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Katherine Bloor is a BA French and Russian student, and has been volunteering with the UMWEP (United Migrant Workers Education Project) at ‘Unite the Union’, Holborn. She volunteers there every Saturday morning. She took some time out to tell us about her experiences there.

What do you do as a volunteer? Describe your typical session.

As a volunteer at UMWEP I teach an English class to adult migrant workers, the majority of whom come from South America and speak Spanish as their first language. Sometimes I teach alongside another tutor, sometimes I take the classes on my own. Each class differs in content, but is generally focused on both language development and cultural awareness. For example, UMWEP aims to inform migrant workers of their rights as inhabitants of the UK. Typically, I spend a lot of time discussing employment rights, the benefits of being a union member, and other fundamental aspects of life in the UK, such as the NHS. As well as this, I try to encourage the students each week to practice their spoken, aural and written skills in English, mostly following an online ESOL course, but also using a range of pre-planned or improvised language activities. The classes are a very relaxed and enjoyable and I have gotten to know each student personally as the year has progressed. As well as learning about life in the UK, the students also share lots of incredible stories about their own cultures and backgrounds.

What were your first impressions when you started volunteering?

My first impression of UNITE as a whole was the overwhelming sense of community amongst students and other members. The learning environment seemed to be a place of security and genuine enjoyment for everybody involved. I particularly remember how, from the very first day, every student was so eager to learn. I thought that UMWEP’s aims were perfectly focused on enabling a group of vulnerable people to integrate into a new society by informing them of their rights as human beings and as workers in the UK. On a more personal level, at the start of the volunteering experience I was also very nervous about taking such a leading role in a classroom environment. Speaking in front of large groups of people has never come naturally to me and confidence was a particular challenge which I faced.

How do you feel about it now?

I have continued to witness all the ways in which UMWEP enables each student to make amazing personal progress. After a year of volunteering I have seen the genuine improvements that students have made in their understanding of English as a language, as well as their development of cultural awareness and of their individual rights. I have also learnt a lot about the injustices faced by many migrant workers in the UK, and feel very grateful that an organisation exists where people can get trustworthy advice regarding their personal safety and wellbeing. I also feel much more confident in my own ability to talk in front of large groups of people and take on a teaching role, which is something I never imagined myself capable of.

What’s the best thing about volunteering?

By far the best thing about this volunteering experience has been the people who I have met along the way. As well as the kindness and enthusiasm from the tutors at UMWEP, the students are among some of the most inspiring and grateful people I have ever known. They teach me just as much as I teach them, and I love to learn about their languages and cultures as well as informing them about mine. It is also a very rewarding feeling to see them make progress with their language skills!

And what’s the most challenging thing?

One challenge of working with non-native English speakers is definitely communication. Knowing that I am speaking in front of a group of people who cannot understand everything I say has taught me to be constantly aware of how I can communicate myself to people clearly at all times. I have had to work on explaining complicated ideas in a simple manner and this is something I have found very challenging along the way.

How has volunteering changed you?

Volunteering with UMWEP has not only helped me to gain much more confidence in my own abilities, but has opened my eyes to many important issues which I was previously oblivious to, such as the genuine difficulties faced by immigrants to the UK. I have learnt about the injustices they often face at the hands of their employers, and I am much more aware of the necessity of having a good level of English language competency in order to avoid such difficulties. As a result of this, I will always be in support of education for everybody in the community, particularly free education for vulnerable people.

What difference do you feel you’ve made by volunteering?

I feel that I have helped students to improve their comprehension of many aspects of the English language, their understanding of life in the UK, and their confidence in communicating themselves to others in English. I feel like alongside other tutors, I have contributed towards creating a safe and happy environment where everybody has the right to learn and feel secure.

Would you recommend the project to anyone else?

I would, without a doubt, recommend this project to anybody who feels they want to work with other, often vulnerable, people. A desire to share your knowledge of the English language and culture is a good starting point, but I honestly think this project would benefit from the help of anybody with the passion and enthusiasm to help others! It is rewarding in so many ways, and the people involved are kinder and more inspiring than I could ever have imagined.

To find out about volunteering opportunities available for UCL students, visit