Celebrating our volunteers and their powerful contributions in our communities

To mark this year’s annual Volunteers’ Week, UHI careers and employability officer Helen Anton and student development officer Aimee Harvey share why volunteering is important and highlight some of our students and graduates working in their communities to make a difference and improve lives.     

Good for you and good for others

There are many reasons why people volunteer. It’s a chance to give something back, make a difference, develop new skills, gain confidence, improve self-esteem and make new friends, not to mention the impact it can have on your CV and personal career management: the benefits to individuals, their communities and wider society can be enormous.

In recognition of this, Volunteers Week takes place from 1 to 7 June every year, providing a chance to remember the fantastic contribution volunteers make to our communities as well as saying a big thank you to them.

As well as helping others, volunteering has been shown to improve volunteers’ wellbeing.  We all know how good it feels to help someone out or to feel like you’re making a difference in your community.

During 2020 and 2021 an amazing 16.3m people volunteered through a group, club or organisation with almost one in five people (17%) reporting that they volunteered at least once a month, that’s about 9.2m people. Amongst these volunteers are some fantastic UHI students and graduates, working tirelessly in their communities to make a difference and improve lives.

Corinne Ferguson, is studying Sustainable Development (Hons) at UHI Outer Hebrides

I have volunteered since I was a teenager (I’m now 61!)) and I’ve always been interested in our environment and consuming less. I realised a few years ago that single-use plastic was becoming a real issue and it’s something that is understood by the general public who are increasingly trying to do their best to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’. 

Logo - Plastic free communities, surfers against sewage
Logo – Plastic free communities, surfers against sewage

I am the lead volunteer in Nairn for Plastic Free Coastlines (Surfers Against Sewage) which involves working towards Nairn becoming accredited as a ‘Plastic-Free Town’. There are five objectives: to get the local council to pass a resolution saying they support plastic reduction, recruit community allies, raise business awareness, organise a steering group and hold two community events per year. This involves me working with different groups such as the Scouts, Brownies, local businesses, local environmental charities and local MPs.  I’ve been doing this role for four years and we have done lots of beach cleans and awareness-raising events which have been well supported locally. 

The benefits to me of volunteering are that I get to work creatively with amazing people (often children and young people who have got so many ideas about how to do things differently) and I also get to network with lots of interesting organisations. 

I have gained so many transferrable skills, such as communication – for example, listening, negotiating and presenting. Networking with other organisations in my local community helps me realise what’s going on locally. I feel that I’m doing something worthwhile. 

Volunteering is often more challenging than working. I think you gain more skills and there are opportunities for leadership and to be dynamic and creative in a way that you might not get when working in a paid job.  You also often work in places where there are generally no hierarchies like you might get at work, and this requires real skill in negotiation and building up your charisma!

Holly Gray is studying Geography at UHI Inverness and is based in Forres

My volunteering involved undertaking monthly surveys on invasive giant hogweed plants. I would record some details about the plot including hogweed coverage. I would then remove the giant hogweed seedlings from the plot in a method to replicate a sheep removing it from the ground. The primary purpose was to ‘mimic’ sheep grazing patterns and record giant hogweed regrowth after the seedlings had been grazed, to see if introducing sheep onto land that has high hogweed coverage is a successful way of managing it. 

Holly spraying plants in a field
Holly Gray carrying out fieldwork

As I began my degree in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, fieldwork became unmanageable for the most part. As I study geography, this was a big concern, so when I heard about this opportunity, I thought it was a fantastic way of bringing myself up to speed with fieldwork whilst volunteering for a great cause, especially as I am interested in a career in conservation. My volunteering gave me an insight into some of the roles in this industry.

Giant hogweed plants are non-native invasive species.  They have highly toxic sap and if it touches someone’s skin when combined with UV exposure, can cause intense damage through blistering. Removal of the plant isimportant as it reduces the danger to health, whilst allowing natural Scottish flora and fauna to thrive without being drowned out by these giant plants.

I felt happy to be a part of the removal effort, and I also got to experience conservation for the first time. It is a very rewarding non-strenuous or time-consuming activity. The work I did was for the Scottish Invasive Species Initiative, and I got to build my network because of this which led me to gain a placement with the project later in the year as part of my degree. Here I got to learn a broader spectrum of conservation activities including knapsack spraying Japanese Knotweed and American mink management.

My volunteering was easy to learn and I had the freedom to choose when I did my recordings and research. It was a great way of gaining volunteering and conservation experience which didn’t dominate important study time. It also forced me out of the house to take breaks, spending time in nature, even if some of the plots were slightly off grid!

Inne Withouck, is a fourth-year PhD student based at UHI Shetland

I’m the organiser of the UHI Shetland Green Team. I was inspired to volunteer as a way to meet like-minded people and to organise a lot of beach cleans, providing an opportunity for people to connect, and to learn about our natural heritage.

