Rachel Tait

Rachel Tait, International Relations & French

Rachel moved into the charity sector after undertaking a graduate scheme and is now the Volunteering Manager for Student Hubs.

Having gone to secondary school in America, I was pretty clueless about UK universities, so I browsed websites and spoke to family friends to decide where to apply.

My initial criteria was somewhere with excellent combined degree options so that I could easily study multiple subjects, a strong year abroad programme so that I could live in France for a year, and a commitment to student volunteering so that I could learn more about the local community and make a positive difference while I was studying.

I was accepted to Exeter and a couple of other universities, and at that point I visited the campuses. People always say that you'll just know the right university when you visit it, and I never really believed it but that is honestly what happened for me! I really enjoyed walking around the Exeter campus, hearing about the combined honours courses, and most importantly chatting to current students about all the extra-curriculars that students do outside of their studies... having interests and friends beyond the classroom and library was very important to me! I knew I wanted a campus university, but having the beautiful city of Exeter on your doorstep, London only 2.5 hours away by train, and Exeter airport with direct flights to Amsterdam where my parents were living was also really important.

While I did enjoy my degree, my best memories are from my activities outside the classroom and library. I explored Exeter and Devon with friends, walking in Dartmoor and heading to the beaches in 3rd term when the sun was shining.

I spent my year abroad working for an international wine distributor in Bordeaux, France, and got to visit all my other language friends who were living in different European cities that year.

I also volunteered with Exeter Student Volunteers as a 1st, 2nd and 4th year, and on Welcome Team in 2nd and 4th year. I made fantastic friends through volunteering, learnt a lot about myself as a leader and team-worker, and ultimately got a place in a competitive charity sector graduate scheme as a result, which kick-started my career in the charity sector.

Exeter students are ambitious, but they maintain a broad range of interests during their studies, and there is a real sense of fun and community on and off campus.

I remember visiting the Careers Service in 1st year when I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. At that point, I just picked up some brochures and books that then sat on my shelves for the rest of the year.

In second and fourth year, I benefitted a lot from the Careers Service's training sessions, speaker events and one-to-one advice. I went to CV and cover letter clinics, mock interviews, and a few panel discussions about careers in different sectors which helped me to decide on the charity sector, and taught me a lot about how to tell my own story and see my skills and experience through an employer's eyes. I also got some one-to-one CV advice during my final year when I was applying for jobs, and the staff were really helpful in tailoring my CV to the specific roles I had in mind.

If you're pursuing a career that your friends or parents don't know a lot about, having additional support and advice from your university is a massive advantage.

In my final year, I got a place on the Worthwhile graduate scheme which aims to get more talented graduates into challenging careers in the charity sector. I started the scheme a month after graduating and spent 10 months at a charity called Student Hubs. I worked full-time for them with students from Imperial College London. There were 12 of us on the grad scheme that year, and we all had different placements then came together once a month for a day of training. The training focussed on transferable skills that would help us perform well and progress both in the charity sector and beyond, and I learnt so much on those days!

When the grad scheme finished, I applied for and was offered a national Manager position with Student Hubs in their London office. A year later, in June 2015, I was promoted again and am now the Volunteering Manager for the charity, overseeing 2 of our key programme areas delivered at 10 different universities, and I also manage an annual nationwide campaign called Student Volunteering Week (which Exeter take part in every year along with over 100 other unis & colleges!).

I'm lucky enough to work somewhere where everyone in the organisation is enthusiastic and genuinely committed to the organisation, so even if I'm just sitting at my desk for a day, I enjoy the company of my colleagues, and we've got a very social work culture where we make time for each other beyond working hours.

Working for a small, innovative organisation means that you'll get opportunities to step outside your job description and try loads of different things. It's not like being in an organisation where the different departments are on different floors, I can see all aspects of the charity's operations and activities in one room! The variety of work that I do as a result is very motivating and I've had the chance to try lots of things and specialise in what I enjoy the most as a result. From programme design to fundraising, stakeholder management to monitoring & evaluation, training to events management, I've been given a chance to try (and sometimes fail!) at a wide range of work.

