Updated: Nov 15, 2020
PHHS ‘16, University of Delaware '20
It’s not too often that you hear students say that their favorite part of college was volunteering-- even though practically every single person does some sort of volunteer project during their undergraduate years. Quite simply: volunteering looks good on a resume, and some student’s future paths even require them to have a certain number of volunteer hours documented. Because of this, a lot of students treat volunteering as just a resume builder, and they don’t feel any lasting impact from the work that they did.
As a senior, I happen to be one of those students who can say that my volunteering experience was the highlight of my college career. When I was a freshman, I joined University of Delaware’s Alternative Breaks program, and have been a part of it ever since. I’m simply unable to put into words how much this program has defined the person who I am today. Given the likelihood of you volunteering over the next four years, I want to use what I have learned to help you get the most out of your volunteer experiences so that they will last a lifetime.
I want to start off by emphasizing that you do not have to do anything big to have a meaningful volunteer experience. I, personally, lived in different states across the East Coast for a week at a time. Some people spend a month in a foreign country. While these are both viable options, the reality is that these aren’t always realistic choices for everyone. There is no need to strain yourself mentally, physically or financially to try to fit the stigma that you are helping more than others are. Volunteering at the animal shelter 2 minutes from your house is just as impactful as helping at a nonprofit that’s a 6 hour plane ride away. The size of the work doesn’t matter, it’s the effort that you choose to put into it.
To that same point, while you don’t have to do anything big, you should do something that’s consistent. I have found that the most beneficial part of volunteering is being involved with the same organization for a long period of time and being able to actually feel the drastic changes that you have been able to make during your time there. Don’t get me wrong: volunteering at a location for a few hours a day and then never thinking of it again is not a bad thing. No matter what you do, you are going to make a lasting impact on that community. However, if you want to be able to learn something to carry with you for the rest of your life, I highly recommend going all-in. If possible, go to the animal shelter that’s 2 minutes from your house multiple times a month instead of just once. When you’re done with your work for good, take something that you have learned from your experience and try to apply it to your everyday life so that you think about it often. While you don’t have to dedicate your whole life to service, continuous learning and action is an amazing way to enrich your life.
One the biggest lessons that I have learned while volunteering is to leave your preconceived notions at home and listen to what your community wants. As residents of Parsippany, we grew up with certain experiences and views on life that not every community in the world shares. It’s easier than you would think to walk into a community and want to fix what you personally think is “wrong”. However, your job as a volunteer is to focus on what the community believes needs to be fixed. I once spent an entire day helping an organization dust and vacuum a meeting room, even though I saw so many other things that I personally felt needed more attention. But I learned that the individuals who owned this building didn’t have the resources to clean it themselves, and they were forced to live among dirt and dust for years. Work that I thought was meaningless at the time was life changing to them, and in the end, this is all that matters. Their goals are always your goals.
If there’s anything that I’m taking out of college, it’s that you grow the most when you’re uncomfortable. If you’re naturally shy, talk to one person who lives in the community you’re helping and ask them about their story. If you feel you’re good at being social, try learning a new hard skill, such as using a power tool. If you know a lot about one issue area, volunteer somewhere that focuses on an issue area that you know nothing about. There are no limitations to what you can do as a volunteer, so you might as well make decisions that will help you grow in the end.