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What I learned from volunteering as a student
Volunteers play a vital role at Healthwatch, helping the public have their say in health and social care. To celebrate Student Volunteering Week, we spoke to Helen about her time as a student volunteer with Healthwatch Leeds and what she learned from the experience.
Why did you decide to volunteer with Healthwatch?
I was looking for a worthwhile way to spend my time outside of university hours and wanted to put some of the skills I was gaining from studying into a real life context.
From my first contact with the volunteer coordinator at Healthwatch Leeds, it was clear that Healthwatch value their volunteers and allow them to have real responsibilities from the start. I was invited to the office straight away to discuss what I wanted to get out of my experience, and what opportunities were available.
What did you do as a student volunteer?
My volunteering experience has been really diverse, and I’ve been able to get involved in lots of different things. Mostly I've been talking to people about their experiences of health and social care, so that we can help inform services on how they can improve.
I’ve visited A&E to carry out surveys as part of a project across West Yorkshire looking at improving urgent and emergency care. The work was shared with the local commissioners, hospital trusts and ambulance service to help them develop ideas for making improvements.
I was also the lead volunteer on a visit to the gynaecology ward at St James’ Hospital, where we spoke to patients about their experiences. The feedback we collected led to changes in communication with patients (around cancellation of appointments) and even to the provision of hot meals! Another visit I attended was to Armley Prison, where I led focus groups with prisoners.
For one project, I analysed data which was used in a report on sexual health as part of a citywide review of sexual health services. It was really positive to see that our work has helped make improvements to the service, improving information about waiting times, privacy signage, communication and staff training in sexual health clinics across Leeds.
I also had the opportunity to plan a volunteer ‘thank you’ event which was really fun, and a nice change from the other work I’d been involved in.
Do you have a favourite moment from your time as a volunteer?
It’s hard to pinpoint one favourite moment, but I found it very rewarding to see the final report for the sexual health project being published and services really listening to the recommendations we’d made and making improvements, as I knew I’d made a huge contribution to it.
Aside from this, visiting Armley prison was probably the most interesting experience I’ve had, and planning the volunteer ‘thank you’ event was the most fun thing to be involved in. Every aspect of volunteering has had its own highlights, and it’s the combination of them all that has made my time so enjoyable.
How did you feel you made a difference to health and social care in your community?
I strongly believe that members of the public should have an influence in shaping the services we use. Speaking to people and seeing how the findings lead to changes is a process I have found very rewarding. I’ll soon be taking part in a follow-up review for the sexual health project, so it will be interesting to see how our recommendations have made a difference.
I think that the work we do at Healthwatch is vital, as it means that everyone has a voice in the issues that affect them the most. Through volunteering, I have constantly felt like I’m doing something positive, and making a difference to health and social care.
How has volunteering as a student helped prepare you for work?
Whilst university taught me a range of useful skills for the future, I think it was essential to get some ‘real-life’ experience before entering employment. Volunteering gave me professional experience as I was responsible for representing an organisation and not just myself. I also gained some experience in professional report writing which is something I do in my job now.
What would you say to someone who was thinking about volunteering?
I think that volunteering as a student is a really productive and positive thing to do. It worked well for me because Healthwatch were very flexible around my university life. I was able to drop down my volunteering hours and commit to my university work when I had important deadlines. Equally, there were always opportunities for me to get involved in projects when I had spare time.
I get the feeling that the volunteers at Healthwatch are truly valued by the staff, and a lot of effort is made to ensure that projects and roles are suitable to our skills and interests.
I personally found that volunteering was a nice break from university work - it was genuinely good fun and made me feel like I was making a positive difference.
Want to get involved?
If you'd like to help improve health and social care in your community and develop new skills, speak to your local Healthwatch about becoming a volunteer.