Student volunteers: a story worth telling and celebrating

A recent current affairs report highlighted the real work being done by students to help others, wites Michelle Green, Chief Executive of Independent Schools Victoria.

Late night TV current affairs programs are usually devoted to serious, weighty and sometimes depressing topics like politics, the economy and international affairs. So I was surprised when I recently watched the ABC’s Lateline program, which featured a story on a project involving students from non-government schools in Melbourne.

I was not only surprised, I was delighted, and not just because some of the students involved in the project, which tutors children from refugee and migrant backgrounds in maths and English, come from ISV Member Schools Genazzano FCJ College and Xavier College.

This was more than a lightweight ‘feel good’ story. It was a serious story about students and other volunteers doing important work that makes a real difference to the lives of those it assists.

As the program pointed out, many refugee and migrant children struggle with English and other subjects, and aren’t familiar with the Australian education system. So for 20 years and with little fanfare, the program known as Friday Night School has involved students from non-government schools volunteering to help out as tutors.

Some of the tutors, now senior secondary students, were once the beneficiaries of the program when they and their families first arrived in Australia.

The benefits go beyond the purely academic. The children in the program make new friends and feel more connected to Australian society and the community. Their parents also benefit. The program gives them hope.

The tutors benefit, too. As one of them told Lateline, giving back to the community helps the giver as much as it helps others.

As a result of the Lateline story, the project has been swamped with offers from schools and tutors wanting to take part – more than it can cope with, in fact.

While Friday Night School might be unique, it’s not an isolated example of students from non-government schools engaging with the community – and not just their immediate local community. In many cases this engagement involves international connections.

Students at St Catherine’s School, for example, send teacher resource kits and school supplies to schools in East Timor and Zambia. This not only helps students in developing countries, it also gives the St Catherine’s School students an insight into global issues.

Year 9 girls at Haileybury, Berwick Campus, raise funds for African schoolgirls – enough last year to help 12 students gain access to education that they otherwise might miss out on. This year, students at Sirius College, Keysborough Campus, are supporting a water well project in Tanzania. These are just a few examples. The list goes on.

This is important work, with students doing good things not only for others, but for themselves. Their engagement and connection with the wider community gives them a greater awareness not only of how other people live and of the challenges they face. They gain something else: an awareness of their responsibility to the global community.

This engagement is not news to parents and students in Independent education, but it’s worthy of wider acknowledgement. Along the way, it debunks the myth that Independent schools are socially isolated, insular and disconnected from the wider world. It’s a good story, not only worth telling but also worth celebrating.