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How volunteering has enhanced my university experience

“You need experience to get a job, but you need a job to get experience.” This is a commonly expressed dilemma among university students trying to work out what to do with their lives. There is a solution: volunteering.

Many people perceive volunteering as exotic projects in far-off locations, but in reality there are countless local and long-term opportunities, meaning it’s accessible to anyone. Unpaid work doesn’t sound like the most appealing prospect when time and money are in short supply, but it really can be worthwhile – and I’m not just talking about employability. Volunteering is much easier to apply for successfully than paid jobs and competitive summer internships, and let’s not forget the massive contribution volunteers make to charities and organisations. These advantages aren’t always enough, however, to motivate students to give up their time. Voluntary work is not only valuable for our future careers or the people we help, but for our present lives: enriching our university years through variety of experience. Looking back, many of the defining moments from my time at York are not related to my academic studies, but to the world outside of campus.

I first joined the Youth Hostel Association’s network of young volunteers aged 17. It wasn’t a big commitment. Occasional events usually combined a day’s volunteering, such as painting part of a hostel, with team-building games and time to explore the local area; in return we received free accommodation and travel expenses. During my first year of university I shelved books in the children’s area of York Explore public library for two hours a week, and throughout my second year I did work experience with York Mix, a local online magazine. Currently, I am volunteering at the National Railway Museum and the Oxfam bookshop on Petergate. Yes, these have all helped me to learn skills that can be useful to future employers, such as customer service, but I’ve found the other benefits more significant.

With York being a campus university, it can feel cut off from the outside world. Volunteering made me feel more involved in the city: like a resident, not just a student. Being a History student, I don’t have as many contact hours as most but the days are filled with endless reading. It can be refreshing to take a break from sitting at a desk reading articles and writing essays! It’s not all hard work, either. At the railway museum, for example, part of my role is to sample everything that’s going on so that I can describe it to visitors, including free steam train rides.

The social aspect of voluntary work also tends to be understated. I’ve met so many people outside of the student bubble: locals and tourists, customers and other volunteers, children and retired people. Although I love being part of the University of York student community, it’s refreshing to have a conversation with people from such different walks of life. I’ve had the opportunity to meet senior staff and volunteers at events, including YHA conferences, Oxfam shop meetings, volunteer forums and evening meals.

I expected that balancing so many different commitments would be stressful, but in fact it’s the opposite: being out in the real world, making a positive difference, completely takes my mind off studying for a few hours and makes me more focused when I get home. I’ve found that fitting my workload around shifts has gradually become easier as my time there has progressed. My time management was terrible in first year despite having less volunteering and studying to juggle than I have now! A key advantage with volunteer work is the flexibility it allows you; you choose how much time to dedicate and your work rota can be varied according to your schedule.

If you think volunteering might be something you’re interested in, don’t hesitate to look for a role that suits you. Even if there’s nothing matching your dream career, it’s the perfect way to try out lots of different work environments. You might even come to surprise yourself with what work experience appeals to you. University is the ideal time to dip into things, without necessarily having to worry about keeping up a full-time job or other commitments. York, in particular, offers a huge variety of volunteer- friendly establishments, from charity shops to tourist attractions.

Find out more about volunteering opportunities via the Careers website! You can arrange for customised email alerts to avoid missing out on any forthcoming opportunities. Applications for York Students In Communities placements close on 12 February. YUSU provides further volunteering opportunities for York students.

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Emily Dunn

Emily Dunn

Third-year history student. Enjoys creative writing, rail travel and amateur photography.