I spoke to the lovely Amrutha, who is in her fifth year in medicine, Anisha, who is in her third year of medicine intercalating in global health, and Humza, who is in his second year studying medicine, about their Project Leader roles in the Student-Led Project, UCL Hospital Fun Team. This project recently won Student-Led Project of the Year and was shortlisted for a National Societies and Volunteering Award.

Which project do you lead? Tell us a little about it.

Amrutha: Our project is called UCL Student Hospital Fun Team, and it is a project that involves students going into one of three hospitals, University College London Hospital (UCLH),  the Royal Free, and the Whittington, and playing with the children on the wards and distracting them from being in the hospital for that time. But, because of COVID, we made a few changes this year. We now volunteer at the Hive at the Royal Free, and we also teamed up with Hopscotch Women’s Centre to volunteer at hotels spending time with refugee children from Afghanistan, so it is a bit different from what we usually do.

Anisha: As Amrutha said, we’ve been working closely with the Hive school, which is a school that is closely affiliated with the Royal Free Hospital. So, I have been liaising with the Hive school and Royal Free Charity. Our volunteers have been helping secondary school pupils, providing help with their homework, discussing future career paths, and studying at university.

Humza: So, just to add to the Hopscotch side of things, we ran a play scheme about three times a week starting from November, and it is still running at some capacity now in two hotels that are next to UCL for Afghan refugee children. We’ve run a few special projects like a book drive , helped set up a library, and ran some special Ramadan activities.  

Tell us about your Project Leader role.

Amrutha: I am the project planner which involves meeting with the Student Union, overseeing other committee members, delegating tasks, organising the AGM, and writing the monthly reports and setting up committee meetings.

Anisha: I am the coordinator for the Royal Free Hospital, so I have been working closely with the Royal Free Charity and the Hive school to help organise the volunteers and sessions. Also, my role is to organise and manage the volunteers attending the Hive school sessions to ensure all their mandatory training is completed. I create a weekly volunteering schedule and monitor their attendance. I ensure that students at the Hive school and our volunteers enjoy the sessions and get the most out of them.

Huzmah: So, I am the UCLH coordinator, but because that has not happened this year, I helped with the hopscotch project. So that involves me liaising with Hopscotch to ensure that we can run a regular play scheme and coordinate the volunteers. Myself and other coordinators make a weekly rota, and we have also been organising activities.

Why did you want to become a Project Leader?

Amrutha: I have been volunteering with Fun Team since I was in my second year. I started as a volunteer, then a team leader, and then a hospital coordinator, so it felt like a natural progression; I just wanted to take part and be involved as possible.

Anisha: I started volunteering with the Fun Team in my second year and was a team leader in my second year. I really enjoyed the experience. I thought being a project leader would just be an excellent opportunity to improve my communication skills and continue to meet people across UCL. I really wanted to increase awareness about Fun Team and the work we were doing at the Hive school.

Huzmah: I think it is very similar to Amrutha, I’ve wanted to do it in my first year, and my whole first year was online. I had some ideas for cool things we could do, which is one of the main reasons I wanted to get involved. Also, medics typically stay together, so it is nice to expand and meet new people.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by leading your project? 

Amrutha: I think we have made a difference by supporting new community members through our volunteering with the children at the hotels. They have come to this country under such extreme conditions and we are trying to make them as comfortable as possible. Despite COVID and everything else, we’re trying to reach as many different people as possible.

Anisha: Being based at the Hive, being a project leader sort of solidified our bond with the Hive school, and we got to know all the team there and students there.

Huzmah: I think we’ve made a tangible difference with the Hopscotch project. One volunteer had a brilliant idea of having a book drive, so then with the Islamic society and on social media, we put boxes in the student centre. We collected over 250 books, helping to set up a library at one of the hotels. The Hopscotch staff says they enjoyed the reading every time we went back. All the refugees in the hotels are Muslim, and Ramadan was a couple of months ago. So, we were able to run a special Ramadan program, which I hope could bring them some comfort during their first Ramadan away from home.

What impact has volunteering and leading a project had on you? 

Amrutha: It has helped increase my confidence; I realised that I can do a lot more than I first thought. At the beginning, because of COVID-19, we did not have anywhere to volunteer. We have never had an issue with the number of volunteers, and so we had around 100 people and didn’t know what to do with them. So finding new opportunities that reflected the society’s ethos by networking and reaching out to new people was a unique experience for me. In addition, I developed my organisational skills, and was able to work with different people outside of my degree.

