Graduate: Time to lend a helping hand

Volunteering for work abroad is a chance to combine exciting foreign travel with vital aid.
Working overseas for a development agency is an increasingly popular option for graduates. Among the major agencies, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has recently seen a 60 per cent rise in the number of applicants, which in the last six months translates to a total of 5,000 new recruits.

Graduates apply for a number of reasons - including a yearning to help others while living in a foreign country - and there are an enormous variety of opportunities on offer. Applicants can also tailor the work they choose to their own interests.

To gain entry onto a VSO programme, graduates are required to have a minimum of two years of work experience. Depending on their area of technical expertise, candidates are assigned to one of seven skill areas.

The VSO is most interested in graduates who have business skills, knowledge of Information Technology (IT), or technical expertise. Currently, applicants with TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualifications are urgently needed to work in China, where there is a great shortage of trained science and maths teachers.

If hopefuls get through the application form stage, they are invited to attend a selection day during which the organisation determines whether they are suited to development work. The standard placement is for two years and is decided by the applicant and the placement advisor.

The requirements of the applicants are also taken into consideration if, for example, there is a request not to work in an isolated region. This process generally takes between two and nine months.

The VSO covers accommodation, flights and also basic living expenses, not to mention paying National Insurance credits whilst the officer is out of the country.

Christian Aid takes a different approach with its recruitment. Unlike many of the other development organisations, its graduate intern scheme does not require two years work experience. Instead Christian Aid is looking for people who have done a first degree and wish to gain experience within a development agency. There are 60-100 applicants for the five places offered per intake (June-September).

The year-long intern scheme is based in London within Christian Aid's international department and is mainly advertised through graduate magazines. Successful applicants do some administrative work combined with short- term project work.

The programme is an attempt to combine academic work - which graduates are already familiar with - with the internal workings of a development agency.

Graduates of the scheme have gone on to work as field specialists in areas such as Kosovo, and several interns have gone on to be full-time development officers. Over the next five years, Christian Aid hopes to develop this scheme across the entire organisation.

Potential applicants should be aware that development agencies are looking for certain qualities. Fiona Thomas, personnel manager for Christian Aid, says, "Graduates need to be flexible enough to try different things, from an administrative role to working as a field officer in a high risk area. Such willingness and enthusiasm also need to be coupled with a sense of direction - be it towards work within Britain or policy work, for example."

Save the Children have a rigid criteria for getting involved in aid work: they only take on people who have had over two years experience working in the field as a development officer, and they prefer applicants to have a postgraduate qualification.

Oxfam offer a graduate placement scheme in their regional campaign offices. As with the other agencies, successful candidates are posted to a regional office for a six-month internship. Both Oxfam and Save the Children only offer overseas postings to experienced officers.

Emma Peacock, 25, graduated from Leeds University and, after seeing an advertisement for the scheme in a local library, she joined Oxfam's Birmingham office. "I have been co-ordinating a campaign called Give It Up For Ghana. It's been a most rewarding assignment and given me an real insight into the work of development agencies."

For further information, contact VSO (tel 0181-780 7500), Oxfam (tel 01865 311311), Christian Aid (tel 0171-620 4444), Save the Children (tel 0171-703 5400)

Final-year students:

things to do

l Now is the time to apply for sponsorship.

l Attend careers information fairs. Careers services and AIESEC will provide more information.

l Make sure you get the recruitment brochures hot off the press by writing to companies or visiting their websites.

l Take advantage of the fact that careers services will have arranged talks by invited speakers and careers seminars to take you through the rest of term.

l Watch out for "skills events" organised by some student unions.

l Join up with the Industrial Society and/or AIESEC. These are the two student societies most in touch with employers.