Volunteering as a university student: what are my options?
The volunteering opportunities at university are vast. As a student, you can volunteer in your local community, take part in fundraising events and, when safe to do so, travel to the other side of the world to make a difference.
Volunteering is always a great extracurricular activity at university. It’s easy to see why: it is an opportunity to help others and make a difference, looks impressive on a CV, offers you an opportunity to meet new people and of course there’s the feel-good factor too.
There’s a wide variety of volunteering options available for students. Please note, however, that this article was written before the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the activities listed below may not be possible (for example, foreign travel) or may be delivered in a different way due to social distancing guidance. However, charitable organisations need volunteers and fundraising efforts more than ever, so it is still worth using the options below as a starting point to discover how you can both make a difference and develop skills to add to your CV. It may be, for example that you become a volunteer at home, running a helpline.
Opportunities to volunteer at university
Most unis run a variety of volunteering groups that meet to help the local community. These cover areas such as:
- Languages: you could go to language ‘cafes’ to help international students develop their language skills and feel at home.
- Food: you could help out in a foodbank or work as a kitchen volunteer for an organisation.
- Working with the elderly: you could spend time with the elderly to tackle isolation or help out with chores.
- Working with children and young people: you could take part in one-on-one tutoring or organise days out for small groups of children.
- The environment: you could help out with litter picking or take part in gardening.
- Sport: you could arrange sporting events for the community or volunteer to coach children’s sport.
- Hospitals: you could help with administration or fundraising.
Many universities also take part in a nationwide ‘Student Volunteering Week’ in February to build relationships with the local community. During this week they usually offer ‘give it a go’ and one-off sessions to give you the opportunity to try out different activities.
RAG and charity fundraising
Most universities have a student-led initiative that organises events to raise money for charities – often called RAG (Raising and Giving). The events take place throughout the year but most unis also have a ‘RAG week’ when a lot of these events take place. These can include half-marathons, bake sales, colour runs or taking part in RAG ‘raids’ (bucket collections which often involve trips to nearby towns).
Taking part in sponsored challenges can be a fun way to fundraise with your friends. Some universities hold ‘sleep-out’ challenges for a night in places such as cathedrals or cardboard shelters. ‘Jailbreak’ events are also popular: the challenge is to hitchhike as far as you can in 36 hours without using your own vehicle or cash – in the past, students have been known to get as far as Tel Aviv or Cape Town! ‘Get Lost’ challenges are a more local alternative: students are dropped off in an unfamiliar location and try to hitchhike back to uni.
Executive committee or project leaders
Volunteering at university is primarily organised and run by the students. Becoming a project leader is a great way to show your sustained commitment to an activity and will help you to develop your leadership skills. Universities such as Loughborough and Manchester hold elections or hustings for the RAG executive committee. Students who want to be on the committee campaign for a week and at the end of the week the other students vote for their preferred candidate.
Leading a project or being on the executive committee often involves dealing with recruitment; organising inductions, training and sessions; budgeting and leading meetings. Students often lead projects alongside their studies, but at a few universities being on the executive committee can be a paid role that students take on in the year after they’ve graduated.
Universities have traditionally offered opportunities for volunteering abroad or have links with charities and volunteering projects overseas. These can be a great way to use the long summer holidays and to experience different cultures away from mainstream tourism. Common projects usually include: a challenge, such as trekking through the Himalayas or hiking up Kilimanjaro; teaching English in a foreign country; organising sports projects; working in conservation; construction projects; or working with children and animals.
However, during the coronavirus pandemic, many of these opportunities are not being offered. Please check the foreign travel advice on GOV.UK for advice if you are thinking of volunteering internationally
In normal, non-pandemic times, you would have had several things to bear in mind before deciding to volunteer abroad:
- Costs: a lot of organisations will charge an administration or joining fee. While your accommodation will be covered in most cases, you may be expected to pay for your flights to the location, to cover visa costs and any specific kit that you’ll need and to fundraise a certain amount before you go.
- Check with your GP on any jabs you may need before going to a certain area.
- Do your research into the organisation and trip and look at reviews from previous applicants, especially if you’re finding your own volunteering overseas. Make sure the organisation is reputable, and look into the ethics, safety, sustainability and the impact of the project.
Volunteering outside of university
You may prefer to get involved with volunteering outside of university – which is a good opportunity to escape the university ‘bubble’ and spend time with people that aren’t students. Charities and non-profit organisations such as the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance are always looking for volunteers – but you can also volunteer in places such as soup kitchens, schools, hospitals, local community centres, libraries and museums.
How much time will I need to devote?
The amount of commitment required varies for each activity – but if you’re worried about time, most opportunities in the community are just for a couple of hours a week and RAG fundraising usually involves one-off events. Taking on an organisational role, such as becoming a project leader, will require a bigger time commitment.
If you’re worried about being able to regularly find the time to volunteer, you could try joining an organisation such as Goodgym, which combines going running with doing good deeds – meaning that you can help others and stay fit at the same time!
How do I get involved?
Going to your freshers’ fair at the start of the year (virtually or in person) is a good way to make yourself aware of the volunteering opportunities that your university offers. Otherwise, they should be detailed on your university website so that you can get in contact with the leaders of the project you want to join and begin induction sessions and training.
Outside of uni, most big charities post volunteering opportunities on their websites. You could also consider making speculative applications to charities or contacting your local volunteer centre. NCVO’s volunteering page has information about volunteering and databases to search for opportunities.
You should bear in mind that some opportunities, such as working with children, vulnerable adults or the elderly, require a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) check. This will take at least four weeks – and you can only begin volunteering once this is complete.