Why Full-Time Students Are Less Likely to Volunteer
22 December 2011 at 10:49 am
Student volunteering can be a rewarding experience, but not an easy one to get right. I travelled this year to work on education and literacy projects in a village in East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea.
I was moved by the experience, the people and the amazing paradise that is the island of New Guinea. I am now President of the Melbourne University Community Development Club, the group that gave me this first taste of volunteering overseas. Through this role I have experienced how difficult it can be to utilise the wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm of students in community development work.
Balancing the pressures of study, work and socialising is difficult enough. Jaunting overseas can complicate matters and is a big commitment in time, money and headspace already at a premium in our young lives.
A survey commissioned by the Department of Family and Community Services in 2006 showed only 11% of the total of volunteers are young people (18-24), and only 2% of volunteers were full time students. This is not because of any lack of empathy as young people; particularly students are passionate and ready to make a difference. Community awareness is there in young people, but finding the opportunity to act on it is difficult. For me it is extremely difficult juggling university and community development work, and sometimes it feels like it could be easier to just give up.
Attending meetings, co-ordinating people, finances, practicalities of travel on top of normal university life can prove to be hectic. Initial feelings of empathy and enthusiasm can turn to apathy very quickly when a young person is stretched too far. The way we structure volunteering and study is separated and disjointed. Usually young people would have to take time off study, either deferring for a few months or taking a gap year. This is a luxury I know many cannot afford, in time or money. The expenses of travelling overseas for some students are just unrealistic, especially those who come from low income family backgrounds and who work hard just to study.
I believe the best way to fully utilise the wealth of knowledge and passion students have in community development is to change the way we think about volunteering. Trips overseas should be dispersed through the academic year, so it is easier to balance study and volunteering. Many offer volunteering programs, but these, like many others, are restricted by time and funding.
Course-long community partnerships should be established, so a group of students can continue a relationship with the community they volunteer in as they themselves grow and develop academically. Having shorter stints mean people can afford the money and time to go and it is easier for the person to cope with being away from their own homes. It is up to students to demand this flexibility from not only their universities but the huge industry of volunteer agencies that is out there.
Some may criticise this as not being in the interests of the communities you are working with, as you are not there all the time. However, with the ever shrinking world of communication open to us we can communicate with these communities more easily than we have before.
It is vital therefore that any agency or NGO has these lines of communication so volunteers can work in the community even without being there all the time. For example, my club’s trips usually have to fit into the academic year and be affordable to students. I have found after working in PNG that regular contact with the local school teachers has been invaluable and village students have been communicating via pen pals with the primary school my mother works in.
The mobile phone has proven to be a wonderful invention and means we can call people in the village from here in Melbourne. We are working on using Frontline SMS to regularly send weather, news and cash crop prices to our partner community. We don’t need people on the ground all the time and by utilising new technology we can reduce the strain on communities large groups of people can bring inadvertently.
We should not be there just to build classrooms, fix roofs or dig wells. We should not focus on this enablement so much without the empowerment to use the classrooms or wells we send volunteers to build. Our motto for our Papua New Guinea trip is “Senisim save bilong yumi”. That roughly translated from PNG Tok Pisin means an exchange of knowledge between them and us. We are students, we cannot offer large grants or buildings- only hard work and the knowledge we gain through study.
This knowledge transfer is a two-way thing and can prove to have positive long term effects for all involved and of course can be a rewarding experience. I have learnt so much from the people I worked with in the community about identity and belonging and the importance of tradition and culture. I only hope that with a shift in focus by volunteer organisations and universities other students can see the benefits too.
John Lister is the President of the Melbourne University Community Development Club.