Volunteer Essay

Guest post by Dylan Manderlink

This post should really be called: “How I learned more about my community and humanity once I stepped outside my college classroom.” You see, going to college in the heart of a city has an abundance of advantages, and many students are quick to take a big gulp of all the opportunities presented by the fast-paced, busy, and unique city landscape.

While internship opportunities, professional networking events for soon-to-be post grads, company hosted events at local restaurants and bars, and higher education possibilities are readily available and most likely taken advantage of by eager 20-somethings, taking time to volunteer at the many nonprofit social/environmental justice organizations, homeless shelters, advocacy centers, philanthropic fundraisers, local schools and child care facilities that complete the city of Boston are not always at the forefront of young people’s minds while navigating through their college experiences.

But, with a little push from student organizations, local nonprofits and passionate individuals, volunteerism and community change can start to take a front seat and become not just an opportunity, but also a priority in the lives of young people.

Volunteerism, civic engagement and advocacy are the driving forces for creating change and making a positive impact in your community and society at large. While gaining internship and job experience can lead to community impact and social change, it’s important for us to remember that before we start advocating for change and informing others about issues we care about, we need to fully understand the complexity and depth of the social, environmental, or economic issue we are passionate about.

Not only do we need to understand the ‘issue’ or ‘societal problem’ that many people face and are impacted by every day, but we need to meet and work alongside those whose daily realities are shaped by injustices, while not creating any divides or barriers in the process. Everyday people are affected by the issues that organizations fight for or against, and once we realize how people-centered things like advocacy, outreach and service are, I believe young people will realize their call to action and their potential in their local landscapes to really affect change.

My Experience

For example: Recently I had a very unique volunteer gig. A few times a semester I would take the Red Line to Quincy to volunteer at the Prison Book Program, where I would read letters from incarcerated individuals from all over the country and find 2-3 books that match their interests and reading criteria. Opening each letter and hearing people’s stories reminded me of the harsh realities of our world today, and the difficulty many people face in preserving their human dignity and self-worth.

Whether guilty of crimes or innocent, our incarceration system is an issue that many activists rally around in terms of its success and promise in correcting and rehabilitating criminal behavior. So, to read letters and hear the voices of those who are living on the marginalized edges of our society, but who rarely have a voice in the issue that’s being nationally rallied around, is an uncommon circumstance that should be noted and have more attention and action drawn to. Their desire to educate themselves within the confines of a prison wall is real and heard by those of us who take time to spend their weekday evenings in the bottom of a church basement, sorting through donated books, and reading literary wish-lists of those who are incarcerated.

Another meaningful experience that sticks out to me is when I regularly volunteered at a children’s homeless shelter in Roxbury, Mass. for two years, and was reminded of the fact that the statistics we hear every day about homelessness are real people – not just numbers. Every child I played alongside, made a puzzle with, and created art work for, reminded me that the largest percentage of people who are homeless is in fact, not the men people see on the street who are waiting in line for the soup kitchen, but families: Mothers, children of all ages, infants, and fathers.

I was reminded that every human and every family deserves a place to call a home, a place to grow up, and a place to feel safe and comfortable. Helping the shelter to provide an afternoon of safety, comfort, respect, and joy for children who don’t have a home or much stability was a small but meaningful contribution to a much greater familial and societal obstacle.

What I Learned

I learned from my volunteer experiences in Boston that people are not powerless; in fact, we have a great deal of power and potential, despite sometimes being told we may not have any because of the zip code we were born in, economic status, family life, sexual orientation, or employment status. Through the volunteering I made as a priority and a cornerstone of my life in college, I learned how empowering it is to realize how much agency you have in your own life and how beautiful it is to share that with others in hopes of them discovering it themselves.

