Jennifer has been a Student Volunteering Ambassador for the last 3 years, since she started LSE in 2017 to study LLB Law. She’s has volunteered for multiple organisations, including IntoUniversity and the Free Legal Advice Centre of Toynbee Hall. In this blog, Jen explores her interview with her volunteer supervisor at IntoUniversity who is the Senior Education Worker and Primary FOCUS Coordinator at the North Islington branch.
Volunteering as a University Mentor for IntoUniversity’s North Islington Centre, I have seen a Y11 student grow in confidence and self-assuredness. For the past two years, Robyn O’Halloran has been my supervisor. I interviewed her about her time at IntoUniversity, Covid-19’s impact and other challenges.
IntoUniversity’s mission is to support students’ academic ambitions and soft skills development, and to provide them with opportunities otherwise unavailable, including internship schemes, academic support, mentoring…etc. It aims to deliver, primary through to high school students, access to an all-rounded education, and an unbiased clear picture of their next steps after school.
Robyn works as a Senior Education Worker and Primary FOCUS Coordinator. She leads the liaison and coordination of programs between primary schools and IntoUniversity, to provide workshops in schools and at the North Islington Centre. Each IntoUniversity Centre develops partnerships with at least four primary and four secondary schools, which have a certain threshold of students receiving free school meals. Each Centre also aims to reflect its community-base, to provide relevant experiences and opportunities rooted in that community to students. This effectively balances against the general national curriculum.
Robyn was herself on the receiving end of academic support and corporate mentoring at IntoUniversity’s Hackney Centre. She later became one of their University Mentors before obtaining her current position. Throughout this time, she has seen the charity grow. Its programs have diversified to meet students’ changing concerns and interests, especially surrounding university, which many students view now as a second option. There is also greater competition to benefit from IntoUniversity’s opportunities, as more students apply and need support.
IntoUniversity is continuously challenged to support the most disadvantaged students, who lack the support and resources needed. School systems unintentionally exacerbate the problem. There is also a lack of diversity of people and experiences, as the Black Lives Matter movement highlights. Many misconceptions need to be confronted, by education workers, regarding career paths and particularly university. Schools can make universities seem like the best choice and implicitly discourage students from exploring other avenues.
Robyn’s influence is centred around her daily contact with students, which she enjoys the most about her role, and her ability to provide them with information and resources. In addition to leading and collaborating with the North Islington team, which she calls her “little family”, whose members proudly support each other. She tells me it’s a pleasure to see students develop over time, but also to see her own development. Her students teach her about patience and open-mindedness. She has learnt the importance of never inadvertently pushing her own ambitions or beliefs, particularly regarding what is the right future path for students.
Her role is effectively one of “self-development while helping others develop”.
The impact of Covid-19
Covid-19 has required IntoUniversity to very quickly shift all their previously face-to-face programs online. It has been a challenge to develop adequate online systems and particularly to maintain partnerships with schools. This shift, however, has revealed the value of virtual work. Their resources and programs have been provided in a very similar way to before. They remain present in their student’s lives.
Robyn predicts IntoUniversity’s support will be in even greater need once classes resume, as schools will be expected to deliver the same results in shorter time, even though students have missed six months-worth of their education. This will be coupled with students’ anxiety triggered by the pandemic and by speculation over the economic future.
There is also greater deliberation among students about whether university is worth the debt incurred. There is an underlying fear of being forced into a certain prescribed career path, as well as, the long-neglected lack of diversity within university student bodies, particularly of BAME, LGBTQ+, and students with disabilities. In addition to, the academic nature and rigour of university not being suitable for all.
This marks a generational shift in thinking that focuses on available alternatives to university and on a broad net of professional ambitions. As Robyn tells me, delivery drivers, for example, shown to be essential during Covid-19, don’t have a profession conventionally perceived as worthwhile pursuing. IntoUniversity aims to address that disparity and to show a variety of perspectives. To empower students to make informed decisions about their future, according to their ambitions, without the constraints of conventional societal thinking.
When considering the impact of Covid-19, we can only “hope for the best”.
Volunteering at IntoUniversity
Volunteers are crucial to IntoUniversity’s work. They represent “about 50% of the workforce” and provide a much-needed diversity of experiences and knowledge to students.
Volunteering is itself incredibly important to develop key skills, explore different sectors and areas, as well as support the local community and wellbeing of others. Robyn’s own volunteering at IntoUniversity made her realise she didn’t want a desk job, but rather wanted to work with young people. She saw the charity’s worthwhile work and comfortably transitioned into working life. Without volunteering, this wouldn’t have been possible.
Volunteering at IntoUniversity provides ample opportunity for self-growth, for both young volunteers who learn extensively, and retired professionals who can share their wealth of experience and expertise. IntoUniversity makes its volunteers feel valued, part of the team, and provides ongoing support. It’s very much a “two-way street”. Covid-19 has reduced the opportunity to volunteer and to recruit new volunteers. But volunteers will be in great demand once physical contact is restored.