Emilia is a second year English student whose Fresher year was characterised by pandemic-induced lockdowns and reduced face-to-face contact at university. Instead of despairing, she shares her experience of finding purpose by becoming a student mentor with IRMO, the Indoamerican Refugee and Migrant Organisation, whose mission is to support the Latin American community’s integration, and fulfilment in the UK. They offer employment and educational support, as well as advice services to those who need it. This year, she ventured into a different area of volunteering, producing content for the Institute of Imagination, a charity facilitating learning through creativity, and technology.

Tell us a little about your volunteering!

I was a fresher in the height of the COVID pandemic and felt a bit limited by what I could do at UCL in terms of extracurriculars. I turned to volunteering as a way to get more involved when so many other options, such as sports teams, weren't available. I didn't want to let COVID stop me from exploring opportunities and feeling less like a part of UCL.

I volunteered with an organization called IRMO, and I was an e-mentor. I was assigned to two six-year-olds who were learning English for the first time in school and were having a difficult time assimilating in their schools and in London in general. There was a lot of culture shock, and COVID further complicated their ability to feel at home in a new place. So, my role was twofold: trying to guide them not only through their academic journey with learning English, but also with feeling at ease in their everyday conversations with people on public transport and grocery stores, etc. Now, I source articles and research for the Institute of Imagination.

How did you find out about the role?

I looked at the UCL volunteering page because I thought it was a good opportunity to get involved in something that had already been certified by UCL. It made me feel more certain that my contribution would be going to a good charity. There was an interview, and I had to undergo some safeguarding training, fill out some forms, and do some admin work to get the position.

Why did you want to become a volunteer?

I didn't want to let COVID stop me from exploring opportunities and feeling less like a part of UCL. I'm half Peruvian, and Peru was one of the hardest hit countries during COVID. I knew from a lot of family friends that education was really affected by the pandemic and that a lot of kids who already didn't have great access to education were struggling even more. Volunteering for IRMO was my way of getting involved in supporting this domain – it was a great way to combine my background with Peru and my interest in education.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?

In the first lesson, of course, they were a bit on edge, a bit distant, not that engaged… but very quickly, they became accustomed, and it was really rewarding to see them warm up to me. At the end of the lesson, they would start talking about random, everyday things that had happened to them during school. It was really sweet and endearing that they could confide in me.

When I first started, I expected to see a difference within the first two or three classes, but it was not like that. I had to often remind myself that they weren’t in normal circumstances, being in a different country for the first time, surrounded by completely different people, speaking a new language, etc. I think this understanding and empathy hopefully helped them feel safe as I taught them. At the end of the year, one of the little girls even asked if we could meet in person sometime in London after COVID.

What impact has volunteering had on you?

Firstly, I think it put things in perspective. It was really easy during lockdown to feel sad about not being able to start uni normally, meet many people, and experience what was supposed to be a really incredible start of something new. Working with these kids who were also supposed to experience all these new things, but in a more difficult context, put things into perspective.

Using my frustration about the fact that I wasn't in a normal year, to help someone else with their frustrations and learning difficulties, felt productive and fulfilling.

I think volunteering was one of the best ways to try out as many different things as possible, including as opportunity to explore education as a potential career path. This year, I am trying another path by sourcing articles and researching information related to creativity and imagination.

What’s the best thing about volunteering? 

I think the best thing about volunteering is going into it expecting to help people with a certain set of skills you have and going out of it feeling like you've made that difference, but also with the new skills you’ve gained.  I think on a personal level you grow so much from having your preconceptions challenged about whatever the volunteering experience is related to. I really enjoy the fact that it's a two-sided process. I do believe that the kids I worked with taught me as much as I taught them. I genuinely enjoyed their youthful energy and being reminded of what it's like to be 6 years old. They see the world in a different way. I think it helped make me a more open-minded person.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges? 

I think the most challenging part was when a problem was identified, but it was beyond my ability, or resources to do anything about it. Sometimes I was not sure to what extent it was my place to provide this level of pastoral support, as opposed to the academic support. For instance, one of the kids mentioned that he was being bullied in school. And I think that was one of the most difficult parts of volunteering, knowing that kind of information, and wanting to do more than I could. I talked to his mom, asked if she had been in contact with the teachers, and asked my supervisor to be the mediator for the situation, but the challenging aspect for me was not being able to mediate myself and just having to observe from a distance. Navigating these boundaries was difficult because I genuinely came to care about them as we interacted on a weekly basis.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering!

I think one of the best or most memorable moments was when they started spontaneously showing me their toys at the end of lessons. I think it really showed the transition as they had grown accustomed to my presence in their lives. It was so nice to see their enthusiasm for the toys being paralleled during the lessons as we built a rapport.

Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why? 

Definitely. I think it's one of the best ways you can get involved not only at UCL, but in the larger community outside of it, too. Even now, when restrictions have eased, and I’ve gotten to join sports teams and societies, I still think that volunteering is one of the best things I've done at UCL. That is why I still wanted to continue this year, despite the availability of all these other possibilities. And it is great, because in my new role, I get to apply the skills I learned in the old one – you learn so many transferable skills from volunteering!

I think it's also important to highlight that it can be a one-off opportunity. Two-three hours every week worked for me at the time because of COVID, and the consequently limited possibilities to go outside, but I also find the time now, even if I have to adjust how much that is. UCL makes it easy to find something specific to your interests because they have filters through which you can look according to skills, sectors, or time commitment. Since so much of that is already done, you can get immediately involved and make the most of it without having to worry too much about how it's actually going to start.