A Little Bit of Heart and So(U)L

A new community engagement and leadership program at UTS will provide an outlet for students to get involved with their local community and to understand the role of not-for-profit and community organisations.

Image: A Little Bit of Heart and So(U)L

So(U)L, due to be launch in early 2012, is a three-year extra-curricular program that encourages students to undertake volunteering projects and seek mentorship opportunities within their specific field of study. It assists students to find placements with charitable and not-for-profit organisations in Australia, combining the social benefits of community engagement with real-world professional experience.

"What we want to do with So(U)L is capture students or young people who are unsure of how they can contribute. We want to revive the term active citizenship' and the idea that you can still be active and you can make a change by helping out, by contributing, by volunteering," says Tam Ho, UTS's Community Coordinator.

"Today's students actually want to be involved with the world; they're not this apathetic group that a lot of people stereotype young people to be." In addition to the volunteering aspect, So(U)L will provide students with ongoing extra-curricular activities in the form of workshops, seminars, lectures and discussion groups. Participants will receive points for attending these activities and will need to reach a set target of 100 points of activities and 50 hours of volunteering over a three-year period to complete the program.

So(U)L's structure will encourage general volunteering in the first year, followed by a second year that will be more discipline-focused – assisting students to source an organisation or area that suits their academic background and individual skill set, preparing them for the final year, which will involve a more in-depth project.

"We hope that the program will instil in our students a sense of their social responsibility as citizens and give them experience working with the not-for-profit sector as well as an understanding of the important role that non-profits play in the community," says Professor Bill Purcell, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (International and Development), who initiated the program.

If existing UTS programs are any indication, the thirst for volunteering initiatives among the student population is still unquenched; programs like BUiLD and the Brennan Justice and Leadership Program have been inundated with eager participants since their inception. However, while BUiLD provides international volunteering and leadership opportunities and Brennan offers law faculty specific programs, So(U)L's major point of difference is its focus on supporting and engaging with local communities.

According to a 2010 Productivity Commission report, community organisations contribute $43 billion to Australia's GDP, making them a significant aspect of the Australian economic landscape. It's these organisations that So(U)L is targeting. For the first year, Ho says, So(U)L 's placements will be in Sydney, allowing students to put their energy and commitment into the city they live in. In future, the program will be expanded to include opportunities in regional, remote and Indigenous communities around Australia.

"What we're really hoping to produce is a generation of capable graduates who are going to be the future leaders of community organisations," says Ho.

So(U)L has received strong support from across UTS and the University's corporate partners have expressed strong interest in supporting the new program. While So(U)L has been developed largely to cater to the needs of students, it also offers a modified program structure for staff and alumni, who can sign up for a condensed version of the program and still reap the benefits of the various activities on offer. Alumni living overseas and international friends of the University will also have the opportunity to engage with the program, with seminars and lectures uploaded onto the website.

"One of the long-term goals is to hold an annual So(U)L driven community engagement day so that at least once a year alumni will be encouraged to take the day off to re-engage with the program and mentor students or go out and volunteer themselves," says Ho.

"We want to plant the idea in students, staff and alumni that it is important and valuable to give back to your community."

Words: Clare Thompson