Leaving On a Jet Plane

Laura Cowan 19 June 2009

Laura Cowan explores the world of volunteer work in a bid to beat the recession

Open a newspaper and you are faced with auguries of financial doom: redundancies, the growing ranks of jobless Brits, and, most pertinently to us students, graduate unemployment. Not only are there fewer jobs, there are fewer internships, even less unpaid work experience—not that everyone can afford to work for free anyway. Although as future Cambridge graduates, we’re better placed than many of our peers to ride out the current economic uncertainty, the media climate is not encouraging.

Consequently, recent months have seen a rise in overseas volunteering. Organisations like Projects Abroad and VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) offer volunteer work on a global scale in developing countries and each has their own niche. VSO is a government-funded charity that specifically matches skilled professionals with placements that desperately need their qualifications: medics, engineers and teachers amongst others. VSO support their volunteers financially and some placements are even paid. For students and under-25s, they run a Youth for Development year abroad that could be based anywhere from Malawi to El Salvador.

Projects Abroad was conceived specifically for students by its founder Dr. Peter Slowe, and is therefore more student-orientated. Whereas with VSO, placements often require specific qualifications, with Projects Abroad, current students can gain experience in a future profession: not only medics, but would-be lawyers and journalists can do internships abroad. Unlike VSO, Projects Abroad has no government funding, which means that volunteers are required to support themselves financially, paying for their own flights and a set fee for accommodation, food, and insurance. The cost varies with the destination, but prices start at £845 for a two week placement; you’d probably spend a similar amount on a beach holiday, but it doesn’t look as good on your CV.

There are plenty of volunteer opportunities closer to home, and just as great a need. Many Cambridge societies are dedicated to facilitating student volunteering in the UK. Campus Children’s Holidays is a student-run charity that provides a much-needed opportunity for under-privileged children from Liverpool to experience a free week of summer activities in the British countryside. And there are always opportunities for volunteering on your own doorstep, from putting in a few hours at a charity shop to the numerous projects of Cambridge Student Community Action, which could involve anything from visiting care home residents to the Big Sibling Project. The people’s lives that you encounter may not be geographically worlds apart from your own, but they might be as different.

The obvious appeal of volunteering abroad is the experience of the new and novel, whilst doing something meaningful and taking a step back from your own life. Everyone has problems, and everyone’s problems are significant to them. But working with people for whom the privileged Cambridge existence seems inconceivable is enough to make any overly self-pitying student or graduate reconsider the significance of these problems and gain some useful perspective. But don’t forget, you don’t need to leave the country to do that.

Laura Cowan