City University: Where students offer more to Islington than just night-time economy

Ben Robinson, community volunteering officer at City University, is recognised by vice-chancellor Pr

Ben Robinson, community volunteering officer at City University, is recognised by vice-chancellor Prof Sir Paul Curran. Picture: Karen Hatch - Credit: Archant

University students are regularly stereotyped as lazy, with no feel for the area they work – and play – in. Ben Robinson, community volunteering officer at City University in Finsbury, has other ideas.

In his nine months in the job, Ben has managed to attract 751 students to apply and take part in some sort of volunteering.

It means under his watch, students are making a difference to the Islington community.

Take his Roof Over London project, for instance.

Changes to legislation mean many private renters no longer have access to Legal Aid.

He and colleague Prof Dan Wilshere enlisted qualified lawyers to take part in monthly housing advice sessions. They cover everything from illegal evictions to retrieving deposits.

But the key thing is student volunteers work alongside the lawyers.

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“That is concrete, invaluable experience,” says Ben, 31. “Students give advice that otherwise they would not be allowed to provide on their own.”

Other schemes include the Senior Citizens’ Venture. Students host weekly activities to meet and entertain elderly people.

Ben, of Old Street, says: “The main reason people come is obvious: volunteering looks great on the CV.

“But at the same time, the students get something more out of it. They feel empowered because they make a difference in the community, and to people’s lives.”

A former City student himself, Ben had a simple approach to attracting people.

“It’s like sales and marketing. I try to make volunteering opportunities fun, or at least appealing.

“I also make sure anyone who sends us a message always gets a reply. Volunteering departments are typically under-resourced and it means people don’t necessarily get a response. It was one of my biggest bugbears as a student so I ensure others don’t experience that.”

For his efforts, Ben recently won recognition for “outstanding personal achievement” at the university’s annual vice-chancellor awards.

“It felt fantastic, but the weird thing is that I was rewarded for what everyone else – the volunteers – has done! All I’ve done is help them along and channel their energy.”