I learned how giving human beings are, even when they don’t have much to give. I learned how one of the biggest equalizers of our society is storytelling and the sharing of self. We open countless doors of understanding, compassion, education, and empathy when we let the chaos and speed of the cityscape subside, and take time to actively listen and communicate with our community members. Our community is a diverse fabric of human beings, and we all have a voice in enacting change, improving the lives of our neighbors, and promoting a more just and verdant world.

I learned that local nonprofit organizations have the potential to amplify their outreach to colleges, and young people in general, through matching passions with skills. You as organizations need to purposefully identify for us why promoting service and civic engagement is not only important, but necessary if we want to improve our lives, the lives of others, and the dilemmas and misfortunes our world faces every day.

The relationship between young people and nonprofits can be the start of a significant change in our community, and should be a reciprocal and powerful educational experience. An open-minded and encouraging flow of communication between organizations and community members can be the launchpad for the social and environmental change organizations talk about and try for every day. Together, we can make change – not just a semblance of idealism, but reality, as well.

How does your organization engage with college students and young adults? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!

Dylan Manderlink is a recent graduate of Emerson College in Boston, Mass., who with a self-designed major, Investigative Theatre for Social Change. She is now a Teach for America corps member, teaching high school in rural Arkansas. She is passionate about working in the nonprofit sector and providing educational opportunities for students to creatively inform themselves and others about social justice, community change and human rights.

Tags:community service, millennial volunteering, volunteer engagement, youth volunteering

About The Author

Shari Tishman

Shari led Online Marketing and Communications at VolunteerMatch from 2010-2015. After working with nonprofits for 9 years, she moved over to the corporate sector and is now leading Inbound Marketing for a tech company in San Francisco.

The college admissions process is, to put it mildly, stressful. Not only do we as students study tirelessly to keep an appealing GPA, trudge through hours of standardized testing, and find the time to somehow attend a hundred club meetings in a week, but now we have to devote our last few spare hours doing volunteer work? What?! Please, I don’t have time for that!

At least, that’s what I used to think when I spent my summers begrudgingly volunteering at a local thrift shop. Yeah. Try spending eight hours organizing donations without air conditioning in the middle of central Florida for five days straight, and then talk to me about your enthusiasm for volunteer work. Anybody up for the challenge? Mhm. That’s what I thought. So, the question remains: why bother volunteering?

When it comes to service work, it’s important to realize that, similar to an actual career, not all volunteer positions fit everyone. It’s one thing to just log hundreds of hours for the sake of mildly impressing a college admissions officer, but the actual goal should be maximizing your utility. Let’s face it: We’re high school students. We’re busy; even if we’re procrastinating, we’re busy. Volunteering isn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s priority list, so finding a non-profit organization that clicks with you is the first step to enjoying (tolerating?) volunteering.

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a couple of summers hastily completing my school’s volunteer requirements at a local thrift shop. I did not care for it at all, and I only showed up so the volunteer coordinator would sign my hours sheet. It wasn’t until the summer before my junior year that I found out just how enjoyable volunteering could be when I began working for a local vet hospital. So, if you’re in the same position as I was, try out different organizations. Don’t just settle for an organization to rack up the hours. There’s a lot more to volunteering than that!

1. Gaining New Experiences and Insights

Volunteering allows students to get involved with new things and develop technical, social, and academic skills that couldn’t be learned in a classroom environment. Whether you’re helping out at your local library or tutoring underprivileged kids, volunteering allows you to experience different environments and situations.

I know that a lot of us, as competitive, college-obsessed, sleep-deprived students, get lost in the quantity of volunteer work, but it’s crucial to take a step back from the number games. Instead of boasting about how many hours you’ve piled up, why not talk about the things you’ve done? Volunteering brings out new interests, hobbies, and opinions; moreover, volunteering expands students’ horizons. As Ashley, a rising senior, who volunteers with numerous organizations and clubs, puts it, “If your volunteering experiences can give you something to write or think about for your college essays, then I say it’s done something good for you as a person, and it’ll help you overall in your college admissions process…it should mean something to you!”

