Being at university is a unique opportunity to embrace the books and emerge oneself in intellectual discourse – and of course, the final goal of obtaining a degree to further one’s career. Many also take this as an opportunity for further self-development and to make friends for a lifetime. One way that many students do this is to get involved in, or even run, an NGO (non-government organisation). This might sound scary to some, but it’s definitely a challenge worth taking on.
But firstly, what are NGOs? They are organisations that operate independently of any government, or conventional for-profit business. Typically, the purpose is to address a social or political issue. However, even football clubs or other physical or social activities can, in some cases, fall under that category. In today’s world, the existence of NGOs is proving to be a necessity rather than a luxury as NGOs often meet the needs that the state does not. They can either be large organisations such a different UN bodies, but also grassroots level organisations – and they are the ones I’ll be focusing on in this blog. Surely, NGOs do not go without criticism as some are highly problematic, but that’s a topic for another blog.
International Day of NGOs was celebrated on 27th of February, and I want also to use the opportunity to applaud everyone who is involved in NGO or volunteer work, no matter the shape or form. It’s work that often goes unseen and unrewarded, but it is crucial to the world we live in today.
During my undergraduate studies at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, I founded an organisation, and we travelled abroad with that organisation to work on different projects, as well as locally in Japan. This opened many doors for me, but mostly it opened my eyes and changed my outlook on life, and that’s what eventually led me to change from a business degree to currently pursuing a degree in development. That is why I can’t stress enough the importance of joining different activities in order to see what’s out there and to gain exposure to different things before settling on a predetermined path.
Now, while pursuing my MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at SOAS, I’m the Operations Manager of two different organisations, both from which I learn a great deal besides what I learn in my courses. After organising several social projects, I joined The Better Tomorrow Movement in 2017. There I have been able to use my previous experiences, as that organisation provides free interactive training programmes that help young people create, execute, and scale impactful social projects, globally.
Upon coming to SOAS, I joined SCRAP Weapons, and shortly after took the role of Operations Manager. Working with fellow students and SOAS staff on furthering the global disarmament agenda has been an absolute privilege. To be working with a diverse and ambitious student body on a topic that we are all passionate about, with ample of intellectual resources at hand, is an experience that I recommend everyone who can, to take advantage of. SOAS has a variety of societies and organisations that organise events, talks and other activities that, in my opinion, make SOAS what it is.
Holding these positions while studying has taught me a lot and I want to share some of my learnings;
- Planning – use a calendar and some form of scheduling. It’s important to stay on top of your work, as well as assignments and deadlines. SOAS calendar can be linked with your calendar through a subscription link so you can have all your lectures and tutorials on your phone and computer. Also make sure to set aside time to meet friends and family, and make sure to use your time wisely. Given that SOAS is in central London, that means that most of us have to spend some amount of time on public transport daily. Download some podcasts or reading material before the journey to maximise the time spent.
- Build a routine – this is something that has always been a struggle for me, but a routine doesn’t need to be a set of 9 – 5 activities. For me, it’s about having certain stable points throughout the week to help planning other activities around.
- Work on something you’re passionate about. When devoting your time and energy to volunteering with an organisation, it should be something that brings you joy or you think will better the conditions for someone else.
- Say no. Prioritise yourself and know when to say no. Often there are many opportunities available – I could honestly spend the whole day at SOAS just listening to different talks and participating in activities – but you need to know when to say no and focus on the things that are important to you. This can also mean saying no to great opportunities that may come your way, but unfortunately it’s not possible to do everything, so setting priorities is essential.
- Creativity. This comes in different shapes and forms for everyone but I do believe that it’s important for everyone to have some form of creative outlet, whether that’s painting, singing, writing or anything else.
- Mentorship and peer to peer learning. There are many opportunities at SOAS for either being a mentor or receiving mentorship from others, but there is also a great variety of other organisations that offer mentorship. You can even seek it out if you meet someone that you think you could learn from. It’s a great opportunity to hear what others have been through, learn from their mistakes and achievements. We often keep reinventing the wheel and struggling with issues when someone has already found a way to solve them. Having a mentor to talk things through with can therefore be hugely beneficial.
- Build a team and collaborate. Within your organisation, make sure to delegate tasks among the team to share the work, as well as ownership over what you’re working on. Every member should feel valued and important to the team. One of the ways to build a team can be through networking, talking to people or putting out applications. At SOAS, there’s a pool of skilled and capable people, and within SCRAP Weapons, we’ve built a great team of dedicated students.
- Use online tools – but don’t overdo it. Through different organisations, I’ve tried various tools and it tends to overcomplicate things. Now we mostly stick to WhatsApp for communications and Google Drive shared folders to organise and store files, but it’s worth experimenting with different tools to see what suits your team.
- Build a database of past activities and learnings. Institutional memory is incredibly important and should not be bound to people. You want to be able to leave an organisation and it still being able to run smoothly.
- Stay motivated. There will inevitably be down points but it’s important to remember why you started and to look at the progress that’s been made – and look towards the end goal.
Feel free to leave a comment or reach out if you have some further tips that you think are useful!
- Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.