Unravelling the hidden truths of volunteering
Lewis Blakey is a student of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Southampton and is doing a voluntary work placement in Lisbon, Portugal with an organisation that works with education and training within the EU, facilitating and co-ordinating Erasmus+ placements for students in countries with fewer opportunities for training such as Romania, Poland and Slovenia. To hear more from Lewis, you can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.
For many language students the arrival of May signifies either the very beginning of their year abroad planning or the placing of finishing touches on final plans. Most universities offer their students a choice between: study placements at partner universities; language assistantships, usually organised in conjunction with the British Council or the chance to organise their own work placement in their chosen field. One variation of work-placement that is frequently under-advertised is the idea of doing voluntary work. Given the recent controversy in the UK over unpaid internships and the subsequent campaigns for stronger governmental regulation of them, it is easy to see why the idea of “working for nothing” is unappealing and consequently not openly advertised.
As someone who has spent the past seven months doing exactly that, with this post I wanted to shed some light on why this choice has proven to be the perfect fit for me and how it may be the same for you.
1. A flexible working schedule
This may seem extremely obvious but working as a volunteer often does not involve a typical nine-to-five, same week-in-week-out routine; it is often far more flexible and variable. Your working schedule is normally structured around your availability and the fact that you are not being paid often gives you more bargaining power with regard to your own working timetable.
For those of you who, like us at Southampton University, have to complete some form of research or project during your time abroad (hence why my number of posts has dramatically reduced over the past two months), volunteering gives you a lot of flexibility especially when you are working crazily around deadlines. I am also incredibly lucky to have a boss who encourages me to travel and again this flexibility allows me to do so, provided I give her enough notice, of course.
Voluntary work can also be easily supplemented, for instance, if you find you wish to start earning a bit of money to help with your living costs (more on this later) and your flexible schedule easily allows for this. Your volunteering can also prove to be an excellent conversation starter for part-time job interviews.
2. A distinctly different experience...
Another large advantage of doing voluntary work is that it gives you the chance to have a completely different experience to someone studying or doing a more traditional work placement. Voluntary work in particular is a very social activity that involves high levels of interaction with people; some of whom you often would not have the chance to meet in either a university or office-type environment.
For me, the idea of spending nine months in what, relatively speaking, is a tropical climate cooped up in an office staring at a computer screen, seeking solace in the fact that my knowledge of Windows toolbars in Portuguese was now impeccable, was torturous. Through voluntary work I have been able to spend most of my days out in the open, dealing with locals and meeting other people from many different walks of life, such as here in the Jardim Botânico de Lisboa:
3. ...tailored to your interests
This point is a slight continuation of the previous one, but I think it is worth emphasising. Volunteer work comes in more forms than I have space to mention here and this means you can really design your work to suit your interests. For me, it was quite liberating to take a step back from the career-goal orientated attitude that dominates most walks of life and do something based purely on personal interest.
Are you interested in human rights, working with the elderly, education, the European Union? These are just a few areas you can enter into as a volunteer. The key word being, you, it is completely down to you what you do.
4. A viable alternative to studying
One highly understandable concern among year abroad students is that working for nothing may leave them out of pocket. Although this depends greatly on your chosen location, remember that students doing University placements often survive fairly comfortably with their loan and Erasmus grant. If they can cope, why can you not as a volunteer?
While working as a volunteer you may also receive some benefits from the organisation you work for, to help you with your expenses. Clearly this depends on the individual organisation but this may range from covering travel or food expenses to help finding accommodation. Or in my case, a trip to Porto to visit the port wine cellars back in November:
5. The good old CV
Without superficially swinging all the above information back round to job related benefits, doing voluntary work without doubt can prove to be beneficial for your CV. By shunning a study placement or language assistantship and organising your own experience you are effectively proving yourself a successful calculated risk-taker, as being more independent and as a highly resourceful individual. Standing out from the crowd appears to be the most important element to successful post-university job applications and choosing a less-trodden path for what is a mainstream part of a language degree can help you do this.
So could volunteering light up your CV like the rather impressive chandelier in the Palácio Nacional da Ajuda‘s throne room?
I do not wish to end this post on such a typical, career-caressing note so I will leave you with a final thought. It may seem totally clichéd to use the word “rewarding” with regard to volunteering but in all honesty this is a very accurate description of my experience. You could not put a price on the opportunities that I have had the privilege of experiencing and they really could not be replicated in something as defining as a wage slip. As we are exploring the boundaries of clichés, money truly does not make the world go round and I shall leave it at that before you lose your breakfast/lunch/dinner/brunch/bacalhau – delete as appropriate.
Beijinhos e até à próxima!