OPINION: The Place for Volunteering in the 2020-21 Academic Year

Posted on: 27 August 2020

At Student Hubs we’re only two weeks away from our first Hub starting their freshers’ week. Following the aftermath of A Level results day, with the university cap on admissions lifted and circumstances rapidly changing for university teams across the past fortnight, it has been easy to focus on the present. But as we enter a year where more disadvantaged students than ever before will be entering university, it’s important for us to keep speaking about student experience so this isn’t overlooked. This is particularly relevant for disadvantaged students who may have the most barriers in feeling like they belong at university in the new academic year. 

For us, volunteering is an essential part of the outlook for 2020-21 and we wanted to share our experience from the past six months working with students through virtual volunteering.

At Student Hubs our vision and mission is all about empowering students to be active citizens through engagement with social action programmes, and the circumstances of Covid-19 has only reinforced how important these goals are. In the last six months, our team has been frantically delivering alternative versions of our usual in-person volunteering programmes. We have had workshops and end of project showcases on Zoom and used platforms like Bramble to run online tutoring for school pupils. Is this the future of student engagement in a year where more delivery than ever is run online? 

I would argue that it is. Running virtual programmes has forced us to test and trial in ways we never would have explored pre-Covid. We have stepped back from our day-to-day activities, and with it, we have a new vision for what our programmes could look like moving ahead, even when in-person delivery can begin again. So what have we learnt, and how this could apply across the HE sector?

We adapted, we thrived 

In converting our programmes, we had to examine how they could make the most impact. We ran all of our student consultancy programmes completely virtually, and gave more training and support in facilitating our programmes this way for both our students and community partners.

In some cases, the programme changed. We converted our Active programmes into a campaign called Challenge Accepted, because we recognised that engaging students in sports activities could support their mental health during lockdown, and that our young people needed a different intervention at that time. 

In short, we adapted, and in doing so, we thrived. Students told us that we introduced them to productivity systems they never would have used before, and that they felt connected to other students in a time when they otherwise would have been isolated. 

Community partners told us that being part of projects at this time was special to them, that our students were incredibly sensitive, and that the “lull” in usual activity provided a pause where they could use our student consultants to re-evaluate and make meaningful change in their organisation. 

Students are an integral part of university’s civic agendas

Our programmes run on a double benefit model, where both students and communities have to benefit as a result of our programmes. It’s embedded in our theory of change, but Covid-19 has meant closer collaboration with our partners than ever before. We have worked with our Hub communities (in Bristol, Cambridge, Kingston, Southampton and Winchester) to steer our delivery across the spring and summer. 

Schools told us they needed support for disadvantaged pupils, and we worked with our partners at the University of Southampton to provide activity packs. Some schools wanted access to virtual tutoring and some didn’t, so we worked with those that had the capacity to run virtual volunteering, and put out an open call to parents to sign up their children individually for tutoring to make it accessible for all. We asked students to contribute what they could, whether that was resource generation, videos of tutoring sessions, or applying to be tutors themselves. 

The message that we shared when recruiting students to support these projects was that your community needs you. Students responded very enthusiastically to this messaging: they told us that they wanted to give back; they wanted to use their lockdown time to help; and how keenly aware they were of the issues that were impacting young people, socially isolated people, and charity and social enterprises at this time. Students stepped up, and we were humbled to give them a platform to do that, even if they had moved away from these university communities for lockdown. 

Why volunteering? 

Student experience is going to come under a lens like no other time this year. When what we usually categorise as student experience — freshers’ week parties and full lecture theatres and busy libraries — cannot happen, where else do we seek this experience? Social action could be a part of the answer. 

Volunteering allows students to make connections, to work together, and when done safely and carefully, may allow us to provide a ‘blended’ option for virtual and in-person opportunities in the future. In fact, this seems like it could be even more effective than only in-person delivery, as it provides more accessibility for our programmes.  

Belonging is going to be one of the most significant factors in whether students choose to stay or leave universities once the autumn term starts this year. Volunteering is a key way for students to access that experience, to engage with their community, and ultimately to enhance their student experience. We should know: 93% of our students in 2018-19 reported their university experience was enhanced by taking part in our Hub volunteering activities. 

This is an immensely challenging time for universities across the UK, for their staff, academics, students and the communities they serve. But a pandemic is not a reason to step back from these community activities, it is a reason to step up. Communities need the capacity our students can offer more than ever, and our students are engaged, committed and passionate about helping them. 

“This might be the future!”

What we learned from our online delivery across the past six months is that students are actively seeking these opportunities to be connected to other students, to support their local university communities and to develop new skills which will support their employability moving forward. We saw applications for our programmes delivered during lockdown surpass our expectations, highlighting that students are ready to commit to taking part in social action and volunteering, and we know from our community partners how big a benefit this extra capacity has been for them. 

In a year where more disadvantaged students than ever are going to university, it is crucial that student engagement initiatives are accessible, that platforms are provided to create connections, and that the importance of creating opportunities to foster belonging at university is not forgotten. Now that virtual delivery has been embraced by universities and organisations across the country, a virtual approach may even outlast the pandemic: the benefits of accessibility alone for our student volunteer cohorts in this time means it will certainly remain an element in our programmes moving ahead. 

It is vital that universities and organisations respond to this need now, and start putting in place the tools and experiences we will all need to navigate the future of student experience, which may include far more Zoom calls than any of us may have predicted in January of this year. 

To conclude, I’ll leave you with this thought from one of our consultancy students in Cambridge: “Many thanks for all your hard work in delivering this fantastic programme online, it has been a pleasure and who knows, this might be the future!”

Fiona Walsh

Fiona is Student Hubs' Sales Director. She leads on university sales, alumni and corporate fundraising, marketing strategy and external relations. Fiona started her social action journey as a student volunteer with Southampton Hub.

Tags: Community, Higher Education, Opinion, Social Action

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