2. Giving Back and Helping Others

Admit it: you’re pretty lucky. You’re working your way through your high school education with intentions to move on to post-secondary education. You assumedly have a roof over your head, food to eat, and clothes to wear. Even if you don’t have the “best” of those, you’ve got them. Volunteers create better environments for others; they create healthier communities, and they brighten lives. Jill, another rising senior, has been playing the piano for more than a decade and the flute for seven. She volunteers by performing in concerts for senior citizens. “We always talk with them after our concerts, and their stories are very humbling. They make me realize that I’m actually very lucky to know how to read and play music. They always tell us how great we sound and how they wish that they spent the time in their youth to learn an instrument.” As a volunteer, she’s been able to give back to the community that fostered her musical talents.

3. Creating Connections with People

No matter the age, building relationships with people is crucial. Not only does the volunteer work you do as a student show who you are as a person, but it reflects many positive character traits that potential employers and admissions officers want to see. Volunteering allows you to meet a wide variety of people from all sorts of walks of life.

Networking is an amazing benefit of volunteering, and students learn professional skills and have access to a breadth of knowledge from their co-volunteers. Jasmine, a fellow rising senior, volunteers at her local free clinic, where she’s the assistant administrative coordinator. “Some of the doctors and volunteers there have become my mentors, letting me shadow them or giving me general life advice about interacting with people and education. Interacting with new types of people, though extremely difficult, has developed my people skills.” Through her volunteer work, she’s not only become an integral part of the clinic itself, but she’s gained a lot of valuable insights, skills, and experiences.

4. A Sense of Accomplishment

Volunteering isn’t one of the most plush, easy, or glamorous of jobs, but it is one of the most beneficial and uplifting. While no monetary compensation is received, many will tell you that their work and experiences gained as a volunteer were worth way more than any money they could have gotten from another line of work.

Think of it like this: volunteering is done on a person’s own accord. It’s taking some time out of your day and helping others. Volunteer work makes us feel good. It builds self-confidence and lifts up the spirits. As Jill puts it, “students these days are getting caught up in the number of hours they store up doing something that they don’t care about, and not only is the meaning behind the actions lost, but the charity becomes a chore. So yes, do it, but do what you want to do and because you want to do it.” That couldn’t be truer. It’s crucial to have a strong connection to your volunteer work. Basically, you get out of it what you put into it.

5. Building Career Options

Charity work gives students opportunities to test out a desired career path. Concurrently, it gives them an edge on their resume. Getting involved with an organization that shares similar ideals and interests is an important step for students. At a young and pretty inexperienced age, volunteering is an excellent gateway to the workforce.

By gaining new experiences and creating new connections, volunteers are able to better visualize themselves in that field and explore the daunting question: can I see myself doing this for life? And, even if the organization you do get involved with has nothing to do with your intended career path, it might end up surprising you. While I wasn’t such a fan of my early high school summers of volunteering, I was still able to make the most out of my situation by learning how to problem solve, work more efficiently, and deal with unwanted environments. Even though I know that I don’t want to follow a similar career path, I strengthened a lot of skills necessary for my own future career. So, take a chance by getting outside of the beloved comfort zone through volunteer work.

6. The Dreaded College Admissions Process

As if I would end this article without going back to this hot mess. Unfortunately for us, we live in a pretty competitive world. College admissions has become much more than GPAs, test scores, and letters of recommendations. You, as a highly motivated and worried college-bound student, already know that. Volunteering, while it won’t raise your GPA or add 20 points to your SAT score, will give you a plethora of other things, like experiences, connections, and most importantly, a voice.

So, get out there and get involved. Stop stressing about the number of hours, and start having fun. Yes, volunteering can be fun. Don’t worry; I was surprised too. Remember: volunteer work is meant to be more than what most make it out to be. Your high school years are stressful. Don’t let something as constructive and vital slip through the cracks!



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