Volunteering and Personal Fulfillment: Why Students Should Volunteer
In my humble abode of student accommodation, with the sharp sun in my eyes after a night of writing up my summative, I thought that time volunteering was time not worth spending. “Isn’t it just free labour?” I used to ask myself, as someone with a lot on their plate as a first-year university student. Skip to third-year, and I am a Volunteering Ambassador for UEA.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? I used to ask that question to myself — who at the time, didn’t value my efforts nor believed in small, albeit significant contributions. The 2020 lockdowns did not only show us a world of little physical interaction with loved ones, but also a world lacking in new physical and social experiences. This lack of stimulation may have helped me self-reflect and explore my hobbies, but once the world opened up, I knew I had to find new ways of spending my time.
In a series of blogposts, I want to map out my volunteering journey through a sequence of questions surrounding the volunteering sector. This piece’s question in mind is, “How is volunteering fulfilling?”, using my experience working at a charity shop to explain how volunteering can aid a university student in their personal career journey.
- Finding A Cause Close to the Heart
Firstly, anyone can volunteer. You do not need to be involved in fundraising events or a student charity committee — making a difference is not about status or comparing yourself to others. Making a difference starts with you. What do you love doing? What causes are you passionate about?
Not everyone will have everything figured out at the start. Even if you don’t know what cause to fight for, there are always opportunities for you as a student. Volunteering is a great way for you to explore and discover an altruistic side to yourself, whether it be at events, helping out a family friend, or for the NHS. And let’s face it. With your brain at its peak elasticity, what better time is there to gather the soft skills and routines to make your future working life a whole lot easier?
For now, I want to use my specific experiences at Oxfam, a nonprofit organisation and global confederation with the aim to alleviate poverty. In another blogpost, I will talk a bit more about Oxfam as a charity. When signing up to volunteer after the lockdowns, the cause close to my heart was to support these nonprofits in their goals to feed, shelter, and provide for struggling people. If you like second-hand shopping at charity shops, for instance, this could be a good segue into thinking about your cause, and the impact you are able to have.
2. Work as an “Experience”, Not a Means for Money
A charity shop is a great place to start. They’re accessible on most UK highstreets and are always looking for new helpers. As students, we are generally accustomed to the high-pressure environment of meeting deadlines and assimilating into adult life. The jobs catered towards young people have incredibly demanding conditions; food service, bartending, retail — the list goes on. But charity shop volunteers experience a completely different — often slower-paced — atmosphere.
If you do not thrive in this environment but still want experience on a till, serving customers, and working with the ins and outs of a shop, then charity shops offer a brilliant starting point for accumulating experience, whether you’d like to leap into a for-profit sector after this step, or not. This kind of experience is beneficial for a range of other career paths, for example, marketing, communications, fashion, the charity sector, or any line of work where you’re part of a wider team or network.
Pushing aside matters of money and thinking about work experience as an ‘experience’, the volunteering route offers a relaxed, flexible schedule. I know that I am valued when walking into Oxfam every Monday, not for my labour (often removed and alienated from the individual) but for my efforts as a human being. For example, if my studies or responsibilities clash with a shift, I can contact my manager to rearrange it. Somebody working might not experience the same benefits, especially in a high-pressure environment.
By no means reject paid work entirely (those working alongside their studies will have good reasons for doing so). However, it is not the single route to a chock-full CV, or the only way to obtain a sense of fulfillment or achievement. Sometimes I appreciate the bus fare covered by Oxfam more than the money I get for writing articles. That recognition of someone taking time out of their day to give back reminds you that you are not doing it for money, but for skill development, duty, and an inner optimism that still believes in a better world.
Juggling work-life balance at university will put people off volunteering. It is understandable for someone to focus on their studies or other work, developing their career that way. But with life changing in so many ways at this pivotal stage, volunteering is grounding in its stability, routine, and sense of community.
3. Meeting New People and New Places
The social aspect might be something you’re not used to. It is common to have a diverse team of young and old, employed and not, all working together. One thing I appreciate about volunteering is overcoming generational, class, and social divides by getting to know people in the area. Being part of this team teaches you a lot about different dynamics in a professional or more casual setting. For instance, the relaxed pace of work helps you associate with a manager, with a friend, or with an acquaintance on a more meaningful level than if you had a fixed contract. I would have never received the insight I have now if I hadn’t volunteered and met people outside my immediate circle. Jokes, careers, music, fashion — all come with a different perspective depending on the individual.
The experience is great to establish a sense of local community. Say you’ve moved far from your hometown for university and you feel displaced. Once a week, volunteering gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives me a reason to explore the city center and take walks, no matter the season. Commuting to town every week with covered travel propelled me to then grab coffee and traverse the nooks and crannies of Norwich. From the cobblestone streets, to chats with Big Issue sellers, to the small businesses, town-life has been a treat. There is something effortlessly romantic about having your own special commute and day you can get to know the area in which you live.
I hope that sharing these experiences with other students can help make a difference. It is never too late to give back to a cause — even if you are in your final semester, the choices you make now can change your perspective towards your abilities and your place in the world. Now, I wake up looking forward to commuting to my place of work. I can now ask myself what I get out of doing what I do, and reply with the knowledge, skills, and insight developed along the way, that “all contributions (labour), no matter how small, are of value”.