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Giving back

A volunteer army of, potentially, thousands is being mobilised following the opening of the University Volunteering Centre (UVC) in late 2013.

The concepts of student altruism and giving back to the community feature prominently in the University of Otago's new Strategic Direction to 2020.

"This is regarded as an important part of what the Otago student experience should be and is a part of the town-gown relationship the University has with the wider community,” says Director of Student Services David Richardson.

He says many students and staff were already involved in voluntary work, but it often lacked co-ordination.

"We found that many of the people in the community simply couldn't handle the volumes of requests to volunteer they had from students. They also didn't understand the student work cycle which meant students could only be available at certain times of the year.

"It was very clear that co-ordination was necessary.”

The new volunteer centre provides centralised hub for students and staff to find out about volunteering, as well as a contact point for the community. One of the key steps has been the appointment of Sze-En Lau as the co-ordinator. In addition to degrees in zoology and volunteer tourism, Lau has considerable experience in the volunteering sector and has been working to develop relationships with other volunteer groups and organisations to help strengthen Dunedin's volunteer network.

In her first week in the job, in early October, she co-ordinated a team of 80 student and staff volunteers to lend a hand at the Special Olympics' 8th National Summer Games.

"I received some enthusiastic feedback from students who said that it was a great opportunity for them to get involved with part of the community they otherwise wouldn't necessarily have the chance to meet."

The brand “UniCrew” has been developed to represent the teams of volunteers and, during Orientation, more than 250 new volunteers signed up to join. In addition, five residential colleges collectively engaged 216 of their residents in volunteering activities during O-week, helping 18 different local community organisations. And the UVC worked closely with the Cancer Society and the OUSA's Cancer Core club to deliver the University of Otago Relay for Life in April.

"Our vision is to see volunteering as part of mainstream University culture so that volunteering becomes something you naturally do when you come to Otago," says Lau.

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