As someone who went on exchange for a year and volunteered in ESN for almost three, it is hard to grasp how your CV has changed. On top of this, we are not applying and/or graduating (or continuing to study as the case may be) during normal times.
I have been applying for graduate jobs for the past two years (as a law student in the UK you apply two years in advance). Unemployment is scary, and a pandemic just adds to the nerves. Living in a world where many cafes and retail stores are shut, the pressure is a lot heavier for us to get a foot on the career ladder and not live in our parents’ house for the rest of our lives. Add to that: isolation from friends and family living far away, the inability to gain work experience due to businesses struggling to adapt to working remotely, and the drop from finishing a degree you’ve spent years on… it is understandable that when you are applying for jobs or (low and behold) get an interview, you have no idea how to market yourself and cannot fathom what skills or achievements you have managed to accomplish during the lockdown.
Worry no further! As someone that has sent in over 200 applications in the last six months (at least), I slowly learnt how to market myself, during which I discovered that I had several skills employers looked for. I just wasn’t aware of it as I had picked them up during informal education through volunteering in ESN. Hopefully, through this article, I will pass on what I learnt to you.
1. Interpersonal skills (also known as vocal communication, aka talking)
Before I started volunteering, I was a very introverted person. I still think I am, although many people who know me would disagree with this. This is because as an ESNer you are thrown into events and talking to students and other volunteers. Whether you are at an event your section is holding, or a regional platform with many other volunteers from a host of countries, you get good at hiding your anxiety and going over to introduce yourself to people.
And if you don’t go over and talk to someone? Someone will come and sit down beside you and have a conversation.
There is no way to avoid people!
And because of this, after a while, you get used to people coming and talking to you, and the conversations become easier.
And then you become the person that goes and introduces themselves to someone sitting by themselves and looking like they don’t know anyone.
Now, I’m not saying that it gets easier to approach people. I still panic at the beginning of events, wondering what I should say to them and what to talk about. However, you do learn how to introduce yourself and not look like a rabbit in the headlights.
This skill is invaluable as it removes what is known as social awkwardness. Not only this, but it bolsters your confidence when you realise that you have gained the ability to be less socially awkward! Employers love this as it means that a) you will be able to network and make small-talk with clients, and b) the office will not be a black hole of silence and discomfort.
So sell the fact that you attend events and *confidently* approach exchange students to tell them about ESN. Sell the fact that you liaise with students at student society fairs and ask them if they’ve ever thought about being a buddy. And sell the fact that you go on international weekend training events and network!
Plus, you get extra points if you sell the fact that you not only have interpersonal skills but have intercultural communication skills – i.e. you can talk to people from other countries and are not phased by their cultural differences.
In ESN, you work alongside other volunteers in your local section, board or committee. Teamwork, as a skill, is something you don’t learn much of during your studies unless your degree has a lot of group work. From planning a local event together to joining a national level communication committee and working out how to divide work, there is so much to talk about in a cover letter or interview.
Usually, when volunteering for a local section, you have to learn how to work with the rest of your local ESNers. Depending on whether you are an active volunteer or board member, you will have different responsibilities, but one thing is for certain – you will need to be able to work together to pull off whatever event or project you are working on. It doesn’t show the section off in a positive light if all the volunteers are emailing their international relations office individually requesting that one paid spot for the international ESN event…
Luckily, learning how to work in a team is something you will need on your CV or during an interview. In just about every interview I’ve had, I have been asked to give an example of when I had to work in a team. Because of this, I guarantee you will be asked this too.
On the flipside to teamwork comes leadership, an invaluable skill to have as it often shows that not only can you take leadership over projects, but that you can also manage yourself and work independently.
At one point during your ESN career, you will have had to take the initiative and lead a project (e.g. taking on the role of leader when planning an event) or managing a team (no matter how big or small it may be). Managing people is something you don’t get as much exposure to during university, nor do you get heaps of it from a part-time job. This is where volunteering definitely comes in.
Although you may be applying for a graduate position, one of the lower positions in a business, a part-time job during your studies, or even a swanky job in a business, it is unlikely you will need to utilise this skill often during the first few months. Regardless, it is something they look for – it gives you the potential for the future in their company. Whether you’ve been in charge of managing a team of event planners or taken the initiative to come up with and plan a campaign during a crisis (think of all those COVID-19 social media campaigns that were everywhere at the start of lockdown), being in charge of the trips team when I was a local ESNer meant that although I had no experience of planning events myself, I could talk about how I managed and led the planning through all stages during job interviews.
