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How do you want to remember your time at university?

When I first came to UTS as a naive 18-year-old fresh out of high school, all I wanted from my uni experience was to blend in, make a few friends and graduate with minimal dramas. I was more concerned about finding someone to sit next to in a lecture than I was about setting myself up for future career success, and I suspect this attitude was typical of many of my fellow first years.

One morning, having just endured a gruelling lecture on the joys of the Enlightenment and the teachings of Foucault, I was on my way to the food court when a bright blue poster caught my eye.

“Give back to the community!” it screamed. “Make friends, volunteer, have fun – apply for The Big Lift now!”

I was tempted to keep my head down, walk past the poster and continue on with the comfortable life I had carved out for myself. It would have been the easier thing to do. I had started to settle into the daily routine – wake up, travel to uni, sit in class, eat, go home. Rinse, repeat. I just had to keep at it for three years and then I was out of there.

But a niggling voice at the back of my mind whispered, ‘Is this really what you want to remember about your time here?’

It would be nice to say that in a fit of altruism and generosity of spirit, I signed up for The Big Lift there and then, eager to start my involvement in the community. In truth, I joined two weeks later after much deliberation and for a much less noble reason – I desperately wanted to make friends.

Fast forward to July and there I was, off to volunteer with a bus-load of 40 strangers, completely out of my depth and comfort zone – and absolutely loving it. Sure, it was uncomfortable to begin with – but for the first time since I had started uni, I actually felt like I was doing something meaningful.

When I say the trip was life-changing, I mean it in the full sense of the term and not just as a tired cliché. Before I went on The Big Lift, I was a shy, lonely kid who was destined to graduate from UTS with not much more than a degree and uncertain career prospects in the competitive communications industry. Going away for a week to volunteer in under-resourced rural communities turned out to be exactly the wake-up call I needed.

I stepped off that bus with more confidence, maturity and – most importantly – a newfound passion for extracurricular pursuits.

Once I started looking, I discovered UTS offers an incredibly diverse range of options for students looking to go beyond the classroom. BUiLD (Beyond UTS International Leadership Development program) gave me the chance to travel and volunteer in Cambodia, South Africa, the Philippines and Thailand – all incredible experiences. Through my involvement with BUiLD, I soon found myself in the position of President of the BUiLD Student Society – the social club that supports students in the program.

To be honest, I remember feeling pretty terrified at the time. ‘You have absolutely no idea what you’re doing!’ whispered my inner self-doubt. ‘Why would they entrust such an important position to someone as inexperienced as you?’

But through my experiences with the club, I soon learned a valuable lesson – that it was okay to make mistakes. Throughout the year, I made heaps of mistakes – things like forgetting to record attendance at events or leaving crucial merchandise orders too late. But the most important thing was that we learnt from those mistakes – and you can bet we always made sure to order things well in advance from then on!

We must have done a few things right as well, because in 2013 the BUiLD Student Society was chosen from over 140 UTS student clubs as the ActivateUTS Club of the Year, something I’m incredibly proud of because it really proves that one of the best ways to be successful is to just take a crack at it!

Every extracurricular activity I’ve been involved in has taught me valuable lessons or new skills. Before I joined the Peer Network – a group of experienced UTS student volunteers who welcome and connect new students during Orientation – the mere thought of talking to strangers made my palms sweaty and my throat dry. Now I see it as an exciting chance to hear someone’s story and learn from them.

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In a poetic twist, I became the President of The Big Lift, and I’ve learnt so much about managing and leading teams to work towards a common goal. It’s been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life so far, and probably one of the best memories I’ll take from uni (sorry to all my tutors, but 9am lectures on Marxism don’t quite make the cut!).

My involvement in clubs also led me to run as a student representative on the board of ActivateUTS, the organisation that manages many of the social programs and activities on campus. Being on that board has given me insight into the top-level strategic operations of a large organisation – something most students wouldn’t be exposed to at uni. And travelling overseas has broadened my world-view and made me much more understanding of cultural differences.

The name ‘extra’-curricular is misleading because in today’s day and age, graduates are going to need every advantage they can get to stand out from the crowd.

That’s why I feel so strongly about this – far too often friends on the cusp of graduation have admitted to me that they wish they’d done more with their time at uni. As someone who has experienced firsthand the benefits of getting involved, I urge all my fellow students to find something they’re passionate about and invest some time and effort into it.

Someone once asked me what I would remember when I looked back on my time at UTS. Would I remember countless hours spent studying, time wasted commuting back and forth from class, and all those last-minute assessment all-nighters? Or would I remember sitting around a campfire with my fellow volunteers under a starry sky in the countryside, the thrill of meeting hundreds of new friends during Orientation, or spontaneously dancing on the streets of Manila with students from every corner of the globe?

So to every student reading this, I want to pose that same question: What will you remember about your time at UTS?

If you’re not satisfied with the answer, it’s never too late to start making those memories.

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