Volunteering: In search for something meaningful

I recently started volunteering as a teaching assistant at a primary school, and it has been delightful, fun and at the same time very enriching. There are many reasons why students at Lancaster University volunteer at schools, and, from my discussions with a few of them, I noticed that we all shared a very positive experience, from the administrative process before the start of the placement to the satisfying sense of accomplishment and the end of each volunteering session. It is a ten-week volunteering placement which is facilitated by Lancaster University’s Student Union (LUSU) and where pupils get to know that university can be an option for them when they grow up and to speak to a university student. I wrote in a previous blog post about the purpose of the school volunteering placement, and this post will be about my impressions of the process, my engagement and how it connects to the wider aspects of work and my social life.

Why volunteer at a school?

I choose to volunteer at a school because I started teaching a module, alongside my studies, and wanted to see what it’s like to teach different age groups. I was also motivated to engage with the community around me, get to know how people live outside of the university student environment, and at the same time give something back by doing good for others and the community. Other students who have completed similar volunteering placements said that they did it because they were staying for a limited period of time in Lancaster and wanted to make the most of their time, or simply because it is something that they aspire to become after graduating and this experience could improve their career prospects. The placement was for only half a day per week, which makes it easy to fit within my schedule.

Just before I started

I signed up on LUSU’s page at the beginning of the academic year. The website offers many things to do to engage with the community, whether it’s to follow a passion, a cause, or simply to leave a positive impact on people. There are a number of volunteering categories such as human and civil rights, health and social care, university events, etc. I chose volunteering with schools. The application was straightforward and shortly after I submitted it, I received an email about the times of the introductory sessions which gave us an idea about the programme and the steps of the process. It was also an opportunity to meet the LUSU staff who were coordinating the programme and who were very supportive throughout the whole process. The following stage was to get the DBS check done and complete safeguarding training. Then LUSU staff contacted a school close to my place of residence as this was my preference. I was also given the chance to choose from a list of available opportunities. Luckily, the school I wanted to volunteer at had a vacancy for a volunteer, and I could start at any time.

My first day back at primary school

I arrived at the school and was greeted by the teacher who was going to guide me through the placement. She showed me around the school and we waited for the children to come into class. The classroom was impressive, not in a majestic grand way, but in how different and relaxing it was from anywhere else I’ve been since I left primary school. The more I examined the crayons, big letters on the walls and the children’s drawings, the more I appreciated it. While those are things that I wouldn’t normally be interested it, being there, in that moment, brought me back to my own childhood.

The teacher introduced me to the class after everyone arrived and the lesson started. On that day, children were learning how to write neatly and clearly, and I was assigned to help two pupils. After this exercise, everyone gathered around the class’s teaching assistant who read a story to them. The final fifteen minutes of the before-noon session were dedicated for relaxation. A voice that was playing soothing music guided the children – and adults in the classroom – similarly to a relaxation yoga session.

Spending the morning at the school made me realise how adults’ experience of time can easily change one’s mindset to racing mode. Whether I’m a worker or a student, I’m always faced with deadlines which I try to meet while thinking of other aspects of my personal life which could be anything from what I will eat to when should I call my family. This makes me rush into a series of tasks and duties for weeks at a time without taking a break and actually think about nothing. Doing a relaxing and unrelated activity helps me stop thinking about work for a while and sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas.

Lancaster University day out

My positive volunteering experience lead me to engage in the “Be the change” project. This project is designed to show pupils what citizenship values such as teamwork and leadership mean through a series of fun activities. The aim is to enable children to learn that everyone can be a leader when they make a positive change to their society. Among the activities, there was a treasure hunt around campus and the Marshmallow Challenge which let the children work together, communicate, help one another and work towards a common goal. The Marshmallow Challenge is a management exercise where a group of any age or profession is tasked to build a tower with nothing but a bundle of spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. Surprisingly, children perform better than CEOs in this exercise!

