Volunteering Comes Up Trumps

Carol van den Berg

7 March 2011

Volunteering Comes Up Trumps
Most Kiwis are familiar with the term 'Scarfies”, probably for all the wrong reasons.  
The term refers of course to students of Otago University and is possibly one of endearment only to the students. The community around Dunedin's world-famous university brace themselves annually for the fresh intake of young people, most of whom will become part of the culture at Otago University.
It's this culture that has been given so much negative attention in the press and it's easy to see why; a lot of it is entrenched in a vortex of drinking and disorderly behaviour.  
According to Aaron Thomson, director of Student Life, there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, 85% of students are not residents of Dunedin or New Zealand and therefore, have no connection to their new community. Secondly, students congregate in a small area known as “the ghetto” which is where all their housing is located. Thirdly, most students don't have a car so they consequently hang out together and drink.  
Mr Thomson says that the majority of students miss out on visiting some amazing places in and around Dunedin because they get trapped in this unhealthy culture of the ghetto. He says, “Student life is different to what the university would have them be involved in.”
It is out of this malaise that the idea of the Scarfie Card was born. As part of his role on campus, Thomson delivers a presentation to the students about the problem of alcohol, but he can now also offer a solution.    
Like playing cards, there are 52 Scarfie Cards in a deck which will be given to students, free of charge. Each card showcases the beauty of Dunedin, giving students ideas of places to explore or where they can go for adventure.  
The scheme is managed through a website, www.scarfiecard.co.nz and attracts two groups of people; residents who have a list of things they need help with, and students who are looking for volunteering opportunities.   The catch line of the website is “Volunteering Made Simple”.
The website is a platform to create a meaningful connection between the university's 22,000 students and the 100,000 residents.   It's a partnership between Student Life, Otago University Students' Association and the Dunedin City Council.   Students can choose online, the task they wish to be involved in and when they would like to carry it out. They build up points for the number of hours volunteered and these can be cashed in for rewards, like ski passes and concert tickets, provided by the sponsors.
Students also build an online profile which provides feedback on their work standards. This can then be included in their employment application giving students an edge when entering the very competitive job market.  
Mr Thomson says, “The scheme aims to address the disconnect on several levels, including the reputation students have of smashing and demolishing the place. We need to facilitate the opportunity to create respect between scarfies and residents.”   He adds that students are less likely to cause damage when they understand that this is the residents' “home turf.”  
The scheme's pilot will be launched during the university's first ten weeks, commencing with Orientation, or O week and will not be promoted as an alternative to alcohol. Rather, it will be promoted as a way of connecting with locals. The pilot will involve 500 Castle Street residents and two residential colleges, partnering with Age Concern as well as the North East Valley Project, to provide tasks.
The Scarfie Cards initiative has been very well received by Otago University who is helping fund part of the scheme as they feel it helps provide a good message to potential students.