Anisha: I am just echoing what Amrutha said, but I think volunteering has been really rewarding this year, especially with COVID. It has been amazing that we have been able to sort of pull together and provide the support we have. As Amrutha said, networking with different people, arranging meetings, emailing them, and improving our communication skills. Also, trying to balance this role alongside our studies and improving our time management skills.

Huzmah: I think I am a disorganised person, and sometimes I need a lot of prompting to do stuff, Amrutha can attest to this. Being in this position where you have volunteers that you need to coordinate and look after has forced me to be much more organised. So, I am pretty grateful for this opportunity.

How has your network developed while being a Project Leader? 

Amrutha: I have met many different people while working within the committee and have made lots of new friends across UCL.; people in different years and degrees. We also teamed up with other societies, such as the Paediatric society within Medsoc and, as Huzmah mentioned, Islamic society.

Anisha: Yes, it has been lovely to meet people outside of medicine and from different degrees and get different perspectives.

Huzmah: Similarly, meeting new people, andI think also I’ve learned a lot from Hopscotch, since they’ve constantly fed back what’s going well and what needs improving from each session. They’ve been really supportive, they ran a trauma-informed training session online, which was very helpful.

What was the biggest challenge you encountered? How did you overcome this challenge?

Amrutha: The biggest challenge was definitely COVID and just figuring out what to do. It did feel like we were starting from scratch, but as we thought of things, we realised that we already had volunteers with various skills. It was just finding something to do with that. We really wanted to choose something that maintained the project ethos and message that kids deserve the time to play and enjoy themselves as kids. So even though we couldn’t do that in the hospital, we could still carry on the impact in different settings.

Anisha: As Amrutha said, the COVID pandemic was throughout and has still remained. So, we had to ensure we followed Government guidelines and Student Union guidance. Also, because the Hive is still closely related to the Royal Free Hospital, we had to follow their guidance too. So, it was just being flexible and ensuring clear regular communication with all parties involved to ensure we were all on the same page. Importantly, we also asked our volunteers if they were comfortable with volunteering in person. We did explore alternative options, for example, virtual volunteering. Overall, although COVID was in the background, through working closely with the Hive School and the Royal Free Charity it has worked well.

Huzmah: With the Hopscotch project, it is going well. In the beginning, we were quite overwhelmed with the number of children who wanted to attend each session. I think we were at around 40 volunteers. One way that we managed that was by having different group activities. For example, one of the volunteers wanted to have an origami session. So, we used the volunteers' ideas and made them into sessions that were really well received!

Tell us something memorable that’s happened to you while being a Project Leader? 

Amrutha: I think the most recent thing that happened was that we won the UCL Student-Led Project of Year award. Though it was nice to gain recognition for the society itself, it was more important for us to raise awareness of the current situation, as there are still a number of children in hotels now awaiting accommodation.

Anisha: Every time I email anyone from the Hive school, we always get a kind email back from them with great feedback asking us when we will return; and saying the students would love to see us. I think it is nice that they really appreciate our help.

Huzmah: For the Hopscotch project, fortunately, there have been many things. Every session has been something quite memorable. Activities we’ve done throughout the year include a mini-Olympics, spoon puppet making, and a few origami sessions. However, one session that really stands out was when we didn't have anything planned. We thought it would be quite chaotic, one volunteer started making a fort, then one by one about 20 children joined! Everyone eventually joined in, putting together boxes, blankets, and chairs. That was spontaneous play, and spontaneous play is far more productive when you explore and try new things.

What best advice would you give someone thinking about being a Project Leader? 

So, if you are thinking about doing it, make big pros and cons lists, and the pros will always outweigh the cons.

Amrutha: The best advice for me is to have an open mind and be flexible. It is always good to have a few ideas in the back of your mind, but just be prepared to go with the flow and find new things you were not expecting because it ends up being a lot more exciting and interesting than what you started off with.

Anisha: Do things little and often every week because it may be overwhelming when you start off and ask your teammates for help when you need it.

Huzmah: Don’t overthink it, just do it. Overall, the time commitment averaged out to a couple hours a week. It wasn’t too intense, and I knew I could reach out to Amrutha or the Student-Led Projects team whenever I needed help; Santiago was a huge help this year! I emailed him many times, and he always replied and gave a lot of support! So, if you are thinking about doing it, make big pros and cons lists, and the pros will always outweigh the cons.

Want to start your own Student-led Volunteering Project? Find out more and share your ideas with us here!