Kay Robinson takes a look at the downside of being a student volunteer.
If you’re a student, the idea that you should be volunteering to improve your employment prospects is something hard to get away from. If you can volunteer for an organisation related to your future career path of choice, even better, as the connections you forge may well help you to make inroads into your chosen sector. Like Connie Basnett, whose article ‘Volunteering is a Two Way Street’ is featured elsewhere on The Lancaster Despatch Box, I have been volunteering this summer, for an international development charity (which shall remain anonymous). It’s a world away from what I thought it would be.
Struggling to find anything local and accessible, volunteering for the charity seemed ideal, both close enough to travel to a few days a week and involved in an area I’d always found interesting. As a humanities student I was hoping to gain a bit of an insight into the workings of an NGO, the likes of which have so far cropped up in the course numerous times. The aim: to add practical experience to a very hazy knowledge of the sector, ‘knowledge’ which I now realise was based largely around preconceptions and only half-formed thoughts off the back of lectures.
The charity itself is human rights based, and runs projects overseas together with its local partners in order to empower marginalised groups in society. Working on three different continents, it has a wide network of relationships. But the first warning sign that things would be completely different to everything I’d assumed came when, during my interview for the role, the topic of conversation turned to why I was interested in the charity.
Expressing an interest in politics, it turned out, was largely a bad idea, and I was quickly interrupted with the words ‘this isn’t a political organisation’ followed by ‘we are a human rights focused charity.’ Fair enough. But as my understanding of the term ‘political’ linked it directly to public affairs and rendered human rights an explicitly political issue, I was left confused. I came to learn that what the interviewer had meant was more a reference to the charity’s purposeful disassociation from non-UK governments, as a strategic policy. This miscommunication (for which I was entirely responsible) has essentially predicted the rest of the placement so far, on which I still have around four weeks left.
The NGO is an extremely successful organisation; whose projects abroad effectively serve their purpose of providing human rights based aid. Yet as I have discovered, although they are an international charity, the work they do is regional in the narrowest sense. It looks to help specific individuals and communities through its local partners, but looks no further, leaving foreign governments and international affairs strictly separate from its work and its own projects strangely isolated.
While I wholeheartedly support the work carried out by the organisation, for this reason, among others formed from this experience and based on personal preference, I would now rule out further involvement in international development entirely, rendering the connections I have made through the placement useless.
But it’s all been worth it. Even if it has ended up being an experience of profound confusion, a lot of driving, buses, cups of tea and little else, I would recommend the experience to anyone and everyone. In providing real life involvement in areas of potential interest, volunteering seems to open doors of opportunity (or just as importantly, closes them!). Most importantly, it promotes the ability to make informed choices for the future in a way that a degree alone simply does not.
By Kay Robinson
[Image Credit: Kevin Utting]