One of the great things about the teaching system at LUMS is how it prepares students for the actual business world. This comes with the wider sociological and psychological issues that any such student/worker is prone to, such as feelings of stress and alienation. From my previous work experience, I find that working can be very rewarding, but it can also take away some of the worker’s autonomy, purpose and identity, especially when they get immersed in their job only to meet sales targets or performance measures at the end of the day. As a PhD student at LUMS who happens to be doing a thesis on workplace dynamics, I have come to notice these aspects more and more and realise how they could sometimes be inevitable. While some people enjoy socialising by going out for a drink or a meal, or take pleasure in a sports activity after an intense workload, others choose to volunteer.  This has left a very positive impact on me and made a pleasing difference to my everyday life.

 

Study hard, play hard

Academic life has many tough tests for students, but as challenging as it may be, it also holds rewarding outcomes and fun experiences. Some of the toughest times in my life as a postgraduate LUMS student were writing-up my Masters dissertation and my current PhD journey. While I usually rely on my intuitive gut feeling to pace my studying, the settings and modes of study played a large role in keeping me sane and on track throughout my academic journey. Making sure that I had enough leisure and fun helped me to recharge my energy and enjoy my time. I tend to yo-yo study where I binge on reading for a few weeks and then I relax, and so on. Even though this pattern worked more-or-less for my Masters degree, I find it hard to follow for my PhD where time management is key, and where self-management is even more critical. A piece of advice that I heard in one of the LUMS study skills development sessions was that there are only two things that will go against you, they are time and yourself. This advice was an eye-opener to me because it made me think that there is something other than making the most of my time and achieving the highest grades that I can, I also need to take care of myself during this process. In this blog post, I will describe a typical week as a PhD student, starting with the dreadful Mondays and ending with the day-out Sundays.

Monday:
I am usually a morning person, but not so much on a Monday. After a strong cup of coffee, I open my weekly agenda to see what the rest of the week will look like, which also motivates me to start the day. My place to go for studying on Monday is the graduate social hub. It’s a cozy and relaxed place, and it helps me transition from the lazy weekend. I usually attend one lecture in the late afternoon before calling it a day.

Tuesday:
On Tuesdays the pace gets faster. I spend most of the day in the library. I choose a moderately quiet area where I can sit on a couch with access to an electricity socket for my laptop, and easy access to the water fountain to stay hydrated. While some people might prefer the quiet areas, to me, a little bit a noise helps me concentrate. The library is also near a few of my favourite bakeries and coffee shops on campus, which makes it convenient if I plan to meet up with a friend for lunch or a cup of coffee.

Wednesday:
Wednesday is the market day in the city centre, so I do my shopping before noon. Unless I have other errands, I head to my desk space in my department. Most of the time I run into my colleagues and we discuss our work progress, thoughts and lives, which is helpful given how isolating studying a PhD can be.

Thursday:
Thursdays are quite similar to Tuesdays, except that they’re closer to the weekend. Although half of my brain is already thinking of what to do during the weekend, the other half is engaged in productive reading. I usually try to stick to the same study area at the library.

Friday:
On Fridays, I try to do an energising physical activity early in the morning by going out for a brisk walk or a jog in the park. I spend the rest of the day at my own desk at home, unless there is an event or that I have agreed to meet up with friends on campus. My desk is not the most organised study space, but I made sure to set it up as soon as I started my PhD. I also try to separate my studying space from spaces where I carry out other activities such as leisure reading, eating or sleeping.

Saturday:
The weekend is finally here. I start my Saturdays with shopping and often go out for a meal afterwards. In the evening, I usually organise a games’ night which sometimes ends up being a long conversation about everything and nothing. I also occasionally go to a local pub.

Sunday:
One of my favourite hobbies is hiking or taking long walks, and I often dedicate my Sundays to it, if the weather permits. I find that this activity clears my mind and is a good exercise. Also, the nature around Lancaster is fascinating. I have been to a few breathtaking nature reserves on the coastal line north of Lancaster and in the Lake District.

