As a soon-to-be graduate, one of the thoughts that most has been crossing my mind recently is that real life is around the corner. Conversations with my friends have drastically developed from casual topics such as relationships or travel destinations to one quite more serious: jobs. We have swapped Facebook for LinkedIn and invest as much time writing cover letters as we do on essays.
The big deal, however, the one that sometimes wakes me and many of my generation up in the middle of the night, is whether we are ready –personally and professionally– for what will possibly be a nine to five job.
Very often I find myself struggling to answer what I want to do once I finish university. What company would I like to work for? What would my ideal department be? Will I stay in the city? Am I willing to move?
Having gone directly from high school to university, I’m not sure how I feel about the idea of switching the library desk for an office desk. At the same time, a gap year with no aim nor effort doesn’t attract me at all.Another important question is: how can I make a difference to a company in a way other thousands of graduates can’t?
It might sound like I don’t believe in myself – don’t get me wrong, I do. But, I am also aware of how competitive today’s job market is and of how having a good educational background isn’t enough anymore.
What skills, apart from those learned during the degree, can I offer?
Would I be a good team player, have an initiative or be able to lead my colleagues if a situation required so? Although my intuition says yes, nothing guarantees that I actually would.
When I talk about myself and my thoughts, I represent a big bunch of young people who are in the same position, one that some days feel exciting and others scary. While sharing these feelings with others makes me feel less lonely in this journey of transition, it also tells me that there must be something we can do about it. Something that soon-to-be or recent graduates may want to consider is volunteerism.
What is volunteerism?
The origins of the term “volunteer” lay in the late 16th century, referring to those who enrolled in military service without being conscripted. The definition of the volunteer I am talking about is as simple as “a person who works for an organisation without being paid.”
Volunteerism is “an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial or social gain to benefit another person, group or organisation, also renowned for skill development and often intended to promote goodness or to improve human quality of life. Volunteering may have positive benefits for the volunteer as well as for the person or community served.”
Aiming to find out what kind of services Wikipedia means and what sort of skills a volunteer might actually develop, I got myself Lonely Planet’s book Volunteer: A traveller’s guide to making a difference around the world, where “well-travelled Lonely Planet writers advised by a team of experts in the field” give you guidance in case you want to “give back to the communities you visit, make a genuine connection with locals, meet like-minded travellers and build your skills.” The book offers diverse recommendations that suit all sorts of priorities, and I choose those that seem the most serious and least holiday stylish ones.
Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE-UK) offers volunteering programmes in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe that last either six or twelve months. All projects are run together with local people and are long-term, which means that they are created bearing in mind what the local community needs rather than what is best suited for volunteers. Volunteers join and support meaningful projects but these continue to be worked on after they leave.
During the time abroad, volunteers live with a host family, getting full cultural immersion and the chance to learn the local language with a thirty-hour course included in the fee they pay to cover flights, visa, insurance, etc. This fee – £4,500 for the six-month programme and £5,200 for the twelve-month programme – makes me reconsider my love for London life.
Jenny Williams, Development Officer at Inter-Cultural Youth Exchange (ICYE-UK), talks about how volunteerism can be beneficial for young people: “From both a personal and a professional perspective, I would definitely recommend going on a volunteering experience after graduating. It is good to understand the reality not only of the world of NGOs but also what it takes to make an impact. There are so many skills that employers look for that are hard to gain before entering the job market, and volunteering gives you that chance.”
The organisation addresses eight global issues. These are human rights, environment, HIV/AIDS awareness, women’s development, community development, education, disability support and youth training. Examples of the type of projects volunteers get involved in are translation work for human right organisations in Bolivia, support for street children in education in Honduras or creation of conservation awareness campaigns in Costa Rica. A full list of the projects, however, can be found at www.icye.org.
ICYE-UK’s program is specifically designed to offer maximum training before departure, at arrival and throughout the stay “in order to carry out an impactful volunteering project” she explains. This is one of the keys that distinguish volunteerism from voluntourism, together with making sure you are taking part in an ethical experience.
Yes, you read it right. The combination of volunteering and tourism leads to none other than voluntourism, a term that had its moment of glory some time ago when JK Rowling condemned what several professionals in the charity industry had already tried to cast light on: A “voluntourism charity,” she tweeted, “tells volunteers they will be able to ‘play and interact’ with children ‘in desperate need of affection’,” and made it clear that she is fully against treating “poor children as opportunities to enhance Westerners’ CVs.”
The controversy caused by the Harry Potter author was not the first time that volunteer work was questioned. The debate is in fact still open, which should be encouraging to look deeper into the organisations we trust and we decide to collaborate with. Volunteerism can be beneficial for those who get involved in helping less favoured communities, but this should not be the main motivation for it.
Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an organisation that works in collaboration with International Citizen Service (ICS), offering government funded opportunities for young people: volunteer placements for those aged 18-25 and Team Leader positions for those aged 23-35 and that have got “a bit more experience and some additional leadership skills,” as explained by VSO Media Officer Amber Mezbourian.
