk, and more social opportunities too, including Monday's pub quiz, a College Bake-Off and the end-of-week celebration at Courtyard.

YUSU's Volunteering Officers will also be running Good Deeds Week alongside Student Volunteering Week, encouraging students to commit a random act of kindness and email in photographic evidence for the chance to win a prize. This might initially seem like a gimmick, but volunteers know better than anyone that even the tiniest bit of effort on your part can make a genuinely positive difference to somebody's day - and yours too. For Ashleigh Cork, a Volunteering Officer for Langwith College, "the feeling you get from knowing you're making a difference, even if it's only a little bit, really is the best part of volunteering".
Is there really anything to be gained from working for free?

The list of volunteering opportunities at the University is practically endless. Colleges all run their own volunteering programmes and opportunities which include both one-off and long-term projects, and YUSU also have separate placements to get involved with, all of which students can participate in alongside their studies. Ashleigh told me about Crafternoons, a children's crafts activity session at the Tang Hall Community Centre. Langwith students attend and run these sessions on a regular basis, getting to know the children, supporting them in their creative development, and in doing so playing a part in the wider York community outside the University.

Outside of college there are a huge number of projects and opportunities available from YUSU, from school workshops on literacy and creative writing, drama, and sex and relationships education, to turning free green spaces into edible gardens with fruit and vegetables available for anyone to pick, to providing company for the elderly at the weekly Tea and Coffee Club which has been running for over 20 years. Some YUSU projects have won awards for their innovation and community-based impact, and anyone can get involved. "Volunteering Officers," according to Olivia, "will always want more volunteers!"

Any volunteer will testify that the experience benefits them just as much as it does the people they work with. Ashleigh explains that it's "a great opportunity to gain some life experience and skills", and the majority of employers will take a candidate with volunteering experience over one without - demonstrating that you're willing to give up your own free time to work for free will always stand out on your CV. What's more, Olivia stresses just how much fun volunteering is when you find the right placement; for her, it's an opportunity to "forget about the work I've got to do and just chill for a bit!"

Image: Lucy Furneaux

The value of youth volunteering and social action has gained much more recognition in recent years, leading to a push to engage young people not only in schools and universities but from charities, too. Charlotte Hill, Chief Executive of charity Step Up To Serve, defines social action as "young people taking practical action in the service of others to create positive change in their community". It has become a part of many 16-year-olds' lives through the National Citizen Service scheme, part of which includes teams undertaking a social action project in their communities. Many charities now work in a collaborative and cooperative way with their young volunteers by recruiting young Ambassadors and Trustees on their governing boards as well as making use of representative focus groups to ensure that the youth voice is heard and taken seriously by senior management.

Furthermore, in the past decade more organisations have emerged to foster young volunteers and social activists themselves. vInspired is the nation's leading youth volunteering charity, helping young people to find new opportunities through their online volunteering marketplace and supporting them in funding their own community-based social action projects.
young people bring great new ideas and energy

Richard Paynter, Director of Programmes at vInspired, is passionate that social action and volunteering is a "win-win" in that "charities and communities benefit from your support, and you get to build your confidence, try new things, and get some great skills and experience that could help you in your future career".

vInspired works closely with young volunteers to ensure that they get the most out of the experience, focusing on individual personal development as well as the wider impact of the volunteering itself. From Richard's perspective, social action volunteering has a positive
impact on the young person's present as well as their future. "It's important for everyone
to feel that they have a part to play in tackling the issues that are important for our society," he explains.

Image: vInspired

Today, when many young people don't feel that they have a voice in their community, the act of volunteering and making a difference shows the young person that they can make an impact on the world they live in. This naturally builds self-esteem and confidence as the volunteer feels valued - and rightly so, emphasises Richard, as "young people in particular bring great new ideas and energy that can make a big impact".

This "double benefit" as Charlotte calls it is a mission statement that's at the heart of many of these volunteering organisations. Step Up To Serve's main focus is their #iwill campaign, launched in 2013 by the charity's patron HRH The Prince of Wales, which aims to "make youth social action the norm by 2020". The focus of the campaign are #iwill pledges of social action, which can be taken by businesses, charities, organisations, city and county councils and individuals alike.

For students, pledging support to the campaign and participating in social action are easy ways to help reach the ultimate goal of ensuring that over 60 per cent of young people iwill straightlozenge logo digitalaged 10-20 are participating in social action volunteering. "By developing this habit young," Charlotte explains, "they will continue to play an active part in the community for the rest of their lives." Taken a step further, the hope is that such socially active young people will themselves bring up socially engaged children to continue such work in the future.

Charlotte wants to ensure that "the young person is developing themselves as well as helping others". Step Up To Serve "wants to ensure that young people are seen as part of the solution, not part of the problem, and students have a great role to play in that". She emphasises that as well as making you more appealing to potential employers, participating in these opportunities has been linked to improved educational attainment, health, and well-being, "because they're fun, you're meeting new people and you're helping others".

For students then, it's a prime opportunity to not only better structure their time and gain life experience, but "to build their skills, improve their networks, meet people from different walks of life, and also really improve the community they live in".
When it comes to making a real long-term difference, the key has to be sustainability

It can be easy, notes Charlotte, to forget or dismiss the real, tangible difference that can be made through community-based volunteering, whether it's "through a structured volunteering opportunity, by running a campaign to save a local service or just seeing something in their neighbourhood they want to improve and taking action". Many organisations which run placements abroad require payment or fundraising to participate and this can make these opportunities exclusive to those without the time, money or confidence to begin with, but local volunteering is an option for everyone.

What's more, staying local allows you to create a change which leaves a legacy. When it comes to making a real long-term difference, the key has to be sustainability - and by keeping your volunteering work close to home, you can ensure that you're making changes which can continue even after you yourself move on from that project.

During my time social action campaigning in my community during my gap year, I helped to partner schools with local foodbanks to enable regular food drives, educated students about the realities of food poverty in Britain and played a part in creating a county-wide network of schools committed to better supporting young carers in their education. My campaigns only lasted eight weeks, but their effects on my community back home continue today. Real change is created this way: by considering your volunteering role as bigger than yourself.

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Image: Lucy Furneaux

All of this demonstrates how volunteering at university can be both significantly impactful on your local community and positively formative for you personally. It's definitely worth doing some research to find a volunteering opportunity that might suit you, whether that's a one-off project, a regular placement or a social issue that you're desperate to campaign about. If you can't find something to suit you, or you think that there's a gap in what's available waiting to be filled, the University's Student Opportunities Coordinator for Volunteering can support you in setting up a new project.

Alternatively, if you have an idea for a campaign, charities such as Step Up To Serve, vInspired and others are equipped to help you in these endeavours through mentoring, training and even grants to fund your project.

Ultimately, Student Volunteering Week will be the perfect place to start for those hoping to engage with volunteering and social action during their time at university.
Volunteering makes you happier

If you're a volunteer already, join in the conversation online using the hashtag #IVolunteerBecause during the week to showcase your volunteering experiences and motivations. You could even consider making an #iwill pledge to try and involve one friend - and if you need just one reason to convince them to try it out, just turn to Charlotte's own simple motivation: "Volunteering and social action make you happier." You can do good and feel good doing it - what's not to love?

Student Volunteering Week will run from 22-26 February.

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