This week marks the 21st anniversary of Student Volunteering Week.
Student volunteering itself is way past retirement age. In fact in a number of institutions, the students’ union came after student-led voluntary action projects.
But reviewing the social media posts and blogs shared this week I’ve been considering how the student volunteers of today are experiencing the 21st Student Volunteering Week – and I came to the conclusion that it’s not a particularly joyful birthday party.
So I thought I’d try to cheer us up – not with empty platitudes but with some reflection, hope and practical advice.
Three key themes have come out of my conversations with students’ union staff and officers recently:
- They are exhausted and ”pandemic fatigue” is very real. Students leading opportunities are struggling too.
- Having something fun to look forward to is really helpful – for all of us.
- Despite the circumstances, clever, creative and enterprising students have managed to do a huge amount of cool stuff that has made a real difference to an otherwise grim student experience.
Over and above
It’s important to say that here in the midst of a pandemic, student opportunities aren’t cancelled. If you look at campuses across the country it might look like they are, but in Zoom rooms and Instagram lives there are bubbles of activity happening.
There’s an issue in student opportunities as they’re often cited as an answer to student mental health and wellbeing concerns. The benefits of socialising, learning something new, or practicing your hobby are wonderful for mental health, diminishing loneliness and providing something different to look forward to in the day.
We know there’s a benefit to helping others and that many students choose to volunteer to make a difference and help people.
But student opportunities are built upon student leaders. They’re not superhuman, and they’re struggling too. And given the model centres around student leadership, when the student leaders fall, we’re left with little to no opportunities on the (virtual) table.
Many reading this article will resonate with the term burnout, a “natural reaction to a situation that has become intolerable to the person experiencing it”. This article talks about how burnout often occurs where a person feels out of control.
For student opportunity leaders there are multiple layers of decision makers setting the rules (and often changing them last minute).
Take a sports club captain, for example. They’re likely to be taking the “can we, can’t we” steer from their students’ union, their institution, BUCS, the NGB for their sport and the government.
It takes time for that many decision makers to come to a decision, and when they do, such decisions have usually been unfavourable to that club captain who signed up to lead their club and, unsurprisingly, play sport. It isn’t unreasonable then for our club captain (who is, of course, also experiencing change in their academic studies, how they meet their friends and where they’re told to live) to feel that lack of control, contributing to burn out.
That experience – of trying to lead something and motivate a membership when so much is outside of your control – will be contributing to burnout across our army of opportunity leaders. And that should worry us both for human reasons, and when we come to consider both committee elections, and what we’ll have to offer in September.
Support is needed
So what do we need to do? My job as a consultant is to help with difficult things, rather than just write about them and leave you to it – so I’ve summarised ideas based on conversations I’ve had with student opportunities people over the past week or so.
One of the (only) elements of the Covid-19 Pandemic that I’d like to keep is what I like to call a “whole human” approach. There’s a universal acknowledgement and (in most cases) acceptance that children and pets interrupt meetings, that people are tired and burnt out and that we’re not all performing at best right now.
Approaching your volunteers with honesty that, in fact, you are not a bureaucratic robot but a real human that wants to help them.
Meeting them where they are
This requires flexibility, patience and time that may not feel accessible right now. It may also mean abandoning well-trodden paths of support and recognising that things considered essential in previous years may have to be missed off this year.
A society committee may have had grand ambitions back in late Summer 2020 when we all thought they’d be back together in person soon. Their expectations and hopes for what remains of the academic year could be different, and as volunteer supporters we need to help them with this adjustment.
Celebration and genuine thanks
One of the most powerful ways to support volunteers is to consistently thank them for what they do. It sounds so obvious when written down but can easily be overlooked. This could be a written thanks in an email, a social media post, a postcard, or a thank you from your Trustee Board. It doesn’t hugely matter how, but essential that you do.
Celebrating and thanking volunteers is fundamental within the National Societies & Volunteering Awards, and why we’ve decided to run them again in 2021. We wanted to provide a platform for a big “thank you” for societies, volunteers and the people who support them.
Moving the goalposts
It’s really good to have a plan. Trust me when I say I really like planning (we’re called Organised Fun for a reason!), however if you haven’t already I encourage you to revisit your objectives for student opportunities and reflect on how realistic they are now.
The good news is that while we might not be packing out gig venues and lecture theatres on the day after Easter Monday, the easing of restrictions is coming. It’s going to be hugely important to focus on recovery – both of student health and the health of our activities and organisations – any day now.
A third term of limited activity – and then a summer of creativity, where we involve incoming, continuing and graduating students in building a range of events, experiences and social capital – will need to be planned, proposed and delivered very soon.
It will be something for all of us to look forward to.