I find that having a good study-life structure is better than having none. This is especially true when my PhD journey feels like a rollercoaster. The nature of studying is quite different to that of other degrees. At the PhD stage, the student is expected to be a knowledge maker. In my PhD, this experience has been deep and personal, thus the need to have a good study environment and enough leisure time.

Volunteering in schools with Lancaster University Student Union

Lancaster University Student Union (LUSU) offers a wide range of volunteering opportunities and school volunteering is one of them. I chose to attend an introductory session on this project because, not only did I want to be engaged with the local community, but also I was interested in knowing more about the education system in the UK and in helping people achieve their potential. What unfolded during the session made this opportunity evermore compelling.

The session started with the reasons that inspired LUSU to develop the schools volunteering project. The project aims at bringing to pupils the opportunity to engage with university students and at helping them to consider going to university as a future option. The focus is on children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds or vulnerable pupils. Then the project’s development manager shared his experience with us on how children have different thoughts and impressions about going to university: while it could be a very possible option for some, for others, it was a path that they have never heard of.

The volunteering coordinator explained how LUSU will support us through this journey and how the different opportunities can be flexible, accessible and suitable to the volunteers’ passion and experience. The students who express an interest in school volunteering would be matched with a primary or secondary school, depending on the type of work they prefer. The aim is to get the best possible experience for both the volunteers and the pupils.

I am looking forward to starting my school volunteering placement in January. This opportunity will allow me to reinforce the positive impact that the project has on the community while engaging in a rewarding activity. I will have the chance to share with the pupils their classroom environment, as well as discuss with them my experience as a university student to increase their awareness of the option to continue their education in the future.

I am also looking forward to the impact that this experience will have on me. Through this project, I will have the chance to know more about the local culture as well as broaden my own future career aspirations. As an international student at LUMS, I am hoping to gain more international exposure and flexibility to discuss various issues with pupils, teachers and other students who are engaged in this project. Also, the activities will influence my communication and rapport-building skills, which have important and transferable aspects that I can use in a variety of situations. Last but not least, I am looking forward to this rewarding opportunity that will allow me to give back to the community and make a difference in other people’s lives.

Guest post:Putting theory into practice

Nadeem Khan, a current student on the MA Human Resources and Consulting,  has already started putting the theory from the programme into practice, working with a bank in Pakistan. Here, he talks about how he applied what he has learnt so far on the programme.

Nadeem (far right) delivering the session for SBP in Pakistan.

Nadeem (far right) delivering the session for SBP in Pakistan.

As an HRD Consultant I had worked for several years prior to starting the programme. Before leaving Pakistan I had informed clients of my schedule during the programme and that I would be open for assignments during my winter break. The National Institute of Banking and Finance (NIBF), a subsidiary of The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) wanted me to deliver a two-day learning intervention in December 2016 on ‘Building Dynamic Teams’. I believe this proved to be a great opportunity for me to put the theoretical frameworks and skills that I had learned from the programme into practice.

The design and dynamics module had prepared me early on to outline the structure and activities that were to be incorporated in the two-day learning intervention. I picked up lots of ideas and activities drawing from the coursework. As there were 18 individual contributors from teams from all branches of SBP, I also had to keep in mind learning from difference. The careers module played a significant role when it came to selecting the relevant content for the SBP intervention through its focus on communication and effective team dynamics.

The MA HRC is set in a way that I had the opportunity to both study and experience firsthand group structures and processes, feel the power dynamics and struggles in teams, live the communication patterns and decision making and experience team leadership on the programme. Therefore, when I was delivering the workshop I was able to share my experience of being in similar shoes to the participants, making my examples more credible and worthwhile.

Overall, the improved design, theoretical framework and quality content enabled me to score higher feedback than previous interventions I had facilitated at SBP.