No matter how you get your leadership experience, I guarantee you that if you think long and hard enough, you will have had many run-ins with it as a volunteer. Make sure to dig these moments up and use them in an application; employers always like examples, and ESNers always love an opportunity to talk about ESN!
4. Organisation and Time Management
We’ve all been there – an essay was given to you weeks in advance, yet somehow you find yourself researching, planning and writing it all in a matter of days. Sometimes we have a justifiable excuse (my anxiety was horrendous last week and I couldn’t focus on anything), sometimes less so (the new season of XXX came out and I couldn’t stop myself binge-watching all 24 episodes). Rest assured, we have all been there. Sometimes, we have an ESN event. Don’t get me wrong, ESN is an important thing to dedicate some of your time to. You are helping your university with a load of incoming students every semester, you are helping the incoming students acclimatise to their host country, and you are helping incoming returning students to cling on to the international bubble they fell in love with on exchange. But, you are also helping yourself (see above if you have already forgotten what skills you can develop!). However, there is some juggling involved when you volunteer during your studies, job, and/or social life.
Luckily for you, I am here to tell you that it was all worth it. All this stress and struggle to meet coursework deadlines and attend ESN events has slowly but surely been helping you to learn how to manage your time effectively. Balancing deadlines is something that you will never escape, whether you are studying, working or retired (even social lives can get hectic). For this reason, employers love the ability to organise.
The past three interviews in a row I have gone through, one question that was posed to me was if there was a time I had competing deadlines and how I managed to meet all of them effectively. I’m sure I don’t have to state the obvious here, but if you are an ESN volunteer you will most definitely have an answer to this. Whether it is writing an essay due the Monday after an international training event or managing a group project while organising your section during Health and Wellbeing Week, you will have found a way to complete both, and hopefully with a positive result for all of it in the end.
Something that comes with the exposure to different cultures and people is that you come out of ESN a lot more open-minded than you go in.
When I started my journey as a volunteer in ESN, I was on exchange, and for the first time, living more than one hour away from my hometown. Being from Scotland, there is less of a multicultural nature in the small town I grew up in or the city I studied in, and studying a law degree only limited my contact with non-Scots and differing socio-economic discrepancies even more.
Moving to a new country and making a life there for a year meant I had to adapt and learn to appreciate that not everyone had the same life experiences as me. Putting this to one side, or even better, using them to an advantage, I quickly learned when completing group work for university courses or ESN events. You grow an appreciation for differences and an ability to work with anyone, regardless of where you’re from.
This is an ability I have discovered is rare in the workplace, from my own experiences and the experiences of others I have spoken to since deciding to write this article. Ask anyone in ESN and I guarantee you that they will have a story about their colleagues not because a client may not easily speak the same language or have a good grasp of English, or maybe take into account cultural differences when working with them.
Having this open-mindedness shows not only your multicultural adaptability but also your potential to adjust to new paradigms. If a company alters a system or their favoured way of doing things, you will acclimate more easily than others might. You will also be able to realise that there is more than one way of doing something and have better problem-solving skills. This is since although you may have a practised method of doing something if you are working with someone with a different background, you easily adapt and find new ways to work around your differences.
This talent is also useful to show that you are a problem-solver. You can put yourself in other people’s shoes and consider issues from their viewpoint, a skill many people lack, and just as many employers look for. Make sure to show this skill off, and it will get you far.
Hopefully, this will have given you an idea of how you really have developed as a person thanks to devoting your time to ESN a few hours every week. If you are in the midst of writing an application form or preparing for an interview, think about these skills and find examples for each, linking them to the job you are applying for.
And always remember – volunteering is a form of work experience. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise; you worked hard for an organisation you care about, and developed yourself along the way, preparing yourself for work. If that isn’t working experience, I don’t know what is. You learn soft skills and hard skills during your role (think social media insights, Excel spreadsheets, training workshops…) and this deserves recognition. Treat it as such on application forms and employers will too (most of the time).
The world is a scary place, and finding a job terrifying, especially right now. But you have the skills you need, and you have devoted yourself to volunteering for ESN. Now, go find a job you love, apply the skills you have developed from volunteering to it in your application, and submit it!