Salima is a master’s student at the Institute of Education studying Educational Planning, Economics, and International Development. In conjunction to her academic field she volunteered as an English teacher for the Student-Led Project Impact Initiative. She told us about the joys and challenges of teaching English to groups with whom you share no common language with.

Tell us a little about your volunteering

I was volunteering for Impact Initiative, and they are partnered with Hopscotch to deliver English lessons to recently arrived Afghan refugee women. They offer tutoring classes three times a week, but volunteers are divided across the sessions, and everyone commits to one class a week. We usually met offline because it would be hard for the tutees to navigate an online English environment. I worked with Impact Initiative for almost 5 months. We recognise each other now and know each other’s names.

How did you find out about the role?

I am a Chevening Scholar and on a social organised for scholars the others were talking about volunteering. I have been volunteering back home in Abkhazia before coming to the UK and it was a lot of fun, so I thought I would try it in the UK too. I started researching on the UCL website and found a myriad of opportunities but then I thought that maybe I don’t have enough time next to my studies. One day I was scrolling on my Instagram and came across a post saying it was the last chance to volunteer with Afghan refugees. Before, I mostly volunteered at events, like film festivals or football leagues, but I am also an English teacher by profession. Still, I never volunteered like this before. It is normally one or maximum two people in my class and we normally speak the same language which makes it much easier.

Why did you want to become a volunteer?

I really enjoyed volunteering in the past and I also thought that this would be a good way to meet people especially when you are in a different county. Through volunteering you can meet people with similar mindsets and ideas. Additionally, volunteering enables you to participate in activities that you would not do otherwise in your everyday life.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?

The start was really challenging. First, I could not see any difference and I had to realise that we do not have a common language at all with the students. And while there is an interpreter there you cannot rely on them fully. So, I tried communicating with gestures. It was a rocky start but after a while when you see that they are remembering things you taught them and that they can now go to the shop and buy something… it’s really rewarding.

It was a rocky start but after a while when you see that they are remembering things you taught them and that they can now go to the shop and buy something... it's really rewarding.

What impact has volunteering had on you?

This volunteering project is completely different to any experience I had before because here I was actually doing something for other people. And it might sound a little selfish but after every session I am so happy because we are doing something really cool as a project. My mental health is getting better because I feel that I have a purpose. All my friends were worried saying that I am doing too much and that I will not have time for anything if I start volunteering. But it’s just one hour a week and it gives you so much. It had given me purpose in life to do something good. At the same time, from a professional point of view, teaching someone a language without having a common language is a great experience. You need to be creative and find other ways to teach. You are constantly evolving and finding alternative forms of engaging people.

What’s the best thing about volunteering?

I think it’s the feeling that you have when you leave: you really want to come back. You know normally when you have a job you go there because you have to but with volunteering you come back because you actually like it there. It is also the feeling of doing something that helps not only you but someone else.

And the most challenging? How did you overcome the challenges?

It was definitely the language barrier. You know we tried to communicate via gestures but for example the days of the week or months and abstract things are quite hard to act out. Like in every teaching job, your explanation sometimes does not go through and then you need to find a new route.

It was also made harder by the specific situation of some students. Because they are refugees, many did not have papers or knew their birthday, and so they could not say it. We started with pictures of months that also had the name of the month in Farsi and that helped. But those who did not know how to read needed another solution. At the end, we decided to focus on one person’s birthday and work as a group to play out bureaucratic scenarios like filling out forms.

Tell us about something memorable that’s happened to you whilst volunteering!

It was when we were working in small groups learning the alphabet. We were trying to spell short words, like ‘cat’. In the end, they were so happy for the success, and they said, ‘oh we want to remember you’ and they asked me to write my name and they could actually read it. And at that moment I realised how much we achieved and how much they appreciated the work. I was just so happy; you know after hours of hard work I wrote my name, and they were able to read it.

Would you recommend volunteering? If so, why?

Of course! I would recommend it to everyone. But I also think that every person has to commit to it by themselves. I realised that when I was going through the website that there are many different types of volunteering – such a huge list of opportunities. So I think everyone can find something that they feel is worth committing to. I definitely recommend it if you want to, first of all, find people with the same interests, and secondly, if you want to develop yourself in your career. And of course the most important thing is the wellbeing aspect: you feel that you are doing something great for others and yourself.