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Make a Difference 2019

How university students are ‘giving back’ to their communities

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Gabriella Hanrahan

Community Liaison Officer, University of Limerick

University volunteer programmes can help students connect with the wider community — but an on-campus volunteering culture must be created to inspire young people to get involved.

When young people go to university, all they want to do is go out with their friends and have a good time. Don’t they?

Well, not entirely, explains Gabriella Hanrahan, Community Liaison Officer at the University of Limerick. Many are keen to get involved in on and off-campus volunteering through clubs, societies, community-based organisations and charities. “I believe higher education student volunteering is one of the best kept secrets and the most unrecognised activity of this population,” says Hanrahan.

The reasons why students are inspired to volunteer are many and varied. “A common response is: ‘We want to ‘give back’,” says Hanrahan.

Students tell me they want to do more than sit on the couch in the evenings.

Range of volunteering opportunities with big and small organisations

The University of Limerick (UL) has been running a unique volunteering programme for the last 10 years insofar as student volunteering is officially endorsed by the President and recorded on the UL student transcript.

UL also pioneered the first national student volunteer management system, database and website, which launched in 2016. This one stop shop has really changed student volunteering in Ireland because today on and off campus clubs, societies and organisations can promote and engage students all over Ireland.

“For instance, one of our Chinese students volunteers as a receptionist with St Mary’s Cathedral visitors’ centre in Limerick,” says Hanrahan. “He does it because he loves European architecture, wants to improve his language skills and immerse himself in Irish culture.” Yet many others volunteer with national organisations such as Childline, Samaritans, homeless and disability charities and students also create opportunities such as a dedicated charity week.

“Universities should foster a culture of volunteering on campus,” says Hanrahan, because students want to and are willing to ‘give back’.” A common reflection from students is that they get more from volunteering than they had ever expected,” says Hanrahan. ”They report how it helped them settle into university life, make new friends, how it improved their confidence and self-esteem and provided them with practical insights and work-related skills.

Moreover, engaging young people in societal issues and problems can be life- and career-changing. This student-led activity is a win-win for all. Student volunteers learn practical life and work-related insights and skills, organisations get access to a massive willing human resource, and all this goodwill positively profiles higher education students and institutions in their community and beyond.”

“If universities don’t have the right infrastructure in place, volunteering won’t happen because students won’t know where to go to find out about it,” she notes. “Once supported to get involved higher education, students do and will ‘give back’.”

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