For most people, the Olympics won't start until the TV cameras are trained on the torch as it blazes its way into Sydney Sept. 15. But the preparations have long been under way - and athletes vying for a spot on their national team aren't the only ones breaking records. Australian university students are seizing upon the Games' real-life opportunities in unprecedented numbers.
Programming computers, interviewing volunteers, and designing publications are just some of the tasks they're taking on. As members of the Olympic News Service, students were poolside at the May swim trials, elbowing in with professional journalists to get quotes from Australia's dripping darlings.
It is all part of a pioneering venture in truly integrating the
academic community into the Olympics. And recruiters and educators alike are hoping that students' enthusiasm and high profile will significantly boost the importance of volunteerism in a country where that tradition is relatively weak.
"We feel that by involving the students, it's a three-way win," says Brendan Lynch, manager of recruitment for the Olympics and Paralympics (the competition among disabled athletes that runs Oct. 18-29). "It's great for us to be getting good, committed volunteers. It's good for the universities - providing real-life practical work for [students], which is always a challenge. And of course, it's great for the students to be a part of something as big and far-reaching as the Olympic Games."
The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) is filling 6,000 of the estimated 50,000 volunteer slots with students.
The relationships forged with universities range from simple to comprehensive: Schools have opened their doors to SOCOG recruiters looking for people with skills in such areas as technology and languages. A number have offered academic or work-experience credit, and a few have gone so far as to develop courses specifically linked to the Games.
Many of the young people who have worked directly with Mr. Lynch's operation come from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). Its modern, urban campus is just around the corner from SOCOG headquarters, and its involvement has been just as close. A UTS course, "Volunteer Recruitment for Major Events," evolved through a collaboration between management professors, university administrators, and a SOCOG official who envisioned having students interview the throngs of potential volunteers.
The 140 students who signed on broke the record for enrollment in an elective when it was first offered in March last year, says Keri Spooner, co-founder of the course and a senior lecturer at the UTS School of Management. Word spread quickly among students eager to get hands-on experience.
After a brief, intensive training period, the students were required to do 60 hours of interviewing - screening people for everything from driving shuttles to answering phones.
From make-believe to the real thing
"It was the most worthwhile thing I've ever done," says Bridget O'Neill, now in her second year of a three-year bachelor's degree in business. She enjoyed it so much that she did 84 hours of interviewing, and tracked what she learned through an analytical journal-writing assignment.
"It gave me the most unbelievable skills in communication, in talking to people face to face, finding out different people's ideas on things - just the skills of interviewing," she says.
Yash Gandhi smiles in agreement. He's a third-year business major from Bombay who was also among the first group to take the class (which will be offered each semester, even when the Olympics close up shop). "At Uni, you're doing presentations and make-believe things," he says. "This is real life. You're out there, this is what you will do in the future."
The students saw themselves progress from working in pairs and disguising their nervousness to knowing the questions by heart and feeling at ease with anyone who walked through the door.
Not all the interviewees were as comfortable. "Some people found it interesting to be interviewed by someone who they felt was a lot younger than they were expecting," Lynch says. "We tried to prepare the students for that in the training. I guess 90 percent of the comment was favorable."
Several hundred students have conducted more than 50,000 interviews, and Lynch says the advantages far outweighed any glitches. "You can imagine, for someone in a position like mine, it can get a bit stale," he says. "But to go down into the interview room and see the enthusiasm of the students as the volunteers come in, that really gives the whole organization a lift."
The rewards of unpaid work
The course's organizers hoped that it would also contribute to a legacy of volunteerism across Australia. "There is a lack of volunteer tradition in the Australian community when one compares that to the situation in the US," says Ms. Spooner. "It has to do partly with the American tax system, but the notion of the corporation and the individual making contributions to society is a stronger part of the values system in the US."
Spooner's research has centered on the need for young people to be more conscious of their voluntary work - everything from babysitting to coaching a neighborhood sports team. So the course was designed to help students identify "the role of volunteerism in helping to develop the skills which might bridge the gap between unpaid and paid work," she explains.
Colin Innes, a UTS management lecturer and the course's other founder, says there were initial difficulties in meshing the expectations of students and SOCOG staff. They had to work out kinks in scheduling, and students in the first class requested that they be given a special certificate that served as a record of their participation. But he says the dominant response was pure enthusiasm. "The overwhelming feedback from the students was [about] the impact of the people who volunteered, their spirit," he says. Seeing the volunteers' desire to serve inspired many students to stay involved in the Olympics even after their course was finished.
Ms. O'Neill says she was drawn to volunteering by listening to other people's reasons for doing it. "You know, they're giving up their time, their holidays. I had people crying, begging, 'Please let me be a volunteer.' The spirit in Australia is just unbelievably overwhelming," she says.
O'Neill met a number of volunteers from the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne who were coming back to do it all again, and she was impressed that, in general, people weren't jaded by the recent controversy surrounding the Olympics.
Even students who don't get school credit value the unique learning opportunities the Olympics offers. Lisa Olive, a swimmer and a student at Canberra University in Australia's capital city, is volunteering with the Olympic News Service at the swim trials and other events, though her school doesn't offer work-experience credit until the post-graduate level.
"There are a lot of professional journalists here and at press conferences we sort of have to take the back seat; we just have to be pushy," she says.
And that's just the way her supervisor likes it. "There's nothing like that little bit of pressure to see how they can cope," says Stephen Dettre, manager of the Olympic News Service. On any given week, he has about 50 students working with him, and during the Olympics, 300 of his 500 staff members will be students. In addition to reporting, they are helping build a computer database of athlete biographies. Most of the students, he says, have met or exceeded expectations. They have great sports knowledge, and "they are keen to muck in and help and do what needs to be done."
All eyes on Sydney (universities)
The universities make no secret of the fact that they, too, gain by maintaining a presence as the world turns its eyes toward Sydney.
"It's a wonderful opportunity for Australian universities to use the platform of the Games to promote the quality of education that's here," says Janet Cahill, Olympics project manager at UTS. Because Australian students do not pay tuition (virtually all universities are public), attracting paying students from overseas is one way for schools to supplement their government funding.
Ms. Cahill has done Olympics-related research since 1995. In looking at previous Games, she says, "I haven't come across any evidence of such a strong university involvement."
She hopes future host cities will follow suit. "[Students] are so committed, they don't want to miss anything.," she says. "That's the true spirit of the Olympics."
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