Newsletter: Issue 1
Once upon a beginning... the SVA story
It was a wet, blustery evening back in November 1999 and my stomach was turning somersaults as I walked up the stairs of the John McInyre building. I was about to kick off SVA's second-ever infomation evening - and I was nervous. I was fairly sure that no one was going to turn up for the event, and I had visions of giving an awkward, stumbling address to a near-empty room.
Three friends, Chris Kidd, Mora McLagan, Rosa Hoshi and I had set up SVA a year before. I was in my third year at Glasgow and had just come back from a couple of years taken out of university to live and work in Nepal. Coming back to Glasgow after an eye-opening, challenging and unforgettable time in South Asia I was surprised that there were no opportunities at Glasgow for students to work on development projects during their summer break.
Mora had been in Nepal with me; Chris was just back from a year in Uganda; and Rosa had recently returned from a stint in India. Our world views and career plans had been turned upside-down by our time overseas, and we wanted to help other students have their own incredible, life-affirming experiences. Somehow we all fell in together and the idea of a student-run overseas volunteer development organisation was born. Of course it had “naïve failure” written over it from the get-go. Few of the people we first discussed it with thought it would ever come together. But we persevered: holding our first information session in November, organising a chilly January selection day of digging the garden between the QMU and Adam Smith, getting two groups of six together to go to Nepal, putting together a series of ridiculous fund-raising stunts, doing some Nepali language training, and finally bidding good-bye to our first two groups of SVA volunteers at the end of the summer term.
They had a week of training in the Kathmandu valley, then headed out to the Baglung and Dolakha districts of Nepal for almost two months to paint murals on school walls, build smokeless stoves, teach English, and help repair a school dorm for girls. At the time, the Maoist insurgency was spreading insidiously across the Middle Hills of Nepal, every month making yet another district off-limits.
We waited anxiously for news, and were relieved when they returned with nothing more serious than reports of the Kathmandu belly and great tales of trekking and rafting adventures.
Climbing those stairs in the John Mac, I had no idea whether SVA would have any sort of future, or whether it was just a one-off – a nice experience for a dozen people. After all, the odds were stacked against us. Keeping SVA ticking over was no small job, requiring hours of often-tedious work. We knew we wanted to keep it a student-run organisation, for students, by students. But we worried that student turnover would sap any institutional memory from the group, cutting off the contacts in developing countries that made the projects possible.
But, as I rounded the corner of the first floor I realised that something quite special was happening.
The first two groups had told their friends about SVA, and those people had told their friends. I’d feared we would have only a handful of people, but the room was already packed – standing room only – ten minutes before we were supposed to start.
I opened the evening and talked briefly about SVA. But what was most powerful was the first group of volunteers standing up, one by one, and talking about what their summer had meant to them – not only in terms of experiencing another culture, but realising they could make a tangible difference, and forging close friendships with their group at the same time.
That second year we were many times over-subscribed for places on SVA. It seemed to take on a life of its own: we sent groups to Senegal and Uganda as well as Nepal, were given an office space in the John McIntyre Building and set up a proper committee to manage the day to day running of SVA and raise more money for development projects overseas.
Since then, I’ve moved on. Chris, Mora and I still work on development issues and we’ve watched with admiration and pride from afar as SVA has gone from strength to strength. Over the past nearly fifteen years (can it really be that long?) SVA has sent hundreds, if not thousands of volunteers overseas and raised tens of thousands of pounds for projects that get directly implemented and make a real difference in the lives of people around the world.
We set out to prove that University of Glasgow students were neither lazy, self-centred beer drinking layabouts, nor naïve idealists who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. That it has continued so long and done so much is none of our doing, but rather a testament to the passion, hard work and dedication of generations of Glasgow students.
Thinking of SVA, the famous quote by the American anthropologist Margaret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
SVA is a Scottish Registered Charity: No. SC 030081 c/o. University of Glasgow SRC, The John MacIntyre Building, University of Glasgow, GLASGOW, G12 8QQ