Volunteering can play a significant role in helping international students integrate into their new communities. This is especially true now that, according to the British Council, “safety and multiculturalism” are becoming more important for people looking to study in the UK.
Universities already run many initiatives designed to support international students, such as the World at Warwick Language Cafe and the Writing and Language Support programme at University College London. There are many great programmes such as these that bring together international and domestic students to share experiences and skills.
Although these initiatives are important, it is crucial that international students get to know the communities they live in, as well as their fellow students.
Volunteering is an excellent way for international students to get to know their local area and the UK. By giving their time to charitable projects, students can meet people in the wider community and learn about the needs of those living around the corner from their institutions.
Indeed, Samuel Wong, a Royal Holloway, University of London student shortlisted for this year’s Student Volunteer of the Year Award, said: “volunteering with local care homes has helped me to gain a better understanding of the challenges of dementia care, developed my transferable skills and opened up my eyes to the issues surrounding my community”.
Sara Fernandez, executive director of Student Hubs and a former international student at the University of Oxford, saw volunteering as “an opportunity to better understand the challenges people in Oxford were faced with, and to learn about British culture”.
Volunteering is also an excellent way for international and domestic students to get to know students from a wide variety of backgrounds. A student from the European Union studying at Soas, University of London, remarked that while “it’s easy to find Italians in London, volunteering is an opportunity to get to know people beyond that”.
Another international student at Soas said that “as an international student in particular, volunteering gives me the opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, and learn about other perspectives”.
Mostafa Rajaai, the international students’ officer for the National Union of Students, agrees, stating that “international students not only contribute to the depth and diversity of volunteering programmes, but the students themselves benefit immensely by being part of a global and diverse group of volunteers and activists”.
There are some excellent examples of initiatives specifically targeted at helping international students to integrate through volunteering. In Oxford, the local Student Hubs branch are organising “Togetherness Week”, a series of events and volunteering opportunities focused on tackling loneliness in both the young and the old. They are specifically targeting international students, who often feel isolated at university. At the University of Chester, the welfare department recommends international students, who it feels would benefit from volunteering, to the student development team who can then suggest opportunities.
In addition to integration, volunteering helps international students to develop valuable skills for life and work. Well-designed volunteering complements students’ degree programmes, allowing them to explore various interests and take on key responsibilities.
Volunteering can help students to develop a broad range of teamwork and leadership skills, and enhance their employability. Research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 67 per cent of employers noted that entry-level candidates with voluntary experience demonstrated greater employability skills and 51 per cent of graduates under the age of 30 in paid work said that volunteering helped them to secure employment.
It is important to note that there are a few barriers to supporting international students in volunteering. In particular, Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks and visa restrictions can be difficult. However, these are challenges that can be overcome, and the UK Council for International Student Affairs provides an invaluable guide for ensuring that institutions are prepared to deal with these additional hurdles.
Overall, volunteering as an international student provides access to new friends, knowledge, skills and other opportunities. During Student Volunteering Week, taking place from 22 to 28 February, get involved with volunteering activities near you.
Student Volunteering Week is organised in partnership with Student Hubs and the National Union of Students (NUS). Share what you are up to using #SVW2016 and let us know your motivations for volunteering using #IVolunteerBecause.
Francis Wight is the network development director for Student Hubs, a charity supporting students in UK universities to engage with social action. He leads on growth, policy and partnerships across the network. Before working for Student Hubs, Francis studied history and politics at the University of Warwick, where he helped to set up Warwick Hub.