Some students make no effort to become involved in the local community, but a growing number do, and it can only be a good thing. Sheena Hastings reports.
it’s the annual student ritual – when the university year starts next week teenagers embarking on their three-year adventure will trawl the many clubs and societies at the freshers’ fair.
The different groups are seen as a great way to try new activities, make friends and generally broaden horizons in return for a small, students’ union-subsidised fee.
Freshers often sign up for a host of clubs, from archery to scuba diving, pot throwing to potholing, medieval music making to Latin American dancing.
Some find their way to international sport through university teams – for example 2012 Olympic gold medal winning rower Katherine Grainger had never rowed until she joined the Edinburgh University Boat Club in her first term as a law student.
Others, including many writers and broadcasters, find a lifelong passion or even a career through student journalism or some other extra-curricular activity they signed up for in their first week on campus.
Among the many student societies and projects touting for new membership at the region’s universities this autumn will be a growing legion of students’union-based voluntary organisations, usually with charitable status.
Opportunities to take part in voluntary activities have always been part of what’s on offer at universities and colleges, but giving to the local community and helping students and non-students to engage and understand each other is a growing movement, says student leaders.
Maybe students’ unions are blowing their trumpets more about this work these days because in various parts of the country – including Leeds – there have at times been tensions about the huge numbers of students living in some areas, with the increased noise, number of fast food outlets and litter that this has brought in its wake.
When Ben Fisher came to Leeds from Preston in 1997 to study English and Philosophy, among the activities he became involved in was Wacky Wednesdays, a group of volunteers who took disadvantaged children to enjoy different games and activities like bowling each week.
It was organised by Action, an umbrella group for 14 community projects run in partnership between the city’s universities and community-based organisations. “For me it wasn’t about some long-term career move but about wanting to do something useful, meet really nice people and give something back,” says Ben, “It’s also great to do things that help to break down barriers between higher education and the local community.”
Ben, now 24, went on to become president of Action, and after graduation stayed on in Leeds as Leeds University Union’s community officer. “I’ve been lucky enough to be part of some amazing projects, including sessions spent visiting elderly people in care homes just to chat enjoy each other’s company and lessen their feelings of isolation, and in a great theatre project for eight to 18-year old disadvantaged children, which brought them in to use theatre space in the university.
“Many of them knew nothing about universities, and after the experience a few said they wanted to come here to study. Teachers reported better attendance at school from some of them after these visits. It’s great to hear this kind of thing.”
One of the bones of contention between students and their non-student neighbours can be the mess left around accommodation when the young people move out of houses and flats in the summer – with piles of clothing, household items and rubbish spilling out into gardens and alleyways. LUU and the Leeds Met and Leeds Trinity student unions set up the Leave Leeds Tidy group a few years ago to help students to recycle unwanted goods by organising collections, giving information about what can be recycled and where, and opening ‘free shops’ for other people to visit and reuse second hand clothing and other items in exchange for a small donation.
“People who want to do something more outdoorsy get stuck into a conservation group that helps to improve the environment around Woodhouse Ridge (in the Hyde Park area),” says Ben. “And students who enjoy cycling and know about bikes join Star, which refurbishes donated bikes and gives them to refugees and asylum seekers in the city who can’t afford to pay for public transport.” Altogether Leeds University students volunteered 88,000 hours last year.
Originally from London, Harry Coleman, 22, came to Leeds five years ago as a medical student. He volunteered with homeless charity HOMED, later becoming its president.
“The majority of students not only in Leeds but around the country live in a university bubble. University life does sweep you up, and there is always the next night out to get ready for or getting your head down to do some work in the library. This means they don’t really interact with the local community.”
HOMED works with three hostels for the homeless in the city, and students visit each hostel one night a week to chat to residents, helping to promote their emotional and social wellbeing. The charity also aims to educate students about social exclusion.
“Many of the people we work with have been abandoned by everyone in their lives...We listen to them and let them know there are people who are there for them.”
Steve Whiting, 22, came to Leeds from Hull to study English, and is still at the University studying part-time for a masters degree. Early on he volunteered for the Union’s Green Streets project. and co-ordinates the Union’s crime prevention and safety advice service.
He puts a lot of his enjoyment of the city down to close involvement in the community through volunteering and becoming a community rep for LUU in the Hyde Park area - which involved attendance at residents’ meetings and offering help from the Union in overcoming local problems such as litter.”
“Students have always been involved in activities that work for the community,” says Vicki Baars (corr), vice president for union development with the National Union of Students nationally. “I think they’ve just got better at publicising this kind of work in recent years.”
Baars says universities themselves tend to get more involved in international volunteering projects, and local community volunteering is usually organised by student unions.
“I think there was a time when the local population didn’t appreciate students in their area.
“In Leeds, efforts made by students to do voluntary work that engages them with other people living there, especially in the Hyde Park and Headingley areas, has greatly helped a greater community feeling to develop and improved the relationship between locals and students.”
The growth of voluntary community work among students is happening across Yorkshire’s universities, says Baars. NUS figures show, for example, that York St John University runs 72 community projects involving 258 student volunteers, while Sheffield University has 210 projects involving 1,504 students.
Among Sheffield Hallam University’s many community-based schemes is the Igloo reading programme, where students work on a one-to-basis with children in local schools to improve help improve literacy levels.
“Student community involvement doesn’t necessarily get recognised and it comes in many forms,” says Baars. “When I was a student at Leeds University a few years ago, I joined anti-fascist groups and helped out with local elections.
“I also joined not only the University rugby club as a player, but Alwoodley Rugby Club, too.
“I loved it because I made friends who were not students and that made Leeds a much more interesting place to live in.”