Building a Meaningful Experience for Large Student Volunteer Teams

With March right around the corner, it’s that time of the year when many student affairs and services professionals are planning how and when to recruit student volunteer teams for the upcoming year. If the post-it notes surrounding my computer screen could tell a story, they would talk of how I’m thinking through that exact recruitment process -- how to communicate the experience to students, when to hold interviews, etc. Those ever-trusted post-it notes would also provide a glimpse into ideas of how I plan to support and engage student volunteer teams throughout the academic year.

Supporting student volunteer teams throughout their experience is continually at the top of my mind and planning. Supporting a large student volunteer team adds an extra layer of thinking. How can we maintain engagement for a large team throughout an academic year? Is it possible? How can we motivate volunteers throughout their experience? How do we help volunteers make meaning of their experience? So many questions! And so, so many, post-it notes.

Post-It Notes

In my day-to-day, I work with a team of 40 student volunteers who make up the peer mentorship team that support first-year students on campus. Nearing the end of my third year working with this team (that changes every academic year!), my goal has been to collaboratively craft an experience that is relevant, meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable for the team. In no glossy language, it’s hard work. Here are four motivations that I continually come back to…

Know the why of the program. Communicate it often.

There is an inherent value in knowing what we are working on, why we are working on it, and what we want to achieve. In a large team, it’s more likely that to be working with a group that learns and absorbs information in numerous ways and may need to receive communication via different mediums. Being clear on the program’s purpose and being prepared to communicate the purpose in different ways will help to ensure that all team members have the opportunity to interact with the purpose in a way that respects how they understand information.

Here are some tips:

• Start communicating the purpose of the program as early as the recruitment process and use various mediums to do so (i.e. face-to-face, written down, through an activity, in a diagram/infographic, etc.)

• Use established communications channels to regularly highlight the work of the team related to the program’s purpose, testimonials from program participants, and feedback from the community.

• Offer a team training session prior to the launch of the academic year in order to frame the purpose of the program from the perspective of the population that the team will be working with

Design opportunities for students to make meaning of their experience.

Equally important as knowing the purpose of the programs that students are participating in, is knowing why student volunteers are participating at all. What do they want to get out of the experience? How does this experience relate to their goals? Why did they sign up?

This year, a collection of peer groups across York University (including the one I work with!) are piloting the Career & Leadership strategy. It is, by no exaggeration, one of my favourite things. Starting the year with a goal-setting and action planning workshop, students began to make meaning of their experience by identifying what skills they’d like to advance throughout the year. From there, students are participating in a series of reflection opportunities to draw links between their experience and where and how they want to make an impact in their career.

Here are some tips:

• Understand a student’s personal reason for participating as early as possible by asking intentional questions during the interview process.

• Make reflection part of the experience by offering opportunities for check-ins with senior members of the team.

• Make learning part of the experience by offering training on topics that are relevant to the experience and that offer opportunities for personal development.

Listen, really listen, to feedback from your team.

With every experience, there will be ebbs and flows. Throughout all of that, student volunteers are taking stock of how they are enjoying their experience and whether it’s meaningful for them. They will have a lot to say about their experience! Listening to feedback and taking action when appropriate shows that their thoughts and ideas about the program are valuable.

Here are some tips:

• If the program spans an entire academic year, have check-ins with team members directly following the busyness of start-up to allow for an almost immediate reflection and to discuss what’s coming next.

• Encourage peer-to-peer feedback by establishing mini-teams led by senior team members. Let the team know that senior team members check-in regularly with the staff supervisor and that this channel of communication is effective.

• Respond to feedback through concrete action, further discussion, or explanation.

Help your team build relationships and embrace the fun.

Over the past academic year, one of the loudest and clearest positives from the peer mentor team that I work with is that they get to meet others through their experience. Being part of a large student volunteer team opens each student up to building relationships with peers that they may not have had the venue to do before.

Here are some tips:

• Provide opportunities for relationship building (Pro Tip: Food is helpful here! Think about the possibilities of team pizza making, team cake decorating, or fun over indoor s’mores).

• Set the example by making it part of your weekly schedule to spend time getting to know your team members.

• Bring your authentic self to your team and encourage your team to do the same.

With recruitment season right around the corner, here’s to working through how to build our student volunteer teams and planning to create a relevant, meaningful, challenging, and enjoyable experience for your teams.

Bonding In the spirit of sharing and continuous improvement. What tips/tricks/strategies do you use to engage large student volunteer teams over an academic year? Let me know @amandasartori_ !