5th June 2023

For Volunteers Week 2023, we are celebrating STAR volunteers and their contributions. There are thousands of students dedicating their time to make the UK a more welcoming place for refugees and people seeking asylum. In this blog, Peter talks to us about his experience of running Cardiff STAR’s conversation club, which sees 40-50 participants every week.

What is your experience of working with STAR?

I’m one of the Conversation Club Coordinators at Cardiff STAR and have been involved for the past 2 years. We run a weekly student-led conversation club with our partner organisation Space4U, which is really well established and has been going for over a decade. Space4U is a great bridge between the community and us as students. It’s been great to have the support of people who have so much insight from previous years but who also want to listen to students’ ideas and let us lead on student-led projects. It was also important for us to use a space that is well known by the community – people know Space4U, know the space, and consider it to be a bit of a hub, a meeting point and a safe space.

If you’re setting up a volunteering project for the first time, it’s important you allocate roles. Everyone on the Cardiff STAR committee have their roles and also feed into other things, and for Polly and me, our role as class coordinators is to design weekly prompt sheets, communicate details of the sessions with the learners, and make sure at least one of us is there every week. The prompt sheets we use are only there as a prompt and generally lead to a huge array of discussions, but can be helpful in encouraging conversations with people who haven’t come along before. It’s important to have learners involved in this process – we have topics that they have chosen or suggested that they want to talk about. 

Before the class starts, people go upstairs and natter away for around 30 minutes. This is something we didn’t do last year and it’s been really lovely to see that happening – it shows that conversation classes aren’t always just sitting at a table learning English in a formal way, it can be having a conversation over a cup of tea. The format of a conversation club can be a new thing for the learners. It’s a much more relaxed environment – it’s not part of an educational institution or studying for a qualification. We’re not teaching English, we’re speaking English. Sometimes the class is over before you know it because the time flies by so quickly!

What are some of the highlights of running a conversation club like this?

Doing STAR has been a key way of getting away from the ‘student bubble’ and getting involved in my community at a local level. It’s important to connect with other parts of the community, especially with people who have newly arrived to the UK, and STAR is a structured way of doing that. A highlight of volunteering is the friendships you form with other students and learners.

Volunteering with refugees helps you get a bigger perspective on life. It’s easy to feel trapped in the stress of university, but going along to the conversation club helps you to understand that there’s so much stuff going on in the world. How can it not impact you? You turn up and they smile and listen to your stories and are worried about how stressed you are about your exams and whether you handed in your essay on time. In my mind it’s extraordinary how people can go beyond their own traumatic experiences and worry and care about students.

The structure and support given to us through STAR National, our partner organisation, and the help of STAR’s ESOL consultants gave us the groundwork for a successful project and made us feel comfortable, especially if you haven’t been involved in something like this before. It’s reassuring that we’re not going in blind and that we have the support from people who have done this before. 

Why did you want to get involved in creating change? 

I joined STAR just before the invasion of Ukraine. I heard through friends, family and on social media that everyone was feeling so helpless, and like there was nothing they could do. But through STAR, there are ways to get involved. If you’re putting energy into complaining about government policy, or the new home secretary, or other things happening in the world, you can use that energy and put it into creating change in your community. We have a position of privilege as students in that we have spare time. If you want to do something and you have the time, get involved. Speaking English is so important for people who have newly arrived in the UK, or for people who have been here for 10 years and are struggling, and we play a small part in facilitating that skill. We do the conversation club to help people practice their English, but also to help people feel welcome. 

Why should other people get involved in STAR, or in campaigning/volunteering in general?

If you want to get stuck in – do it. Don’t wallow in that feeling of hopelessness, but get out and have conversations with people who are doing things in their community. Volunteering as part of a larger STAR network challenges the idea that your contribution is small. The voluntary sector relies on collective work – if everyone thought that they couldn’t make a difference as an individual, no one would be volunteering. As STAR student leaders, we’re a small cog in a very big wheel making the UK a more welcoming place for refugees.

If you’re a member of a STAR group, get in touch with our Campaigns Manager Siobhán for advice about planning campaign actions.

If you’re interested in joining or setting up a STAR group, get in touch with our Student Network Organiser Lois.

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