How does their system work? “We get our funding from the UK’s Department for International Development and, as a result, volunteers don’t have to pay to take part in ICS, which makes it a very inclusive program. They are just required to do a small amount of fundraising that ranges from a minimum of £800 up to £1,500 pounds. This is “to show commitment to the program and to raise awareness before they go.”
Most programmes take place in Africa and Asia and some in Central America. Mezbourian wants to highlight that they have nothing to do with a vacation, but do on the contrary often feel like a job to which being in a different corner of the world and involved in challenging causes add. When you take part in such a program, she says, you demonstrate that “you are able to go out of your comfort zone, you are able to throw yourself into a completely different environment, to work with people from all sort of cultures and backgrounds.” Some of the skills volunteers most certainly acquire are “commitment and flexibility, being adaptable and not afraid to push themselves.”
The voice of experience
Beth Meadows, a recent BA History graduate from the University of Liverpool, returned from a volunteering program in India only a few weeks ago. Having volunteered both throughout and after school – she went to Thailand with Project Trust to teach English for twelve months – during her studies she continued to get involved in causes including refugees and asylum seekers, rough sleepers and the elderly. Beth describes the decision of going on another volunteering experience, this time a specific one that she had had in mind for years already, as “a natural step”. She says that volunteering is a part of who she is.
She says the volunteering experience had a big impact on her personally: “I came out of the experience with a far more honest and healthy relationship with myself. I didn’t expect or intend to develop myself on a personal level, to be honest. For me, it was more about gaining knowledge and experience of the charity sector. But the two actually go hand in hand and the more I reflected upon myself through the experience, the better volunteer I became. It’s so important to give time to yourself and work towards personal goals as well as career goals.”Beth had the chance to develop her interpersonal skills, as there wasn’t a common language between her and the community she worked with, and the values they lived by were often drastically different to hers. “From this, I learnt to practice understanding multiple perspectives to enhance my own opinion; to truly listen to understand and not just to reply.”
The only way to accomplish social change is “through understanding,” she reflects. One of the biggest lessons Beth learnt is “to practice a facilitator rather than a leader approach, as our main objective was to guide and not dictate.” In the specific context she was working this approach could make a huge difference in the future of the villagers: “we wanted them to become agents of their own social change and continue with it once we left.”
Overall, Beth feels her latest volunteering experience was “a truly special journey of personal challenge and growth” that allowed her to broaden her worldview.
Why did she do it with ICS? The main attraction for her was that “there are counterpart volunteers involved who come from the country you volunteer in,” which seemed like “a really positive and ethical approach sometimes hard to find as there are a lot of volunteering opportunities out there for young people that promote the white saviour complex.” With ICS she felt like she was “genuinely contributing towards rural community development thus many of the Sustainable Development Goals.”
Since returning, Beth has been successful in becoming an Outreach Caseworker for anti-trafficking charity City Hearts, a job that she says she absolutely loves. Her experience of volunteering certainly helped her as she had “ample skills to draw upon an interview” that she developed overseas.
What recruiters have to say
Ángela Portero Espejo, former Human Resources Officer at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and current Human Resources lecturer at Les Roches Marbella International School of Hotel Management, finds that graduates will “have a competitive disadvantage” if they dedicate their first year after university to volunteering rather than to interning or working in an industry that relates to their studies.
“I do not expect [graduates] to develop any skills worth in a competitive workplace because they tend to relax too much when volunteering. It is not realistic,” she claims. Instead, she recommends to “work right after university, as all students can apply for graduate programs only in their first year after they finish university.”
She admits that big names such as Greenpeace or the United Nations “sell very well” on resumes but insists that if she must choose between hiring a candidate that has interned at Bloomberg and one that has collaborated with Oxfam, she will “take the Bloomberg one.”On the other hand, Sam Hier, IT Account Manager at Doyen Resources, says that “when graduates come straight out of university, [volunteering] can be a positive experience which may mature you more than you would be if you went straight from university to a job.” However, he finds no direct relation between volunteering and having “a better chance of finding a job.”
“This, of course, can all be subjective depending on the employer and the role in question,” he concludes.
What impression a volunteerism experience makes on your CV will essentially depend on the type of job and company you are aiming for.
Volunteering can definitely be an inspiring experience for those in creative industries such as filmmaking or photography, whereas future journalists, lawyers or social workers would have the opportunity to get involved in eye-opening and real-life causes that would prepare them for the professional world. Marine biologists or conservationists would benefit from applying their knowledge in tropical countries where their expertise is very much needed while working towards goals they will chase during their careers.
Are you aiming to become a banker or an engineer? Volunteering might not be the best option for you, taking into account that these are more technical subjects.
Do some research on how the sector you want to enter is like, speak to people in it, ask for advice, analyse your own needs – your strengths, your weaknesses, your values, your goals– and don’t forget to follow your instinct: it often turns out to be pretty reliable.
Featured image by Basheer Tom via Flickr CC