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“One of the hardest but best things I’ve done in my life”

Volunteer mentors in red jackets on the steps of City Hall in London on Opening Day

City Year UK started off as one of many leaflets on the shelf in my dorm room. It stood out to me but, like many people, I didn’t understand what they did; I don’t think anyone who isn’t involved in the charity will truly understand what they do. That’s why in order to do it: you must trust the process.

In the first week, I had a moment of doubt where I asked myself if I really wanted to spend a year volunteering. There can be a stigma around the word, and it was like my brain was trying to fight against it. I had my parents asking me if I “really wanted to make my degree a year longer” and if I’ll “remain focused” during my year out of education, and I started to allow other people’s doubts affect my own judgment. I was, however, beginning to understand what City Year does, and what I was about to do and I realised that I was letting people who had no idea what I was doing pull the wool over my eyes. I decided that I wanted to trust the process.

BTA (Basic Training Academy) was intense. We learned about City Year and its history, and we were also educated on dealing with safeguarding issues. Absorbing so much information in a week was not easy, but BTA prepared me for the range of situations I may face once I was physically in the schools. Some potential volunteer mentors left before the week was done, and 40% of me thought that could be me, but the other 60% really wanted to go into my chosen school and decide from there whether or not I really wanted to do it. Once I got into the school, met the children and had a day in the life of a volunteer mentor, I no longer questioned myself.

I was staying until the end.

Myself and five others became part of Team Imagination, serving at Prendergast Vale School in Lewisham. My teamwork and communication skills were instantly put to the test as I was about to volunteer full-time with complete strangers (them being lovely people made it easy though!)  We also had an impact officer who would spend Mondays and Wednesdays with us and was available via phone on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Our impact officer’s job is to make sure that we, as volunteer mentors, are happy, and that the leadership team in our school is satisfied with us and our impact on students. The six of us were assigned one year each that we would focus on, and I was assigned Year 10s. I knew that it would be challenging, but I am always up for a challenge.

I was assigned 13 Year 10 students to work with on a range of issues such as safeguarding, gang affiliation, behaviour and lack of focus. I had to wake up at 5:30am and leave my house by 6:40am, to arrive at school for a 7:45am start. I am not a morning person, so waking up and staying energised for the day was one of my biggest struggles – especially during winter when I left my house in darkness and arrived home in darkness. The two things that pushed me everyday were the students and my team. They gave me a purpose, and a reason to want to get up in the morning because they reminded me that I was (and am) making a difference with every second I was volunteering. It started with students telling me that “they don’t need my help” to having several students approach me during break to ask me if I was going to be in their next lesson. It’s such a rewarding feeling to see a student’s growth and enthusiasm to learn just from having you around, especially when they started off the year trying their hardest to get rid of you!

Getting feedback from teachers about the impact I was making was also very rewarding. I had a maths teacher ask me to be in her lessons more frequently, and an English teacher told me that one student did the most work he has ever seen with me. The teachers also noticed that the students felt more comfortable talking to their City Year mentors, so they would come to me if a student had a particular issue and ask me to help solve it (and in many cases, I managed to). Being a City Year mentor is different because we are young and able to relate to the students; the students feel more comfortable opening up and look at us as role models. Being a role model put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and required me to be the most professional I have ever had to be in my life.

I don’t want to write this whole blog in the past tense because my year of service is still not over, however due to unforeseen circumstances, I cannot be with the students physically until further notice, or maybe never again. It’s upsetting because it’s only March, and the progress I had seen from September had me very excited for the progress from now until July. I will, however, remain optimistic and cherish all the memories that I have had volunteering at Prendergast Vale. Not only did I change the lives of students during this academic year, but the children unknowingly have changed mine.

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