UCL News


Student Reviews – Volunteering with Near Peers

21 February 2020

Student Journalist Alina shares her experience volunteering to mentor Sixth Form language students online through Near Peers – and interviews Terry King, founder of the initiative.

Volunteering with Near Peers

Working with Near Peers was an opportunity that quite literally fell into my lap. I was having lunch at a table outside Printroom Café on a breezy October day last year, when a gust of wind blew a mislaid flyer onto my table. On it was an open invitation to all UCL foreign language students to participate in an e-mentorship programme where they would help promising Sixth Form students from underrepresented socio-economic groups to refine their foreign language skills through online correspondences.

Not only was this unlike any other type of volunteering I had heard of before, but upon my first meeting with Terry King, founder and director of the programme, I also discovered that the initiative was just as unique as the way I’d found out about it.

A year later, I sat down with Terry for a more in-depth talk about what it is that makes Near Peers so different to other initiatives, and how it all started.

"I was a teacher in state grammar schools for 40 years and, the very week I retired, I was contacted by a friend to work on a project in the Danish department at UCL", Terry began. "As soon as I arrived at the university, I realised that there is very little communication between secondary education and higher education institutions. In all the time I was working as a teacher, advising students about their careers, I didn’t really know what was going on in universities or what the student experience would be like today, so I thought, who better to tell them than actual university students?".

Combining that with his interest in promoting the study of foreign languages, Terry was inspired to create Near Peers. An online space where Sixth Form students are paired up with university students who can help them in their language learning and demystify the process of getting into a university like UCL, the initiative is especially helpful for prospective first generation students who might not have received that information anywhere else.

A first generation student myself, I know exactly how valuable a conversation with someone who has already “been there, done that” can be.

"In fact, a lot of the people who choose to volunteer with us, like you, see the programme as something they wish they had themselves when they were applying for university", Terry says to me.

"Of course, it’s hard to say in quantitative terms how much of a difference the programme makes, but from the feedback we get from Sixth Form students and teachers it looks like many of those who take part end up continuing their studies at university level and quite often that involves a foreign language, too. One of the mentees from last year, for example, is now studying in SELCS and this year he is a mentor. It’s nice to see how his experience has come full circle."

When I ask him what’s in it for us, the volunteers, Terry stays away from the typical answer.

"For me of course it’s life-affirming, being able to continue to contribute in a meaningful way even once I’ve retired. But for you, the volunteers, it’s precious work experience, especially for those who might want to pursue teaching as a career. But regardless of their field, I recently heard from a former student that she spent half her job interview being asked about it because it was something the interviewers hadn’t come across before. It made her stand out."

And on the topic of standing out, I ask, what is it that makes Near Peers so different from other initiatives we can find at the Volunteering Fair?

"First of all, we don’t have a stall at the fair. The programme is not part of some big organisation behind the scenes. It’s just me and the UCL students that so generously offer their time. The project is exclusive to UCL, and I think it works so well because the language department here is very good and the students who get involved every year are incredibly dedicated."

"Of course it’s not without its limitations and difficulties", he adds after a short pause. "Sometimes the younger students are a bit shy and communication drops, so I have to intervene and give them a little nudge to keep them on track. But overall, I’m very happy about the progress we make every year, you’re talking to a happy guy here who has something useful to do and is enjoying it."

"And tell your volunteers", he adds in closing, "that this is the kind of satisfaction you can’t get anywhere else!"

Alina Martin