How international students and multicultural communities are encouraging us to reshape our understanding of volunteering.
I do not think I have been as exposed to goodwill and generosity as what I have been while working for the International Office at UNE. It is National Volunteer Week this week and it has me reflecting on my own opportunities to connect, engage and work alongside some incredible volunteers. From on-campus activities, community events and beyond, I have been fortunate enough to have witnessed the very best of humanity within our international students and multicultural members of the community in Armidale.
It’s curious. I remember when I was much younger I would help volunteer with Lifeline and The Salvation Army, gift-wrapping presents for people at Christmas time and occasionally offering help and assistance at various community gatherings in the town where I grew up. For the most part, my memories of it were largely to do with trying to achieve service awards at school. For many of us volunteering was built into our school curriculum as a program to complete, tick off, feel good about and then in many cases, swiftly forget.
I’ll admit, my general perception of volunteer work was always slightly skewed more towards images of firefighters bravely going off and fighting for our safety, humanitarian aid workers overseas or shelters and food companies preparing meals for homeless and those less fortunate. My understanding of volunteer work continued to grow but it was not until fairly recently that it really evolved into something much deeper on a personal level.
I started my role as the Student Engagement Coordinator of UNE International in 2019. My role was buried in event development and program creation and with a small team of me and one other, I was quickly overwhelmed with offers of assistance and support from international students. Half the time I never needed to even ask for help because they would come to me, wanting to be involved. In whatever way they could, it did not matter what it was they just wanted to help out. It became very clear that these students from all over the world had this intrinsic desire to help others if they knew they could. They enjoyed it and in fact, on multiple occasions, they have thanked me for allowing them to be involved in various initiatives. I can still remember the first time this happened to me. Early on in my role, myself and a group of student volunteers were organizing a small cultural event in the Armidale mall with free food being shared to the community. At the end of it all, we came together for a quick debrief, and with beaming faces they smiled at me and said,
“thank you for letting us do this Alex, we had such a great time. Please let us know if there is anything in the future you need help with.”
I could have just about fallen over. I had never experienced such an outward, open display of gratitude for serving others.
Asking for nothing in return and willing to give their time, energy, effort and enthusiasm. It is unrivalled by any other kindness I have really experienced from people who are not my family (or who are getting paid).
Perhaps it is their view that we are a global family, with a shared humanity, that stirs them to reach out and lend a hand without expectation. In many of the multicultural communities here in Armidale I have witnessed this unique display of community. Where families look after one another, they give even if they do not have much to give and they take care of one another. A beautiful example of this is the Indian community rallying together to try and raise extra funds for students who might be struggling amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Ezidi families who open up their home to locals for a meal and conversation. Chinese and Vietnamese communities educating young schoolchildren about their culture and delighting them with cultural activities and games. The Saudi Arabian man who hears you want to try your hand at making Arabic coffee and brings you a large pack of coffee powder (from his homeland), dates and cardamom to use without thinking twice (I was very fortunate, it’s delicious!). The Saudi Arabian man (another one) who offers to take amazing photos for your events because he loves it. The Muslim community who ensure men, women and children (even international students) are fed with delicious meals when the sun sets throughout Ramadan. And it is every single community who come out in droves to proudly display their culture through dance, music, art and food at Culture Fest.
In any case, I am grateful I have been fortunate enough to witness the generosity and thoughtfulness of our international student cohort, their families and their friends. When one chips in, many do. They come to the aid of others and look out for people when they do not really have to. I have had students help me setup tents, man desks, serve food, give out flyers, cold call newspaper and media outlets, dance, sing (take a breath if you need), cook, clean up, pack down and do it all with a grace of which I can only hope to achieve. Not to mention a smile so wide and so contagious you cannot help but be chuffed of the work you are doing too. They are from so many different countries, they are young, they are middle-aged, they are male and female and they all just want to experience as much as they can while they are here. I know I am not alone when I say that it is hard not be influenced by such behaviour. I think if we could all take a small piece of this away and rethink our approach to giving and community, weave generosity into the everyday, just imagine how positively our lives could change. The people you could meet, the feeling of connection and purpose that you could find and the diverse range of experiences you could have.
There are not enough words to recognize this consistent, humble and authentic generosity of spirit. For now, in honour of National Volunteer Week all I will say is thank you. To all our volunteers, from all around the world, who turn up, offer to help, who are reliable and enthusiastic, positive and hardworking, YOU are inspiring. Our institution and our community is very lucky to have you.
Author: Alexandra Cook