The first line is always the hardest. We all know the feeling – staring at that blank page, great ideas in your head, but unsure where exactly to start. How do I capture the reader’s fleeting attention, before it is inevitably cast back to more pressing concerns, like Facebook memes?
The Media and Communications major at the University of Melbourne can help structure your work and improve your prose, but it cannot write that first sentence for you. The only way to develop one’s ideas into refined works is practice. And the best writing practice I acquired during my degree was in a professional context, through an ongoing volunteering experience in an international not-for-profit organisation.
Since early 2016, I have volunteered one day per week at Oxfam Australia. My primary duty is writing articles for Oxfam’s website, targeted toward students and teachers, promoting resources and events for schools and encouraging fundraising activities for Oxfam’s core campaigns. I have also analysed the success of website content using data analytics, managed social media accounts and developed strategies to increase readership and participation.
My experience at Oxfam has been second to none – I have gained practical skills and professional experience that no doubt will assist my future career. I applied principles and skills learned in class to a professional context, and saw the fruits of my labour published on a national website with thousands of visitors. Furthermore, my supervisors at Oxfam are very flexible, and understand that my university degree and paid employment must be my top priorities. So definitely volunteer or intern if you have the time and are financially able to do so.
In today’s hyper-competitive job market, attaining professional experience before graduating has become a material imperative. However, please proceed with caution! Internships and volunteer opportunities can be highly exploitative, offering few tangible benefits to the student whilst providing the organisation with a free worker. What may first appear to provide a ‘foot in the door’ may quickly descend into slave labour.
The Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) states that internships may only be unpaid if they are a mandatory requirement of an education or training program, or if there’s no “employment relationship”. This means the main benefit of the arrangement must be to the intern, the placement should be of a relatively short duration, and the work performed by the intern shouldn’t be integral to the functioning of the organisation. The only exempt organisations are not-for-profits.
My own volunteering experience was therefore lawful, as Oxfam Australia is a not-for-profit organisation, the arrangement was primarily for my own benefit, and the work performed was not supplementing or undercutting work by paid staff. The articles I wrote for Oxfam’s website were additional to those completed by their paid Digital Communications team.
Yet, most internships in Australia are not so accommodating, and many are outright unlawful. According to Interns Australia, approximately 86 per cent of internships are unpaid, 60 per cent of internships did not contribute to the student’s formal education, and almost 80 per cent of internships did not lead to permanent employment with the internship provider. That’s a depressingly bleak picture of the internship market, where students desperate to gain skills and experience are completing menial work that only benefits the company’s bottom line.
Having now graduated and earnestly looking for part-time jobs before applying for a Masters course, my volunteering experience will undoubtedly assist my job applications. But more importantly, I supplemented my degree with a valuable professional experience. If you plan on interning or volunteering during your degree, ensure that your experience is as rewarding as mine was, and don’t let corporations stress you out and waste your time. If you’re unsure where to apply, consider volunteering for a not-for-profit organisation – most NGOs do fantastic work for some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable communities around Australia and across the world.