The virtues of volunteering

Offering services for free enhances your employment prospects when you graduate

If you're heading off to university later in the year, you'll already be thinking about the extra curricular activities you'd like to take part in. Music? Mixed martial arts? Magic? There are certainly plenty to choose from, but there's another option you may not have considered.

Volunteering offers many of the same social benefits, with the added bonus of helping others and developing useful skills to put on your CV. Plus, students are in a unique position to help, suggests Tom Fox, volunteering co-ordinator at Lancaster University. "They can take their enthusiasm and excitement for opportunities and share their passions, subject knowledge and experience with people."

The idea of giving up time for nothing might seem impractical at first, especially once the pressures of study and coursework or exams begin to mount up. However, Michelle Wright, CEO of charity support organisation Cause4, suggests seeing volunteering as a two-way street. "I think it's fine for undergraduates to approach volunteering as a symbiotic relationship where doing good is just one part of the motivation for reaching personal and professional goals."

Those personal goals might include the satisfaction of helping others and seeing your work making a difference. Professionally, volunteering might help you to develop the skills and experience that employers value once you graduate – experience which is sometimes hard to come by. Katerina Rüdiger, head of skills and policy campaigns at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says: "Volunteering can be a valuable way of gaining that experience, as well as building confidence, broadening your horizons, becoming a better team player and developing those all-important 'employability skills' such as communication and decision making."

Amanda Haig, graduate HR manager for Allianz Insurance, agrees that volunteering can help your employment prospects. "Volunteering can demonstrate positive personality traits and skill sets, such as proactivity, and teamwork," she says.

A positive side-effect of volunteering is improving your time at university by getting involved in the local community. Leaving the student bubble can make your time as an undergraduate much more varied. At Bath Spa University, more than 1,000 students volunteered over the past year, doing everything from working on local environmental projects to helping in schools or assisting the elderly. "Quite often there can be a divide between students and permanent residents," says students' union president Amy Dawson, "but if students invest a little time now, they will be giving something back to the local community and will reap the benefits in the future."

You might also find that volunteering helps your studies if you choose the right programme. At Lancaster, volunteering is linked into academic modules in some cases, explains Fox. "This has multiple wins. Students get to apply their learning in the classroom and share their interests with children in local schools or community organisations, while schools gain skilled students with a passion for a subject that enthuses their pupils."

To find out more about local opportunities, see your union: they may help match you to a suitable project for the skills you're looking to develop. This is the case at Buckinghamshire New University, which gets students involved with everything from tree-felling to helping in charity shops. Once students register online, "we can match them up to opportunities on our database based on what they would like to gain, skills-wise," explains Matt Gilbert, vice-president of Student Involvement.

You may want to look at overseas projects during longer holidays. Some universities will help with this, or there are lots of independent options. It's a crowded field, says Brian Rockliffe, director of the International Citizen Service, but find the right project and you can still do valuable work. "Young people can make a difference in some of the poorest countries in the world, provided they are supported through a structured programme," he says.

To find that programme, spend lots of time researching. Lonely Planet's Volunteering guidebook and The Gap-Year Guidebook (published by John Catt) are helpful starting points for indie projects, while the FCO's "know before you go" site offers information about individual countries and safe travel (gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo).

Travel association Abta also has advice for would-be overseas volunteers. "Ask lots of questions and make sure you're comfortable with the work you'll be expected to do, where you'll be working and the history of the project and organisation," says a spokesperson. "Use initiative while there and come up with ideas yourself. The more you give, the more valuable your experience will be."

Whether you volunteer at home, overseas, for a few days or a few years, volunteering has a lot to offer. You can help others, challenge yourself, and end up with new skills. "Any project that involves giving something, whether it be your time or your skills, makes a real difference," says Fox. "Students flourish as a result of a unique and rewarding experience that is something completely different to the typical experiences of university life."

Case study: 'Getting involved makes me stand out'

Luke Butcher is studying photography at the University for the Creative Arts. He's involved in a range of charity work, including volunteering for Cancer Research.

"I'm someone who is very passionate about charity and I believe that it starts with you. We are all individuals and if we want to not just better ourselves but others, then the hard work starts with ourselves.

Once I decided to volunteer, I got involved by emailing and phoning various charities. When I had done that I started raising money as soon as possible. With Cancer Research UK I'm hoping to work with cancer patients or individuals in remission: I'm planning on putting on a makeover day where they can feel relaxed and happy and just be pampered! I'll be taking portraits of them, and hopefully putting them up in my own self-curated exhibition.

As a photographer I feel that getting involved with charity makes me stand out. Aside from that there's really only one thing I get from volunteering: hope. I hope that one day technology, society and medicines will be able to prevent or even stop these horrible illnesses and situations we live in now. All for a better and fairer world, that's what I say."

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