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We sat down to chat with Dow Siriboonlamom, a final year BSc Human Sciences student, about her experience volunteering with IntoUniversity.

Would you be able to introduce yourself?

My name is Dow (she/her). I do BSc Human Sciences and I’m currently in my third and final year of my undergrad.

What type of volunteering have you been doing?

I’ve been volunteering with IntoUniversity as an IntoUniversity Student Mentor. IntoUniversity helps school kids who are from underprivileged backgrounds access university through mentoring and also academic support. Their aim is really to provide support for people who might be more vulnerable to slipping through the cracks – just providing them with more holistic support outside of school.

I’ve been doing this since my second year in 2022. I did my induction in the summer between first and second year, and was then paired with a mentee and actually started volunteering in November 2022. I’ve been with the same mentee since I first started – I met her when she was in Year 10 and now she’s approaching her GCSEs! I did ask if I could be put with someone who I could stay with for the 2-year duration and it’s worked out perfectly. I’ve gotten to know my mentee really well and it’s meant that we’ve built up a relationship where all of the staff in the office have told me that she doesn’t ever talk as much with anyone else as she does with me!

It’s always really nice to see her just opening up. I help her with her academics and looking at the future and what she wants to do. We also do just a lot of chatting and socialising – she’ll tell me about her day, about her school life and her friends, and then I’ll give her my input, more of as a friend than a teacher. I think she gets a lot of that stricter kind of guidance from IntoUniversity staff, from school, and often from home as well, so I wanted to be someone that she could rely on who isn’t just there to tell her what to do.

How regularly do you volunteer?

Last academic year, we tried to meet at least once every 2 weeks. But then this academic year, I try to schedule it every week if possible so that I get to see her as often as I can before I finish university and move home.

What does a typical volunteering session look like?

All of the sessions take place in-person at the IntoUniversity Kennington centre. The general guideline for sessions is that they want us to do an even split of academic, social, and future discussions. But for us, we tend to lean more on academic and social, because she tends to already have an idea of what she wants to pursue post-GCSEs.

Usually, I will send IntoUniversity an email before the session, just to check that my mentee is still available and if she wants to do anything in particular. Often, she will have something like maths homework that she wants me to help with, or she will show up and be like, “Dow, I don’t want to do anything today, let’s just chat!”

I know that other pairs will sometimes establish a routine where in the last 5 minutes of an hourly session they will play a card game together or something like that, but for us we often just get caught up in talking, and we never really have to do anything extra to fill the time!

So for the two of us, it’s a very go with the flow kind of thing. The staff really let you do what you feel is best for the two of you, which I really appreciate. If they had been really strict about what we had to cover in each session, I think my mentee wouldn’t enjoy it as much and I think she would take a lot less out of our sessions.

Has there been a particular highlight of your volunteering experience?

There was a very particular moment that I saw my mentee really start to feel comfortable with me. It was actually really early on, which was quite surprising because the staff members had let me know that she was really quiet and that she might take a while to warm up to me. But there was a moment that I could just see very clearly that she was starting to feel very comfortable with me and was really relaxed as soon as we started our session.

That was a really memorable moment because for me it signified that she was putting a lot of trust in me. And then I think down the line, she started talking about more personal things that I never thought she would feel comfortable talking about with me. So that was also the second really huge milestone for me, because she was opening up about things that you would only share with really close friends. I was glad that she really felt like she could talk to me about it and share what was worrying her.

Have there been any challenges you have encountered throughout your volunteering?

I think for me, it’s striking the balance when trying to encourage her in the right direction. It’s really difficult because I remember being a teenager not that many years ago and I remember the feeling of – if you tell me what you think I should be doing, I’m going to do the exact opposite!

So I try to be really mindful of not telling her what to do. I have been finding myself giving a lot more thought to how to navigate those conversations about where she sees herself in the future and whether she is setting reasonable expectations for herself and taking the steps towards reaching those expectations. I think that’s a really difficult conversation to have with people because it might really shatter their confidence. So it is a really delicate conversation to balance.

I just remember that being a teenager is just such a delicate stage. I really could emphasise with being a teenager but at the same time, I really wanted to think about what would have gotten through to me at that time – which was not a lot!

Why did you want to get involved in this opportunity?

It was really a complete accident that I stumbled upon it. I’m signed up to the UCL Volunteering Newsletter and the opportunity came through in the summer. The deadline was really close and I thought that I might as well go for it! It just looked like something that was really up my alley.

I’ve always enjoyed learning and the classroom setting. I’ve always been one of those people where teachers would pair me up with someone who maybe wasn’t as confident in the class, and I’d end up semi-teaching them along with the teacher. I almost unconsciously took on that role and found that I did quite enjoy that. But my sister’s a biology teacher, and because of that people often assume that I’m going to follow in her footsteps, which makes me actively want to go against that! But in my heart of hearts, it is something that I really do enjoy.

I find that I tend to have a lot to say about a lot of different things. I think that it’s really important to open up conversations with people about seeing things from a different perspective and taking a step back to see the bigger picture. I think sometimes when people are tunnel-visioned, things get really overwhelming. Being able to help someone through the process and figure out their next steps and how to get to those next steps can be so rewarding to me.

It was kind of a convergence of things that I really enjoyed doing. I’m also a big believer that if you have time and you have energy to give back you should. That’s something that’s really important to me.

Would you recommend volunteering to others?

Yes, completely. If you have the time and the energy to do so, I think it’s such a great way of meeting people as well.

It’s also such a low-stakes way of meeting people. As I’m approaching the end of my third year, anytime I talk to any of my friends who are job-hunting and stuff, a very big word that comes up is networking. It puts so much pressure on you to meet people and make the right impression, to say the right thing at the right time. For me, volunteering has really allowed me to find confidence talking to a lot of different people in an environment where I’m not getting paid to do it. It’s a very low-stakes place to just really get to know what you like and what you don’t like. The people that you work with in the volunteering sector also understand that you are giving up your time, so I find that they are also some of the most understanding and empathetic people.

I think it’s also just a good way of disconnecting from school as well. It’s great! I would completely recommend volunteering to anybody that is thinking about it.

Thank you to Dow for sharing her experience! If you are interested in volunteering with IntoUniversity, you can check out their Student Mentor opportunity here!