As Volunteers Week gets under way, Alison Utley looks at the personal benefits of helping others.
PREPARING an attention-grabbing CV is often the most difficult obstacle facing students applying for their first job.
One way to stand out from the crowd, and do something useful for others, is to take part in voluntary work. According to research out this week, volunteering can offer students profound advantages.
Almost every respondent to a survey on the impact of volunteering said the experience had had a positive effect on personal development. All but one of the sample of 70 students said taking part in Student Community Action had presented challenging opportunities, and the vast majority said voluntary work had provided invaluable practical, organisational and social skills.
"There is still this attitude that volunteer work is all about coffee mornings and babysitting but it is so much more dynamic than that," said Chris Hailey, a member of SCADU, the national centre for student volunteering in the community, which conducted the research.
SCADU said there is anecdotal evidence of the benefits of volunteering, but until now there has been no statistical proof of a link between, say, the experiences of community work and future employment and other life choices.
The research reveals the wide range of activities with which students have become involved. There are many traditional projects such as furniture recycling, gardening and decorating for the elderly, plus group work with after-school clubs, disabled people and single-parent families. But there is also a large amount of committee work involving fund-raising, training and campaigning, including lobbying Parliament.
The respondents' list of skills gained varies from chairing meetings to face painting. One respondent said: "It made me realise that some things are more important than essays, exams and degrees." Life skills most often mentioned were creativity, self-reliance and the ability to make something happen.
At least half of the respondents said their voluntary work had directly influenced their career choice, and a significant minority said there was an indirect link.
Forty per cent followed a career direction that was unrelated to their choice of academic study. "My ideas of what I wanted to do were about perceived notions, not real-life experiences," said one student.
The research also showed that up to 80 per cent of respondents continued to do voluntary work after leaving higher education.
"It is important to realise that the work is not patronising people but working with them to improve quality of life."
Kirsty Heaviside began volunteering during the sixth form. When she arrived at Birmingham University she helped run a club for adults with learning problems. She also learned sign language through Student Community Action and worked with children with hearing impairment. "The most important aspect for me was confidence-building," she said.
"I had to stand in front of 200 people, chair national meetings and convene workshops."
After graduating - she also managed to hold down a part-time job in a bar and gain a 2:1 - Ms Heaviside went to Asia to teach English. Now she is about to begin a PGCE course. "I would recommend volunteering to all students," she said.
"It helps break down barriers."
"I did not want to do just a degree, I wanted more involvement than that." Chris Hailey admits that he was quite naive when he arrived at York University. But after he became involved in a small project to start a talking magazine for the blind, he never looked back. "The project was a huge success. Five years later, there were more than 1,000 listeners as far away as Australia and Canada. We even had our own soap opera."
And Mr Hailey achieved a personal ambition. "I started doing celebrity interviews and got to do the pop group Bucks Fizz. I am probably their biggest fan."
After that he got more involved with fund-raising and recruiting. After graduation, he become the Student Community Action sabbatical officer at York.
"All the experience led me to my present job as a district manager of the Citizens' Advice Bureau in Hull," he said.
Mr Hailey is still involved with SCADU and is still impressed by the energy of student volunteers. "I get new ideas, excitement and enthusiasm from them," he said.
"You really can make a difference to people's lives. It is not just about CV points."