My role encompasses activities in ten different locations in England, so that's an exciting challenge to get to know the different local teams, understand the unique contexts, and tailor my strategy and support accordingly. I really enjoy solving problems in teams and enabling people to overcome a challenge that they're facing - I get to do a lot of teaching and coaching with the local staff and when you help someone else to have a light bulb moment it's very rewarding.

I also get to work with some of our big external partners and funders, including large Trusts & Foundations, national and international charities, and our corporate partners. Meeting those people is always interesting because I get to learn about so many different careers and see lots of different work environments, a highlight has been attending meetings on the 40th floor of buildings in Canary Wharf with views across London. This was then followed by a camping trip outside Oxford with 60 students and staff from across our network, so my work definitely keeps me on my toes!

The relevance of your studies often depends on your degree. In my case, International Relations and French equipped me in different ways.

During my International Relations studies, I developed my skills in research, critical thinking, articulating arguments, and an attention to detail in written work. These are all very useful for any tasks involving problem solving, fundraising applications and contributing opinions within teams.

Meanwhile during my French studies, I developed my creativity, public speaking and listening skills, which are invaluable for all of the teamwork, programme design and training that I do.

So actually the combination of the two has set me up well. I was also lucky enough to do a Year Abroad work placement, working full time for an international wine distributor in France, which gave me a taste of full-time working life and the importance of building effective working relationships and managing your workload over a long period of time rather than working to short-term deadlines which is often the case during a degree. This definitely helped with my transition into full-time working life in London.

The charity sector is tough to get into to (especially if you're looking to start with paid work!) because of funding limitations, and because a lot of small/medium charities aren't able to invest in young, passionate staff in the same way that bigger charities or corporates can. That being said, if you can find a charity that shares your values, is tackling an issue that you're passionate about, and is willing to give you exciting responsibilities and training/development opportunities, then it can be one of the best sectors to work in!

If you're interested in the charity sector, I would definitely recommend finding volunteering or internship opportunities at Exeter and in local charities while you're still a student. Showing that you understand the challenges faced by charities and their beneficiaries will be an advantage in applications and interviews. With limited resources, charities invest in people who are proactive and take initiative to drive the organisation forward, so practice this in your studies and extra curriculars so that you've got good evidence to use in applications and interviews.

The exciting thing about the charity sector is that there are roles within it to suit every degree background and every skill set, it's just that they're sometimes not as well advertised or supported as in other sectors. So if you are passionate about social or environmental issues and want to get a real sense of what it's like to tackle those issues on the ground, think about what you might be able to contribute and what you're looking for in an employer and get some high-quality voluntary or work experience while you're a student. 1 week of challenging work is worth more than 3 months of photocopying!

Check out graduate schemes like Worthwhile, CharityWorks and Year Here, which look for ambitious, talented graduates to tackle the issues that our society is facing and kickstart their careers in the sector. Websites like CharityJob and the voluntary sector bit of the Guardian jobs website are useful to get a sense of what jobs are out there at different levels.

I'm definitely going to stay at Student Hubs for another year. Long-term I'd be interested in seeing another side of charities and social impact, perhaps working for a trust or foundation that funds charities, or in a social responsibility/community investment department for a corporate. I'd also love to use my French more and live in a French speaking country for a few years, I've missed it ever since finishing my year abroad. I'm a big believer in being open-minded and developing your skills and experience in a way that makes you adaptable and resilient to change - so who knows where I'll end up!

From my experience, self-awareness is a crucial skill to have no matter what stage of your career you're at. If you know your strengths and areas for improvement, you'll be able to make strategic choices about the jobs you apply for, the opportunities you pursue within your role and the help/advice that you seek from colleagues or external mentors. You can develop your self-awareness by putting yourself forward for challenging opportunities within your studies or extra-curriculars, asking people that you trust for honest feedback (positive & negative), and taking some time to reflect on what you enjoy or don't enjoy about your various studies/volunteering/committee roles/jobs. For me, this changes and evolves over time, but reflecting on it has really helped me to feel confident at work.