In 2007, the first group of UniVols took up their assignments in South Africa, Vanuatu and Tanzania. In the 10 years since, 94 students have grabbed the opportunity to put theory into practice.
The programme was the brainchild of Professor Tony Binns, Ron Lister Chair of Geography at Otago University. In his previous role at Surrey University, he’d been involved in Volunteer Service Overseas’ (VSO) intern programme.
While that programme was hugely successful, Tony says young VSO volunteers were managed separately to VSO’s core volunteers, and he thought that integrating them into the main programme would be beneficial. In 2005, he began talking to VSA’s then-CEO Debbie Snelson, and former Manager of Volunteer Recruitment Carolyn Mark, about creating a graduate volunteer scheme here.
What began in 2007 as a collaboration between VSA and Otago University has grown to include Victoria, Auckland and Massey Universities. Tony has remained closely involved, sitting on selection panels each year and continuing to work alongside many former UniVols who’ve taken up post-grad study at Otago University. “These people had their lives changed by this experience,” he says.
That’s supported by research undertaken by former UniVol Sam McLachlan for his PhD, supervised by Tony. After volunteering in South Africa in 2009, setting up an under-15 rugby league (which is still in action), Sam says he became interested in how young volunteers’ experience is different – but “a lot of existing research on younger volunteers is around voluntourism,” he says. He is presenting his research at the London Royal Geographical Society annual conference with Tony in August, and at VSA’s Congress in November (see page 5). He found that young volunteers’ strength lies in their ability to make strong local relationships, and the UniVol programme has coupled this with good development practice to achieve long-lasting impact.
Former UniVols who’ve maintained strong ties with the communities in which they worked would attest to that, but Tony remains the programme’s greatest champion. “Of all the things I’ve done in my career,” he says, “one of the stars in the sky would be the UniVol programme.”
Miriam Marshall (nee Wood)
Youth Worker, Wan Smol Bag Theatre, Vanuatu, 2007
My experience has had a lasting impact. I have gone on to do volunteer work in Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Cambodia, a Syrian refugee camp in Greece, as well as New Zealand. I am a Geography/Social Studies teacher and draw heavily on my experiences of living and volunteering globally to help guide my teaching. I particularly like challenging my students to think beyond their own experiences and world view to consider dilemmas and situations they may not have thought of. I have had a couple of students become inspired to do global volunteering and it has been fun to dream and scheme with them. I've returned to Vanuatu three times. It is awesome to be able to follow their work and family journeys as we all get older!
RTC Youth Worker, Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu, 2007
I was always set on getting into the environmental science field so in that respect being a UniVol with VSA hasn’t changed my direction. However, going on the assignment gave me a desire to utilise my professional skills within a developing world context. It has driven my career choices and influenced my decision on what companies I would like to work for. My current employer GHD is
a partner organisation with VSA and this heavily influenced my decision to join GHD. I’m still involved with VSA in the Christchurch group, and chairing the VSAConnect working group, and really enjoy hearing about other people’s experiences on their assignments.
It has been a while since I have been in touch with the guys I was working with in Vanuatu, although every now and then a Facebook post appears which allows me to keep in touch.
Records Management and Archives Assistant for the Division of Media and Communication, Bougainville, 2015
My VSA assignment hugely influenced what I've done since. I now work in the Humanitarian and Disaster Management unit in the New Zealand Aid Programme, and my role working with New Zealand government agencies and NGOs in disaster response in the Pacific is informed by my knowledge of what it's like living on a remote Pacific island, and shaped by my wonderful Bougainvillean friends who taught me resilience and shared their culture with me. I am in touch with my colleagues and friends from Bougainville through Facebook. I’m also still in touch with my fellow VSA volunteers as well as other volunteers from around the world.
Mattie Geary Nichol
Youth Adviser, NCYV/Wan Smol Bag, Vanuatu, 2011
The skills, experiences and insights I gained from volunteering with Northern Care Youth Centre and Clinic for ten months have really shaped what I’ve done with my life. Working in the aid industry informed my master’s thesis topic and the cross-cultural skills I learnt from my colleagues allowed me to return to Vanuatu to undertake field research. I’ve been privileged to have the opportunity to not only volunteer for VSA but then to go on to work for VSA in a number of positions. In my current role, as international programmes coordinator for Family Planning, I often reflect on the stories people shared with me around barriers to sexual and reproductive health services and information as well as the innovative approaches my colleagues used to overcome these challenges.
Youth Programme Assistant, Nazareth Rehabilitation Centre, Bougainville, 2016
My VSA assignment has ended up being quite influential post assignment. I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do after my assignment (before I started my assignment), I didn’t really enjoy what I was studying at uni, I was just doing it to get a degree and I guess I thought, something will fall into place. I am so glad for my year in Bougainville, it gave me direction into where I want to go in the future, and also what’s really important to me. Always using my privilege to help others has been a big thing for me since I've come back. It allows me to justify that all the privilege I was lucky to be born into is a good thing, as long as you are helping others with it. So, I came back to uni, I'm absolutely loving it (stress and all) and I'm currently doing my dissertation on gender-based violence in Bougainville, and can hopefully do my Master's in it next year and do some research over there.
I went back in June this year because I love the place so much and stayed with Sr. Lorraine at the Centre, I was incredibly lucky she planned a trip around the island while I was there as I never got to go South when I was there. She has been really instrumental for me in choosing to continue to learn more in the field of GBV and extremely encouraging. I never take for granted how incredibly lucky I am to be able to tap into all of Sisters' knowledge, resources and networks, as well as get to live with her and join and watch her work. She’s an absolute legend in GBV work and peace and conflict work. I had an experience last year that no amount of money would be able to buy. I guess, it’s pretty rare to find what you love to do, and a huge question for me when doing any work, is would you do this for no money and be happy? If the answer's yes, you’re good to go.