I gained great friends, and I’ve also learnt a lot from beach finds which help to understand how our seas are being used by people. It also motivated me to read the book Climate-Smart Food by David Reay, which I used to help make an exhibition about food for the Briggistanes canteen in our Lerwick Campus.

I would definitely recommend other students to consider setting up similar initiatives as it provides a platform to bring people together on the issues they want to do something about. Volunteering also allows you to connect with like-minded people and make positive changes to your campus and to your local community. 

Here is a video made by the group which gives top tips on how to set up your own Green Team at your campus.

Brian Whitters, is a second-year BA (Hons) Gaelic Scotland student based at the Isle of Barra campus of UHI Outer Hebrides.

I am a volunteer speaker for the Charity Prostate Cancer UK and I deliver awareness-raising talks throughout Scotland, both in person and virtually.  I was inspired to volunteer as I had prostate cancer myself and wanted to highlight to people in Scotland the dangers associated with it.

The benefits of volunteering to me are innumerable. Mainly I walk away with a feeling of goodwill and accomplishment when I deliver my talks. The benefits to my community are mainly that men and women are more aware of the dangers of prostate cancer. They are informed of the early signs of the cancer and they are also informed of their rights.  What I gain from my volunteering is a feeling that I actually did something to hopefully stop other men from walking in my shoes.

Sam Smallwood, is a first-year Psychology student based at UHI Inverness

I volunteer on my local school’s Parent Support Group (PSG). I was inspired to volunteer as it is important to me to be able to help support the local school which my children attend.

By volunteering with the school’s PSG, I help to raise funds and support the school community to provide more educational experiences for all the pupils. We are currently working on fundraising to improve our outdoor spaces, which the whole community can also enjoy.

I feel good when I see the extra equipment, resources and trips the children get to enjoy as a result of the PSG’s work. I also enjoy attending different events for the social aspect, both with other parents, our local community and having fun with the children at sporting events too.

It is easy to get involved.  Most smaller schools will be looking for enthusiastic volunteers to help with fundraising to be able to provide even more opportunities for their pupils and extend their resources to cover more extra-curricular activities.

Kaleigh McKechnie is studying for a Child and Adolescent Mental Health CPD award on the MA Health and Wellbeing through UHI Outer Hebrides

I am a volunteer football coach for U7’s and U13’s, in two different teams, two times a week. I was inspired to volunteer because of the lack of female coaches on the island. My twin boys attend football training regularly and there is a lack of coaching staff overall on the island, so it was a case that someone had to do it so that the children could attend the sessions. 

The fact that I thoroughly enjoy football makes a massive difference to the young people too. They pick up on the passion you have for the game, and this allows them to feel comfortable and build relationships with you as a coach and with the other young people that attend the sessions who they may not have known otherwise. I love the way a ‘game’ can bring a group of different people together.

There are so many benefits to volunteering. For example, building positive relationships with children who might otherwise go under the radar; it also allows you to influence their game and hone their skillset. Through positive reinforcement they will remember that forever, and the relationships built help create a stronger sense of belonging and community.  As a result of my volunteering, I have gained qualifications, experience and confidence.It can act as a support, not only for the people you work with, but also for yourself, it’s another reason to get up and go. Yes, it can be pressure, but if you are supporting people doing something you love, then just go for it.

Amira Murray and Megan McMillian currently study Personal and Vocational Studies and Hair and Beauty through UHI Outer Hebrides

Amira and Megan both deliver hairdressing and beauty taster sessions to P7 children from a local afterschool club.  Amira was inspired to get involved because she really wanted to help the girls to learn to do hair and nails to help with their own presentation and confidence.  She really enjoys helping people to learn and uses her skills to help support them. 

She gains lots from volunteering and loves to see the smiles on the children’s faces when they learn how to do something. She also thinks volunteering is great fun as well as letting her help others and give something to the young people in her community.

Megan also loves the idea of helping younger children who are interested in learning how to do hair and beauty and recognises the importance of getting children to enjoy something that they are interested in. She gets the enjoyment of teaching the children while boosting their confidence and making them smile.  Megan recommends volunteering as it gives her a great sense of achievement knowing that she is sharing the skills she has learnt through teaching and supporting the children.

Amira (left) and Megan (right) are currently working towards their Saltire Awards which celebrate youth volunteering in Scotland.

Looking to volunteer?

The university’s Careers and Employability Centre can help you prepare, get involved and find opportunities. Check out the Job Shop or book an appointment to chat with us, simply log into our Future Me service using your normal student username and password or if you are about to complete your studies, register for our Graduate for Life service.

Volunteer Week 2022 takes place from Wednesday 1 to Tuesday 7 June. The week encourages and celebrates volunteering across Scotland. For more information on student volunteering, more inspiring volunteer stories and how to find an opportunity that’s right for you, visit Get involved – Volunteering (uhi.ac.uk)

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