Become a leader through volunteering

It’s Volunteering Week, and students are reflecting on what else they can do to make the most of their experience at the University, and ultimately to “stellify”. Ioana has talked in one of the previous blog posts about the advantages of volunteering, but I would like to take this opportunity to share with you why I believe you need to be involved in such activities in order to become a better leader.

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Among the many NGOs and societies I have been involved with, I believe AIESEC would be the most relevant to this particular topic. AIESEC is the largest student-led organisation in the world, present in over 128 countries, and aims to develop young people into better leaders in order to achieve peace and fulfilment of the humankind’s potential. AIESEC has partnered with the United Nations to link their projects to the Sustainable Development Goals, so that every volunteer can tailor his experience based on the global issue (s)he wishes to tackle. But what does AIESEC actually do?

AIESEC puts young people into challenging environments, either by sending them on exchange (to volunteer or to work) abroad, or by placing them in a local team which organises these exchanges. The experience I had as a local volunteer is similar to a social enterprise: we tried to reach as many students as possible, and to convince them to go on exchange, while giving them the tools to make the most of their experience. As part of the organisation, a volunteer can take various leadership roles, from team manager to member of the executive board (i.e. vice-president of one of the departments), president, trainer, member of the National Support Team, member of an organising committee for a conference, etc. – each of them involving either activities of leading a team, or being responsible for an activity or for a group’s progress.

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I can tell from experience that each and every one of these roles is daunting at first. In AIESEC we say that our members take on a leadership position under-prepared, and they leave it over-prepared. We are not afraid to place our confidence in young people and to allow them to take risks, because we believe that the freedom to fail is essential for the development of a leader. Anyone can become a leader, not just on the occasion of a project, but through his/her everyday actions which inspire others to be better and create a positive impact around them.

After finishing my term as President of AIESEC Manchester, I took a break from the organisation, and tried to focus more on my studies. However, I felt that something was missing. My desire to help others and to work daily towards a goal that would bring positive change, had turned into a need that was not being fulfilled. I started having chats with the members and the executive board, trying to find ways to help, but then I came across the opportunity to be part of the Organising Committee of the Leadership Development Seminar, an annual conference I had already attended twice, and which had always left me with a tremendous amount of knowledge, motivation and hope. Applying for the position was instinctive, I could feel that it was the right thing to do, and I could not have been happier when I found out that I got it.

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Organising conferences can be more nerve-racking than enjoyable; 200 delegates depend on the work of 7 members of the Organising Committee and 8 facilitators, together forming the Conference Team. I was in charge of Delegate Servicing, and therefore I had to deal with everything from room allocations and registration to the relations with the external speakers invited. We woke up every morning earlier than everyone else, to check in and prepare the sessions. Whenever the delegates had a break, we made sure everything was in place for the following session and so on. We got less sleep and less time off than all the other delegates. But was it worth it?

The answer is: absolutely yes. Our culture of “team over job description” allowed us to work very efficiently together and support each other. Whenever someone needed an extra person for an activity, we would simply message the Whatsapp group, and whoever was free would come and help, regardless of their role in the Conference Team. We had more fun than we thought possible with 4 hours of sleep per night, a lot of inside jokes, as well as tense moments, which we dealt with responsibly, for we all had the same common goal: to give the delegates the best experience possible. We also had the chance to meet the founder of AIESEC for the United Kingdom, Lionel Simmons, who brought the organisation here in 1953 and extended it to Canada and South America in the following years, as well as other alumni who have stayed connected to the organisation and faithful to its mission.

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Looking back now, I can’t believe how much I learned in those 5 days of conference. Other than time-management, planning and graphics skills, I developed my communication style, having to adapt to each external speaker and their needs. I had the privilege to speak in front of a plenary of 200 people who are actively making the world a better place through their actions, and encouraging all the exchange participants (whom they had helped) to pay their effort forward, and create more positive impact around them. I will never forget this feeling, and I strongly encourage you to apply for opportunities that feel scary at first, for only when you place yourself out of your comfort zone will you be able to truly develop as a person and as a leader.

By Georgiana from the Student Team

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