It’s an age-old complaint during school, isn’t it – but what’s the point in learning this? Or I’m never going to use this in real-life. Unfortunately, this disconnect between the classroom and the outside world continues into university lecture halls as well. This leads to students emerging with great degrees but little practical experience or the broader skills essential in the workplace. I mean, it’s not all about jobs – but a large part of doing a degree is employment-related, right?

And this is what the Students’ Union UCL really focuses on – supporting things you can do while you are studying where you can pick up those skills or have different experiences to set you up for the post-university days! So through sports, the arts and societies, and community-based volunteering you can invest in your future.

For our brilliant master’s student community, there’s something just for you!  The Volunteering Service’s Community Research Initiative! Our day-to-day aim is to support you to engage with the local Voluntary & Community Sector (so charities, grassroots organisations, local authorities... non-profits, really) while you plan your dissertation. By doing this, your research study will be more relevant and useful to the real world because you actually develop your ideas with people at the heart of the issue you’re interested in.

Recently we’ve done something a little bit different; we’re collaborating with the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences’ Sophie Scott and Victoria Showunmi on a cool new optional module – Exploring Power, Inclusion & Exclusion in the Community (PSYC0287). When they were designing the module, Sophie and Victoria both felt really strongly that the student projects should be community-based. Cue the Community Research Initiative! Starting with a small cohort, we decided on a class project (rather than individual ones) which would bring maximum benefit to the Community Partner and also offer a valuable team-working environment for students.

After a lot of work, supported by the incredible Stefanie Anyadi, we’re now underway! Our Community Partner is the Black Woman Kindness Initiative CIC. They were a perfect match, in terms of their own aims and objectives and the overarching themes of the module – power and inequity. Cherrill Hutchison was working with the Community Research Initiative anyway, working out how we might be able to help and mentioned this project she had coming up for International Women’s Day - a photography exhibition, a Walk of Confidence, and reflections publication.

As a team, Cherrill and the students have now co-created project tasks, roles and responsibilities, and a timeline, signing a Project Agreement to keep them to the right path. They have even agreed the team’s Rules of Engagement and core values: empowerment, collaboration, and inclusivity.

I am so impressed with our team’s three core value – I love them and they sit firmly with the ethos of the Black Woman Kindness Initiative!

Cherrill Hutchison, BWKI

Our team have jumped straight in and were even able to join the photoshoot where the images for the exhibition were being created. It was certainly a valuable experience - getting out of UCL spaces like Camden and UCL East and travelling to Silvertown as well as the opportunity to meet the women being photographed. Given the concepts being taught within the module, around power, critical race theory and gender, it offered an excellent opportunity to reflect on their positions and own experiences. The real-life context of this class project is not lost on the students! One told us

I'm really excited to learn about a local initiative in London. I moved to London to study so I am hoping I will feel more integrated and get to know a perspective of London, particularly East London. I wouldn't have been able to if it wasn't for taking this module at UCL!

Maddy, MSc Behaviour Change

Of course, there’s ambiguity and uncertainty at the beginning of a team forming and perhaps culture clashes between a student’s life of deadlines and structure, compared to the creative process of event design and the sometimes flexible, reactive non-profit sector. Students are getting the opportunity to learn this life skill 'on the job' as it were, which can lead to understandable nerves!

I’m looking forward to understanding the nuances of co-designing a project, but I feel a bit more nervous about navigating through the process and the ambiguity that comes with working in an interdisciplinary team.

Ananya, MSc Behaviour Change

And what about our Community Partner, Cherrill? Well, this has offered an opportunity she didn’t expect – being part of the teaching and learning of UCL’s incredible students! Fair to say, although unsure at first, Cherrill has been empowered to take her place as part of the team of professors and professional services! The environment itself, One Pool Street, has played its part in this - at its core, there is a vision that members of the public, local school students and partners in the local area feel that the building welcomes and is FOR them. Cherrill shows how this indeed happening!  

The first session was A-MAZING! Thankyou for such a warm welcome for me and my organisation. The students are so engaged, sharing stories and plans. I enjoyed every minute and the fact that this module has been created to be inclusive of a grassroots community organisation is no small feat – thank you for the vision!

Cherrill, Black Woman Kindness Initiative

We are watching this project with great interest and can't wait to see what the community-student team produces in March! If you're interested and want to be connected to the team, contact Cherrill ([email protected]) . If you are UCL staff and want to make this happen for your students, get in touch with the Volunteering Service ([email protected]) or Anne Laybourne ([email protected]).